The family of a World War II airman from Ballymoney made an emotional visit to his grave in the Netherlands last week as the special guests of the people of Rhenen where he is buried.
Flight Sergeant Francis Anthony McCluskey was only 20 years old when he took off on a mission to Osnabrück on 6 October 1942 in a Halifax bomber.
He had joined the RAF after leaving Ballymoney four years earlier and was now an experienced air gunner with many missions over Germany. At midnight, Flight Sergeant McCluskey’s plane was attacked by an enemy fighter over Utrecht and the crew were forced to bail. Flight Sergeant McCluskey’s parachute did not deploy and he was killed when he came down among trees in the Prattenburg Estate, beside the town of Rhenen.
The lifeless body of Flight Sergeant McCluskey was found early the next morning by a young Dutch girl, Jannie van Beek Pol, as she cycled through the forest with her father. Flight Sergeant McCluskey was buried a few days later in the town by the German army, with full military honours.
In 2013, Toon Blokland, an historian from Rhenen contacted Keith Beattie at Ballymoney Museum to ask for information about Flight Sergeant McCluskey. Toon hoped he could find the McCluskey family and discover more about the young airman buried in a Commonwealth War Grave in the cemetery near his home.
It was then that the local museum made an unsettling discovery - Flight Sergeant McCluskey was not listed among the names on the Ballymoney War Memorial and no close family appeared to be still living in the area.
The museum asked for the help of a local resident, Joe Donaghy, to find out more details about the McCluskey family history. Joe checked the local Catholic church’s baptismal register and it was found that Francis was born on 1 July 1922 in Union Street. This information confirmed that Flight Sergeant McCluskey was entitled to be remembered on the Ballymoney War Memorial.
With the generous support of the Causeway Branch of the RAF Association and the Ballymoney Branch of the Royal British Legion, Ballymoney Council invited Toon Blokland and Mayor of Rhenen, Hans van der Pas, to Ballymoney. They attended a Ceremony of Remembrance for Flight Sergeant McCluskey and his name was finally added to the Roll of Honour on 1 November 2014.
Thanks to an appeal on the Radio Ulster programme ‘Your Place and Mine’, the McCluskey family came forward and were able to share in the emotional occasion.
A highlight of the visit of the guests from Rhenen was the opportunity to meet Alice O’Brien and Patricia McCluskey, two elderly cousins of the tragic airman. Toon Blokland had brought a remarkable gift from Rhenen - Flight Sergeant McCluskey’s cap, found by the young girl, Jannie van Beek Pol, beside the tree where he had been discovered.
Jannie, now 88 years old, was still living in Rhenen and had kept the cap in the hope that she could, one day, return it to a member of the family.
When Mayor Hans van der Pas and Toon Blokland returned to Rhenen, they began to make plans to bring members of the McCluskey family to the Netherlands for the 70th anniversary commemorations of the end of the World War II.
Rhenen Council generously arranged for Flight Sergeant McCluskey’s cousin, Patricia McCluskey, and his nephew, Paul O’Brien to make the trip at their expense. Also joining them were Keith Beattie, Museum Manager, and Councillor Michelle Knight-McQuillan, Mayor of Causeway Coast & Glens Borough Council.
During their stay in Rhenen, a special public ceremony was held at the grave of Flight Sergeant McCluskey. It was here at the graveside that Jannie van Beek Pol was introduced to Paul and Patricia for the first time. It was an extremely emotional moment and the day became even more poignant when Jannie brought the family members to the tree on the Prattenburg Estate where she found their relative 73 years ago.
The visitors from Northern Ireland were followed throughout the trip by film crews from BBC Northern Ireland and Utrecht TV and reports of the amazing story appeared on the television news in both the UK and the Netherlands.
Councillor Michelle Knight-McQuillan said: “As Mayor of Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council, I am proud of the role we have been able to play in helping to bring together the McCluskey family with Jannie van Beek Pol. Today we have witnessed the importance of remembering the young men who sacrificed their lives during the terrible years of World War II. I have been overwhelmed by the respect and gratitude of the Dutch people to those of us visiting from Northern Ireland and I am extremely grateful to them for this opportunity to be here to share this remarkable experience with the McCluskey family. I hope both that Rhenen and my Council will be able to develop our links much further and use the story of Flight Sergeant McCluskey to highlight the importance of honouring our local war heroes and commemorating the brave servicemen and women who never came home to their families.”
The cap of Flight Sergeant McCluskey, discovered by Jannie van Beek Pol in 1942, has been donated to Ballymoney Museum by the McCluskley family and is currently on permanent display.