The Long Return

Bob Porter's Story of the War Years...

The Hat, A 'Cap'tivating Return

The Long Return is an autobiography by Second World War RCAF veteran, Bob Porter, who relates his experiences during training, combat and as a POW. However, this story is about an RCAF "wedge" cap, its wanderings over 54 years, and the key role Bob Porter's book rendered in this specific RCAF cap's long return.

It starts as two stories, one about a young Canadian airman from Burnaby, B.C., and the other concerns a 12 year old Dutch girl.

Just after his 18th birthday, Bob Porter joined the RCAF in September 1941. Eventually, he qualified for aircrew and, after training in Canada and England as a bomb-aimer and navigator. Bob flew several missions over Europe in a Lancaster. On June 16, 1944, over Holland his luck ran out. Or did it?

The town of Zeist, in occupied Holland was a sprawling community of about 30,000 people, located almost in the exact centre of the country, close to Utrecht, close to Arnhem, close to Amsterdam.

At the edge of the town there was a row of semi-detached houses, their backyards looking out over farmers fields and orchards. In the first house of the row, two girls with thick blond braids and long skinny legs, Erica aged 15 and Ingrid 12, lived with their parents. On the night of June 16, 1944 the girls slept in their attic room.

But these were not nights of peace and quiet. No peace, because a terrible war was raging. And, no quiet because these were the hours of the night bombers. The Lancasters and Halifaxes from Britain, on their way to, or returning from, their bombing missions over Germany. Flying high, they were met by German fighters and anti-aircraft fire.

The wail of the air raid sirens, droning aircraft engines, explosions of anti-aircraft fire and shrapnel bouncing off the ceramic roof tiles of their house..tang...tang...tang..mixed with the drone of the engines awakened the girls. Not too perturbed by this fairly common occurrence these nights, they lay still, staring at the ceiling, waiting for the noise to stop.

Having fought off enemy fighters high over Germany's industrial Rhur, Porter's Lancaster managed to escape and was on its way home. By now, they had left German air space and some 20,000 feet below slept blacked-out Holland. On the horizon the coast of England was in sight and breakfast of ham and eggs only a few hours away.

Bob was taking a sextant shot of his favorite star, Betelgeuse, when there was a sudden cry, "Fire! Fire in the fuselage!" In seconds it was a sea of fire. "Abandon! Abandon!"

Amidst the heat and flames, Bob was groping for his parachute. The escape hatch..jammed! Panic! Boooom! Suddenly there was a tremendous noise..a plane shearing over the girl's rooftop. A red glow shining through drawn drapes..the sky was on fire! Then darkness and silence.

Their parents hurried into their attic room exclaiming that the damned enemy had shot down an allied plane. Sadly their father said, "The pilot must have had to pull-up his plane at the last minute to make it over the tall poplar trees at the front of our house".

Bob woke up free falling through the icy air; his chute hadn't yet opened! Pieces of his airplane hurtled all around him, he groped for his wasn't there! He found it above his head..he reached and pulled. With a sudden jerk his decent slowed. More aircraft debris twisted metal, instruments, clothes wooshed past.

Then, tree branches and a jolting halt. In the pitch darkness and rain Porter was hanging in a tree. He released his harness and dropper 12 feet onto Dutch soil. One lonely and hurt Canadian boy. But a lucky one. He was about to meet the Dutch Underground.

The next day everybody talked about the allied plane that had crashed in the nearby field. Ingrid and her girl friend rode their bicycles to the crash site where they were told by the guards that no one had survived. Prevented from approaching the downed plane, they picked up pieces of Plexiglas, they called it "airplane glass" from the surrounding fields.

A few weeks later, Ingrid was raking grass and leaves from under a bush in their front yard with her dad. Her hand touched something soft. It was made of blue/grey cloth, an army cap! She held it over her head, "Look Pa, an enemy cap."

Her father grabbed it out of her hand, studied it, turned it over. Then, he put a finger to his mouth, commanding silence. He pointed to the brass badge on the cap which had the letters R, A, and F with a large C around them. "No no, not an enemy cap, this is an Allied cap... must have come from one of those planes that were shot down by the Germans."

"It's from an English flyer or maybe a Canadian," whispered Ingrid. "Our friends! Our heroes!" She carefully concealed it under scarves and gloves in a box. Though strictly forbidden by the Germans, it was a keepsake to be quickly hidden.

In towns near Zeist, Driebegen, Groenekan, Utrecht, Bob Porter experienced first hand Dutch wartime hospitality. He slept in hiding places with secret doors; he tasted "huts pot" (potatoes with carrots and onions all mashed together) and "snert" (pea soup) and found himself a brand new "Papa and Mamma." He rode bicycles, celebrated Sinterclaas..missed Christmas. For security reasons Bob and others were moved several times.

Then, in early 1945, as the Canadian Army approached this area, Porter and 18 other allied airmen tried to get through the German lines near Opheusden.

They were captured by the Wehrmacht, the regular German Army. This was fortunate, as there were wearing civilian clothes and would have been shot on the spot if caught by the feared SS.

Bob suffered through several physically abusive and extremely cruel interrogations before being incarcerated at De Kruisberg, a German concentration camp near Doetinchem. Later he was sent to a POW camp near Nuremberg, Germany. Finally on April 28, 1945 Porter was freed when General Patton's soldiers opened the front gates of the camp.

In May 1945, Liberation Day, the RCAF cap on her head, Ingrid stood amidst the crowd, cheering the Canadian trucks and tanks that were filing through the main street of Zeist. Believing that the owner was dead and that the cap should be returned to the relatives, Ingrid undertook a search to identify the owner. But to no avail - a 13 year old had limited skills and resources for such a task.

Again in the 1950's, now with the help of her future husband, John Lambermont, Ingrid contacted the RAF and RCAF authorities without success.

In May 1957, this RCAF cap was traveling again, this time with other Second World War memorabilia in the luggage of Ingrid, her husband and their baby Jeanette in an airplane headed for Canada. Through the years, particularly on Remembrance Day, the RCAF cap was brought out and shown to friends and acquaintances, often to Canadian servicemen who took part in the liberation of Holland.

Fast forward to May 1998: The De Nederlandse Courant, a Dutch Canadian bi-weekly, published a review of Bob Porter's book, The Long Return which mentioned that his Lancaster had crashed near Zeist in June 1944.

Ingrid read the paper and immediately connected his story to the RCAF cap in her possession for the last 54 years. This chance incident reactivated Ingrid's efforts to determine the owner of her found cap and to return it to him or his family. Immediately she faxed Porter to confirm the link.

"Dear Bob Porter,

Hi, Do I have a burning question for you! When you bailed out of that burning Lancaster bomber over Zeist, in June of 1944, did you  lose your cap?

I mean, a similar piece of headgear to the one you are wearing in that photograph of you as an 18-year-old airman, that accompanied the article about your book The Long Return in 'De Nederlandse Courant/ (May 9 1998).

If the answer is yes - and this still remains a big if - I have a surprise for you: you will be able to get it back..."

Over the next few months they compared notes. But, their investigation, including contacting Mr. Wybe Buising, an expert on plane crashes in the Utrecht area was inconclusive. Based on the location of the crash there was a strong possibility that Porter's flaming Lancaster had indeed passed over Ingrid's home on that fateful night. Porter had been hidden by the Dutch Underground at places well known to Ingrid and some of the people who helped him were acquainted with her family. Further, the cap was Bob's size.

This was good enough for Ingrid. After 45 years of searching she decided that if Bob Porter was not the "original owner," certainly, he was the "rightful owner."

On October 1999, at Lambermont's home in Mississauga, with many friends and dignitaries in attendance, Ingrid presented this very special and well traveled Second World War RCAF cap to Porter.