A Penn Yan man and the Dutch Resistance

Rich MacAlpine
Above left is Robert Fisher’s photo from the 1939 Penn Yan Academy yearbook. On the right the photo from the identification papers made for him by the Dutch resistance.

Since 2004 I have written over 130 articles for the publication of the Yates County History Center, Yates Past. Sometimes I get ideas from items that are donated and added to our collection. Sometimes it is something that I have run across in the old newspapers. Sometimes someone will email me or the History Center with an idea. And sometimes an idea just lands in my lap. That was the case with this story. It started with an email that was sent to the publisher of the Chronicle-Express, who forwarded it to the editor of the paper, who forwarded it to our Director John Potter, who forwarded it to me. The email came from Wolter Noordman who lives in Heerde, Holland. I exchanged emails with him and it turns out that Wolter does what I do — he belongs to his local historical society and does research and writes articles for their magazine. Wolter is researching the activities of the Dutch Underground in his area during World War II and ran across a record of an Army Air Corps pilot named Robert Donovan Fisher, who gave his home address as Penn Yan, New York. Wolter is the major resource for this story along with our local newspapers and the Facebook page of the 492nd Bomber Group.

Robert Fisher was born in 1922, the son of Leon and Anne Fisher who had a farm on Pre-emption Road, near the intersection with Havens Corners Road in Benton. He graduated from Penn Yan Academy along with the Class of 1939. After graduation, he went to work at the American Can Company in Geneva as a machinist. Facing the draft in 1942, he enlisted that September so he could choose his branch of service. He chose the Army Air Corps and was shipped off to Texas and then New Mexico for training. By the spring of 1944, he earned the rank of Lieutenant and was trained as a pilot on B-24 Liberator bombers. In April of ’44, he and his crew of nine flew their plane to England to become part of the 492nd Bomber Group of the 8th Air Force.

On just their third bombing mission over Europe, Fisher’s crew was part of a major attack on Brunswick, Germany on May 19, 1944. Twenty-six bombers from the 492nd took off from their airfield in North Pickenham in eastern England, joining a total of 888 bombers and 700 escort fighters for the raid on a major aircraft assembly plant and railroad marshaling yards. Due to a long delay getting that many aircraft in formation over England, many of the escort fighters had to turn back when fuel ran low. The bombers of the 492nd were without fighter escort as they approached the target area. An estimated 40 fighters from the Luftwaffe came up to meet them and attacked the formation. The 492nd lost eight of their 26 aircraft, including Fisher’s. His plane had lost part of a wing and he struggled to keep the plane level. Losing altitude, they decided to drop their bombs over farmland to lighten the load. With their plane pretty well shot up and the radio operator killed, Fisher knew they couldn’t make it back across the English Channel so the nine surviving crew members bailed out over Holland. They landed near the village of Garderen, about 40 miles east of Amsterdam. Seven of the nine crew members were immediately rounded up by the Germans, but the pilot (Robert Fisher) and the co-pilot (Walter Mallard) were picked up by the Dutch underground. Fisher landed near a poor farmer who kept him for a night and then took him to a Dirk Eskes, an Amsterdam physician, who himself was in hiding because he refused to accept German regulations. Fisher was eventually reunited with his co-pilot and they spent a month in hiding in Dr. Eskes’ home. Dr. Eskes supplied them with civilian clothes and fake identification papers and assigned them escorts to get them along the escape line to neutral Spain and eventually back to England. The day they left Dr. Eskes, they wrote a thank-you note: “June 19, 1944. We were heading for home after attempting to set the ‘world on fire,’ or at least that part of Germany named Brunswick when the great Fuhrer’s (says he) fighters caused us to pay a visit with our great Dutch allies. Your hospitality, we hope, will enable us to hit our common enemy with bombs again. Best of luck to you. Walter W. Mallard, Jr., 2nd Lt. Robert D. Fisher, 2nd Lt.”

They never made it to Spain. They spent three weeks in a safe house in southern Holland, but were captured by the Germans in Antwerp, Belgium and sent to a POW camp, Stalag Luft 1, along the Baltic coast in northern Germany. The camp held around 9,000 British and American airmen. With the Russian army approaching the camp in late April 1945, the German commander ordered the prisoners to evacuate. They refused and after negotiations between the German commander and senior American officers, it was decided that the Germans would evacuate and the prisoners would stay. The next day the camp was “liberated” by the Russians. Two weeks later they were evacuated by American aircraft to Le Havre in France, awaiting ships back to the States.

Fisher was reported as Missing In Action in The Chronicle-Express in June of 1944. In July, his mother received a cable from the Red Cross that he was a prisoner of war in Germany. In the 10 months he was in the prison camp, he was able to get just one brief message to his parents in which he wrote: “Thanks to the Red Cross, I have food and clothing.” In early June 1945, his mother received a cable that he had been released from camp and was “on the coast of France, well, and expects to be home soon.” He was home in early July and didn’t waste any time. He married a young lady from Fredonia in the rectory of St. Michael’s Church on July 7. Robert Fisher lived a long life, dying in 1991 at the age of 69. He owed that to a bit of luck and a few courageous members of the Dutch resistance in 1944.

Major thanks (Dank je) to Wolter Noordman from Holland for getting me onto this story. The purpose of his original email was to try to locate any living family members of Robert Fisher. I have had no success at that. Fisher’s mother, Anne Fisher, lived to be 96, dying at St. Mark’s Terrace in Penn Yan early in 1989. Her obituary mentioned that “she is survived by one son, Robert D. Fisher of Dennard, Arkansas, four grandchildren, four great-grandchildren, and three great-great-grandchildren.” So there are family members out there somewhere. If anyone can help, email me at the History Center. I would appreciate it, and so would Wolter.

Editor’s note: Information about Robert Fisher can be emailed to GwenChamberlain@Chronicle-Express.com to be forwarded to Rich MacAlpine.