An American war hero’s Spitfire plane has been rescued from a peat bog in Ireland – 70 years after Roland ‘Bud’ Wolfe crashed in Donegal.
Wolfe ended up in the middle of a diplomatic row between neutral Ireland and Britain when he bailed out of the Spitfire seconds before it crashed into the bog near the village of Moneydarragh.
The 23-year-old was a member of 133 Eagle Squadron and on convoy duty when his engine overheated eight miles from the Royal Air Force base at Eglington, just outside Derry and in Northern Ireland.
As he prepared for the inevitable crash, Bud radioed base with the message: “I’m going over the side.”
He then parachuted to safety on the Inishowen Peninsula in the Republic on the November Sunday in 1941– and straight into a diplomatic row between the neutral Irish government and Britain.
Local Mick Harkin (88), who had witnessed the crash drama as he left Mass as a 17-year-old, made his way through knee-deep heather to see the dig on Tuesday.
He recalled the crash as it unfolded before his eyes. “The plane was in trouble but we were miles away. I saw the pilot bail out and thought he was going to die. It was the talk of the time,” said Harkin.
The recovery of the wreckage, including its Rolls Royce Merlin engine and Wolfe’s leather helmet, was the first licensed excavation of a Second World War aircraft in Ireland.
It involved some of Britain’s top aviation archaeologists and was organized by Northern Ireland aviation historian Jonny McNee who only began searching for the Spitfire six months ago, following numerous failed attempts by others.
“This is the Holy Grail of Spitfires because of the tremendous history involved in it,” said McNee.
The Irish Times reports that part of the fuselage was recovered along with six Browning .303 machine guns, two magazines, hydraulic controls, 450 bullets, a propeller, tyres, landing gear and seat belts.
Also recovered was Wolfe’s leather flying helmet, log book and the cockpit controls of the plane which is to be restored and housed at the Tower museum in Derry.
Wolfe’s story is straight out of a comic book. He had already been stripped of his American citizenship for joining the 133 squadron, made up entirely of US pilots, before the States had joined the War.
After the crash, Wolfe was found wandering around the village of Moneydarragh by the local defence forces and was handed over to police at the Moville station.
He was subsequently transferred to join other British and German prisoners at the Curragh detention centre in Kildare where security was lax, the guards had blank rounds in their rifles and prisoners came and went as they pleased.
Fishing and fox hunting were even organized for the inmates. The Times reports that British prisoners once filed a formal complaint when Luftwaffe pilots, also detained at the camp, turned up at a nearby dance run by the British.
Fed up with the camp, Wolfe made his way to Dublin in December 1941, caught a train to Belfast and reported for duty just two weeks after the crash.
But his escape prompted a major diplomatic row between the Irish and British governments before he was returned to the Curragh where he remained before a second escape two years later.
By then America had joined the War and he served with the US Air Force on several European fronts.
Wolfe also saw active service in both Korea and Vietnam before his death in Florida in 1994, aged 76.