Griffins seek German WWII crash site

Published 8:12 am Thursday, November 11, 2010

With nothing more than a few clues from family keepsakes and a mission in mind, Decatur County Sheriff Wiley Griffin and his brother, Douglas, traveled to Germany last June searching for a family member.

LT. ROY J. STEADHAM, a World War II Army bombardier who was shot down over Germany, is the uncle of Wiley and Douglas Griffin. The two brothers and Douglas’ son, Douglas Jr., went to Germany to find the crash site of Steadham.

That family member was the Griffins’ uncle, Lt. Roy J. Steadham, a World War II Army bombardier assigned to the 68th Squadron of the 44th Bomber Group. Steadham, a native of the Steadham community just north of Bainbridge, was killed in action on April 8, 1944, over Suderberg, Germany.

Steadham’s name appears, along with numerous other heroes who paid the ultimate price for freedom, on the Memorial Wall in Willis Park in downtown Bainbridge and the Wall of Memory in the American Cemetery in Margraten, Netherlands.

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Griffin presented Steadham’s story, along with his journey to Germany, to the Bainbridge Rotary Club Tuesday in recognition of Thursday’s Veterans Day holiday.

Born in 1919, Steadham finished three years of college before enlisting in the Air Corps of the Army at Fort McPherson in Atlanta in 1942. After training, and patrolling the Gulf of Mexico for German submarines at Barksdale Field in Louisiana, Steadham’s group flew their B-24 bombers from New Hampshire to England.

For nearly two years, the 44th Bomber Group flew high-altitude, daylight bombing missions against the Germans. Based from Shipdham Field in England, Steadham’s group targeted German airfields, boat traffic, shipbuilding facilities and other strategic targets.

On the day Steadham’s B-24 was shot down, a cadre of 44 aircraft were on a mission to Brunswick, Germany, when German fighters brought down 11 of the aircraft. Griffin said the family was told that Steadham parachuted from his aircraft and was likely killed by German soldiers or civilians as he landed on German soil. The six other crewman of plane, No. 020, were also killed in action that day.

Last June, Wiley and Douglas Griffin, and his nephew, Douglas Jr., flew in to Frankfurt, Germany, on a mission to find the crash site of their Uncle Roy. While driving to Salzwedel, Germany, the small city where the Griffins thought Steadham’s plane went down, on the fourth day of the trip, the Griffins decided to stop at a gas station to briefly rest. That decision to stop would yield a terrific stroke of luck for the Griffins.

Noticing a car pulling a trailer that held an old aircraft engine, Douglas Jr. asked one of the men standing around the trailer if the engine was from World War II. The man said it was an engine from a Messerschmitt 109 German fighter plane, the same type of aircraft that shot down Steadham’s B-24 bomber.

From that brief conversation, the Griffins found out that one of the men with the trailer is a historian of crash sites involving American, British and German Air Forces from World War II. His name is Ruedigar Kaufmann.

The Griffins explained to Kaufmann why they had traveled to Germany and their belief that their uncle’s plane was shot down in the nearby town of Salzwedel. Kaufmann took the Griffins to a confirmed site of two B-24 crashes in the small town.

Kauffman then invited the Griffins to visit his home, where he had established a small museum and records of numerous aircraft crashes. While searching through his vast records, Kauffman discovered that Steadham’s plane had not crashed in Salzwedel, the site previously visited by the Griffins, but in the small town of Suderberg, 90 miles away.

The Griffins were able to travel to the small town and visit the crash site, where 65 years earlier, their uncle had been shot down. While conversing at the crash site, the Griffins learned that Kauffman’s father, a German fighter pilot, was captured as a Prisoner of War by the American forces and spent time working on farms in Texas and Alabama.

The Griffins have continued to study and research the crash site, with Kauffman’s help, and hope one day to bring the body of their uncle, Lt. Roy J. Steadham, back home to Decatur County.