He was only 11 but big for his age, so the schoolmaster allowed him to cut classes and help with the harvest.

That was important work in 1943, in the western lowlands of Scotland. Food was scarce during the war, most able men were fighting and there were families to be fed.

So Archie Watt and two farmers were stooking the corn -- following along behind the binder, leaning the stalks against each other in little tipis, when the plane fell silently out of the sky.

“It just came in a whisper, only clipped the trees,” Watt, now 84, said the other day from his home in Strathaven, about 30 minutes from Glasgow. “It was a perfect landing. Perfect.”

The B-17 had lost an engine on its way to a U.S. base at Prestwick and then it lost what remained of its fuel when it was trying to divert to a Scottish airfield. The pilot had no choice but to aim for an open field, keep the landing gear up and slide to a stop, its propellers digging into the soft earth.

It made Watt think of a belly flop.

By the time he made it to the Flying Fortress, the crew of 10 U.S. airmen was already climbing out, mostly unscathed, as calmly as if they were stepping off a bus.

Then the real harvest began. The bomber was resupplying the base, and it was full of fresh fruit that was just going to go bad in that field.

Take it, the Americans said.

“Peaches and oranges and things we hadn't seen in a good few years because of the war,” Watt said. “Before long, the whole town knew about it. It didn't last, I'll tell you.”

The 11-year-old carried a sack home to his family. “My mum was in the kitchen and I said, 'Do you fancy a peach?' And she said, 'Get out of here.' So I said, 'Maybe you'd like a banana?' She went absolutely berserk; she couldn't believe it.”

* * *

Mearl Waswick was older than most soldiers, and had grown up with a fear of heights in the flatlands of eastern South Dakota, so his family thought it a little odd he ended up as a tail-gunner on a B-17.

He survived the war but returned changed by it, making a living as a farmhand north of Sioux Falls and living with his sister's family.

“I knew he'd crashed and I knew he didn't talk about it,” said his niece, Vicki Graham, who would end up raising three kids in Waverly with her husband, Barry, the VA's hospital chief of staff and then regional medical director. “He'd say things like, 'That was a tough time.'”

She remembered her uncle emerging from his basement bedroom late one night. He couldn't sleep, he told her. He was thinking about all of the things he'd done in his life.

Later, Graham learned that the month after the crash at Strathaven, her uncle grew too sick to fill his post as tail-gunner.

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Another man took his place, and their bomber was shot down. Mearl Waswick's crew was taken prisoner, his substitute killed.

“He was a lot younger than my uncle and I don't think he ever got over that,” his niece said. “I think that was a defining moment.”

Waswick died in 1999, but not before opening up a bit to his granddaughter, Callie. She was writing a report for school, and he told her the story of the crash, and how well the people of Strathaven had treated him, and he gave her a souvenir -- a British penny he'd picked up -- that she would wear as a necklace.

Years later, Graham was playing around on Google. She searched for her uncle's crash and found a 2013 story in Scotland's Sunday Post: “The day Strathaven was bombed by fruit.”

The blanks in her uncle's story started filling themselves in.

She felt drawn to that field.

“I wanted to go and walk the ground, if I could.”

* * *

This summer, when she and Barry were planning a trip to Glasgow to research his family, Vicki started thinking. She had no idea where the crash site was, but she at least wanted to visit the village, to see a little of what her uncle had experienced 73 years ago.

She sent a note to Glasgow Taxis, explaining why she wanted to go to Strathaven and asking what the fare would cost.

Nothing, she was told. Further, the company would research the crash, and get the couple as close as they could.

The company's director called Strathaven's library. Yes, said the woman who answered. She knew about the day the B-17 bore fruit. Her brother Archie Watt had witnessed it.

“This was one miraculous thing after another,” said Vicki, who now lives in Yankton, S.D.

Last month, she stood next to Archie Watt, all of the time and the distance between them shortened to the moment a plane fell into the field.

He told her how the crash was never publicized, not even in the local paper, and how the Americans had the B-17 dismantled and hauled away within two weeks. He pointed out the faint furrow in the field that only he can see, because he knows where to look, and the others from that day are gone now.

And she told him about her uncle Mearl, one of the airmen who climbed out of the plane that day in front of the wide-eyed 11-year-old.

“It was more than I ever expected, to tell you the truth,” she said this week. “For someone to know his name, that's OK with me.”

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7254 or psalter@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSPeterSalter.


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