WWII US bomber highlights threat of treasure hunters to Czech heritage

Wright R-1820 Cyclone 9 engine from B-17G bomber, photo: CTK

Two tales more than 70 years apart have been seized upon by the Czech Institute of Archeology. The first was the story of a Second World War US bomber shot down over Czech territory shortly before the end of the war. The second tale is of the rush to save the remains from “treasure hunters.”

Wright R-1820 Cyclone 9 engine from B-17G bomber,  photo: CTK
Details of the final hours of the B-17G bomber called Laetitia are surprisingly rich. It set off on March 24, 1945, from the US air base near Foggia in Southern Italy on a mission to bomb Berlin. The target was near the limits of the bomber’s range but flights far into Germany were common by the end of the war, especially when bad weather over Britain or France grounded planes there.

But a navigation error put the plane marginally off course and over the town of Brux or Most around three quarters from the target. It was not an inviting place for a US bomber to be.

Most was heavily protected by German anti-aircraft defences due to the plants there which made synthetic fuel from locally produced coal. The plant was one of the Nazi’s last sources of fuel.

One of the bomber’s engines was hit and shortly afterwards a second engine gave out. The crew decided to head east in the hope of being able to get to Soviet occupied territory but bailed out shortly before the plane exploded and crashed around 20 kilometres east of Hradec Králové. All survived to be taken prisoners.

B-17G bomber,  photo: U.S. Air Force,  Public Domain
Photos from the time show locals standing by some of the plane debris. But the incident was largely forgotten until the 1960s when one local historical expert tried to piece together the details. Unfortunately his efforts and contacts with the US Embassy attracted the attention of the secret police.

After the fall of Communism, other less serious researchers, sometimes armed with metal detectors also began to take an interest in WWII wreckage and sites. And it was the efforts of such treasure hunters, this time accompanied by heavy diggers, late last year that sparked an emergency operation by the Czech Institute of Archeology. They painstaking excavated the site over two weeks and some of the finds have now been shown off. But the clear message was that amateur treasure hunters are destroying the country’s modern archeological heritage. Jan Mařík is deputy director of the institute in Prague.

Ammunition from B-17G bomber,  photo: CTK
“It’s very hard to say in a percentage how much of the plane was stolen away. We already know that some artifacts were already moved to some other museums, some private museums, and thanks to the activity of my colleague Martina Beková, were given back to the institute and will be placed in the proper museum collections. In my opinion, and what we know from the excavation site, it may be 50 percent or more.”

And the problem is a lot wider than the US bomber:

“We have many private activities of the treasure hunters and local collectors and these people more or less have stolen hundreds and maybe thousands of artifacts to the local museum and now it’s very hard to recognize from which place, from which region, these pieces were given back to the museum.”