Northern Ireland

Ballymoney man Frankie McCluskey's story told 70 years after death

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Media captionThe families had an emotional meeting in the Netherlands

Separated by more than 500 miles, but joined by a bond that began over 70 years ago.

Jannie van Beek-Pol was just 15 when she found the body of RAF airman Francis McCluskey.

His cousin, Patricia, has travelled from Northern Ireland to the Netherlands to thank the people who brought the story of this forgotten airman to light.

When they met, Patricia simply said "thank you".

Jannie called her "my sister" and said: "I'm so sorry that I didn't find him alive."

Known as Frankie to his friends and family, in 1938, aged just 16, Mr McCluskey left his home on Union Street in Ballymoney to join the RAF.

A year later World War Two broke out and Frankie was qualifying as an air gunner.

On 6 October 1942, Frankie McCluskey then 20, took off from an airfield at Topcliffe in Yorkshire.

The mission was to target the city of Osnabrück in Germany.

The flight plan of the Halifax MkII bomber took them across the German occupied territories in the Netherlands.

Image copyright McCluskey family
Image caption Frankie McCluskey died, aged 20, after his parachute failed to open

At about midnight, the bomber was intercepted by a Luftwaffe fighter over Rhenen, Utrecht. The crew were forced to bail out, but Frankie's parachute failed to deploy and he was killed.

The next morning his body was found in the grounds of Castle Prattenburg by a local father and daughter.

Hearing an oncoming German patrol, Jannie Van Beek-Pol, who was 15 at the time, retrieved the airman's cap from the ground before they fled.

She resolved to keep the cap safe, hoping one day to return it to the airman's family.

Jannie, now 87, said she felt it was the right thing to do.

"I knew I had to help him," she said. "I was convinced that I needed to do something to help his family.

"It was a pity that he was already dead. If he would have been alive I would have taken him with me."

Despite being an enemy airman, Flight Sergeant McCluskey was buried with full military honours by the German forces.

Shortly after the war, the modest wooden cross erected by the people of Rhenen was replaced by a Commonwealth war grave, but details of where he was from and his age remained a mystery.

Image caption Jannie van Beek-Pol found Frankie's body in the grounds of Castle Prattenburg
Image caption Frankie had been on a mission to Osnabruck when his bomber was shot down over the Netherlands

His cousin Patricia McCluskey said laying a wreath for the cousin she remembered growing up at home gave her some closure.

"I can't express how pleased I am because I thought this day would never happen - so many years ago we didn't know what happened to him," she said.

Patricia described how, at the graveside, Jannie called her her sister: "We are exactly the same age so we feel connected.

"We are just so thankful to her. It was emotional for me, but it was very emotional for her.

"It's just so important to us that he's been treated as a hero and getting the attention he deserves. Before, he was just a name on a grave and we didn't know anything about him and now they know his history."

In the Netherlands, as well as annual commemorations marking the end of the Second World War and VE Day, Liberation Day is celebrated on 5 May.

About 4,000 people attended one of the events in Rhenen, including members of the Dutch royal family.

Thanks to the work of a local Dutch war historian, Toon Blokland, the family of the young man from Ballymoney were guests of honour.

"I'm so very glad, it's like the circle is round," Mr Blokland said.

"The family have been here, his cap is returned, we know his name and birth date and he's on the memorial in Ballymoney.

Image caption The modest wooden cross erected by the people of Rhenen was replaced by a Commonwealth war grave

"The last year has been important for the family, it feels very good to have helped make this happen."

Mr Blokland first came across the soldier's grave about 10 years ago and noticed it was lacking information. He spent several years trying to trace this forgotten soldier.

With support from the RAF and Ballymoney Museum, they used the BBC to appeal for any relatives back in Northern Ireland to get in touch.

Last November, Mr Blokland brought the cap back to Ballymoney. It had been cared for by Jannie for 72 years.

A special ceremony was held to honour Frankie and his name was finally added to the war memorial in the town.

Frankie's second cousin Paul O'Brien also made the journey to the Netherlands with his aunt.

"It's been very humbling," he said.

"We never thought that Frankie was being treated like a war hero, as he was here in Rhenen.

"For us to get the treatment we have on this trip and being part of the ceremony is really special.

"He is only one of many that died in the war, but this feels special and we appreciate it.

As we reflect on the sacrifices made by those who fought in World War Two, the story of how Frankie McCluskey came to lose his life has finally been widely told.

For them his rightful place in history has been recognised at home and in The Netherlands.

Image caption Patricia McCluskey said it was important to the family that her cousin was being treated as a hero