The US Airman Who Sacrificed His Life to Save a Small English Town

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13 November 1943. It was around 8 am in the sleepy town of Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire, England, when 11-year-old Maureen was awakened by the roaring engines of a B-17 bomber which came uncomfortably close to the roof of her house.

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The pilot had lost control. She watched in horror as he tried to steer the huge plane away from buildings. The flaming B-17 narrowly missed a bungalow over the road before crashing into a field and exploding, sending shrapnel flying in all directions.

Maureen ran downstairs, jumped on her bike, and went off to see what had happened, with her mother calling after her, ‘Don’t go into the field!’ Maureen’s father set off in hot pursuit, terrified that she would be exposed to a dead body or something worse.

Maureen didn’t enter the field, but she saw from the road crowds of people, police, firefighters, emergency ambulance crews, and local people trying to help.

When in 2011 I decided to become a freelance writer, I was searching for stories. Inspired by a memorial to an American hero, ‘Sparky,’ in my hometown of Princes Risborough, England, I started looking into the story. I tracked down Maureen Knopp, now 79 years old, who lived across town and was listed in the telephone book.

I went to talk to her about what had happened and she told me that in 1991 she’d campaigned to bring this brave young pilot the recognition he deserved. I interviewed her, and she sent me away with a massive wad of paperwork and hours of video footage.

As I waded through old letters, military magazines, and watched Sparky’s memorial service on the television, I was welling up inside. Some people living in my town today may not have survived or been born if Sparky hadn’t diverted his plane away from buildings to save those living here.

Maureen explained that 50 years after the crash, in the early 1990s, she told her story to a gentleman on a flight to the United States. He was an honorary member of a B-17 Bomber club because he had written a book about the planes.


One of the times I visited and photographed Maureen Knopp © Susie KearleyOn Maureen’s behalf, the gentleman put a letter in a US Air Force magazine seeking the name of the pilot who diverted his stricken plane away from Princes Risborough and, in so doing, saved the town. The letter led to a stream of correspondence, which identified the airman as Lt Clyde ‘Sparky’ Cosper.

“I learned more about Sparky through hearing the family’s stories about him,” she told me. He was just 21 years old and a jovial character, whose ambition growing up, was to be a fighter pilot. He trained at the Brady Aviation School (now Brady Airport, Texas) and was concerned about maths, but he needn’t worry — he proved highly skilled and became one of the top 10% of bomber fighters.

This meant he was eligible to attend Bomber Flight School, where he completed his training and was awarded his Wings (US Air Force pilot’s licence) in February 1943. He named his plane ‘Miriam’ after his mother. He gave her a ‘Royal’ fly past her house in his B17 bomber during the summer of 1943, a few months before he died.

Sparky had only been serving in the UK for three months when he was killed, having been training for the previous four years. On 13 November 1943, he set off from his Thurleigh base in Bedfordshire on a mission to bomb German U-boats at Brenham. The U-boats had been attacking merchant ships and cutting off vital supplies being sent from the USA to the UK.

But the mission was cancelled as a heavy storm was brewing. They tried to turn back, but Sparky lost control of the plane. As he approached Princes Risborough, the aircraft started to break up. Over the intercom, he told his nine colleagues to evacuate by parachute because the plane was going down. They survived, but seven were killed a month later on another mission.

The journey that day had started badly. Storms were brewing, and flying conditions were precarious. The planes were recalled after they began to ice up, but it was too late for Sparky and his crew. The aircraft hit a huge thundercloud and went into a spin. He wrestled with the controls and levelled the aircraft long enough for his colleagues to escape, but as his plane broke up mid-air, it was on a collision course with Princes Risborough. The aircraft was on fire.

He managed to gain some height — just enough to clear the roofs of buildings in Princes Risborough before crash-landing in a field, bursting into flames. Three tonnes of bombs detonated at once.

Charles Vondrachek, Top Turret Gunner & Flight Engineer, who bailed out of the plane before it crashed, told the Bonham Favorite (newspaper):

“We took off and started climbing, but we hit a thunderhead. One minute you’re at 10,000 feet and the next minute you’re in a steep dive. I’m standing between him (Sparky) and the co-pilot, watching the instruments go crazy because the plane’s being tossed around by the thunderhead. The plane would go up thousands of feet, then go down thousands of feet.

I had no thoughts as I bailed out, things were happening too fast. I was busy dodging telephone wires. I’m sure he (Sparky) could have bailed out if he’d wanted to. I think he was trying to clear the town. He wanted to save those people and park the plane where it wouldn’t take anyone’s life. He guided it into a field where it blew up with three tonnes of bombs on board.”

If Sparky hadn’t taken the action he did, then Princes Risborough would have been decimated. As it was, the impact caused an eruption that shook the ground for miles and sent shrapnel flying across the town, so much so that one resident was pinned to his milking shed by a piece of the airplane’s tail.

He was otherwise unhurt.


My home town of Princes Risborough today © Susie KearleySparky was buried initially in a US military cemetery in Brookwood, England, but his body was later moved, and he now rests in Dodd City, Texas. He was posthumously awarded the Silver Star, the Air Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross, and the Purple Heart. His mother couldn’t bear the shock of his death, and in 1954, she shot herself.

In 1989, an excavation of the crash site led by local historians uncovered one of Sparky’s ‘dog tags,’ the metal logo from his cap, and the intercom switch from his plane, left in the ‘on’ position. These pieces were held in the High Wycombe Air Field Museum until they were stolen.

In 1992, the Bucks Herald, a newspaper local to Princes Risborough, revisited the story by working with Maureen Knopp, the little girl from England whose house he had avoided all those years ago.

Sparky’s family didn’t know the full extent of his heroics until Maureen and Tim Robinson, a reporter from the Bucks Herald, launched a campaign to remember Lt Cosper and raised funds to erect a memorial plaque in his name. The plaque was unveiled outside Princes Risborough Library in 1992.


Memorial in Princes Risborough © Susie KearleyIn 2001, a memorial day was held in Texas, dedicated to Lt Clyde ‘Sparky’ Cosper. Maureen attended the ceremony, as did Charles Vondrachek, the last survivor of the crew. The event celebrated the opening of the ‘Clyde W Cosper Texas State Veterans Home.’

Maureen lived in Princes Risborough until she died in her 80s in 2019. She kept a drawer full of letters and newspaper clippings covering Sparky’s story, which she shared with me then. She told me about when she went to America to open the veteran’s home — pictures of the veterans in their prime adorned the corridors.

“It is such a shame what war does to people,” she said.

Today, Clyde Cosper continues to be remembered, and his memorial in Princes Risborough is accompanied by memorials of other pilots who lost their lives in the area during the Second World War.

© Susie Kearley 2024. All Rights Reserved.


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