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Reunion with Big Moose

By Kay Ball
Splasher Six Volume 30, Spring 2000, No. 1
Cindy Goodman, Editor


On May 7, 1943, Donald T. Atkinson was the flight engineer and upper turret gunner on a B-17 traveling to Europe to join the 100th Bomb Group. Well into this trip, the crew noticed that they were well off course, victims of the German tactic of disrupting the locational beams of American aircraft making their way to the ETO. Unable to make land, Big Moose, as the crew called her, expended her fuel and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean about 150 miles off the coast of Iceland.

Thrown into the dark, freezing waters, Don struggled frantically save his own life while attempting to assist an injured crewman to a life raft floating upside down nearby. A large wave hit the two, pulling the injured man from Don’s grasp. He slipped away and was never seen again. After 30 days at sea, British destroyers rescued the eight surviving crewmen of the Big Moose, and they returned to the USA to be reassigned another plane and sent on to England.

Fifty Years Later

Life becomes very exciting when history resurfaces. And that is just the case for Don Atkinson and his crew. Over 50 years since that fateful day in 1943, when Big Moose slipped beneath the cold waves of the Atlantic, an Icelandic fisherman’s deep sea fishing lines became entangled. When the lines were pulled up, a part of 1943 history resurfaced. Remains of the Big Moose had been snagged. The airplane parts made from aluminum disintegrated and fell back into the ocean but the heavy metal 55 caliber guns survived the rescue. The freezing Icelandic waters had preserved them during those frigid years of submersion to once again allow another WWII story to be told. And Icelandic man, dedicated to exploring and preserving WWII history, tirelessly spent years trying to uncover the names of the crew members who were onboard this aircraft. The crewmembers of the Big Moose were finally located and notified of this miraculous event. Needless to say, they were all very elated and intensely surprised.

The resurfacing of the remains from this unforgettable plane wreck once again rekindled the memories and passions experienced by the crew that cold April night. Don’s daughter Kay surprised her dad by planning a trip to Reykjavik, Iceland, so he could be reunited directly with part of his past. “I wanted to relive this adventure with Dad and really learn to appreciate what he and so many others went through to ensure our freedoms of today.”


So on July 26, 1999, in Iceland, the past was reunited with the present as Don visited the recovered upper turret gun to which he had been assigned on the Big Moose. It was like being reacquainted with an old friend. “I’m sure that in an instant Dad relived the sights, smells, sounds, fears, pain, and confusion that occurred as the plane crashed into the cold and stormy sea over 56 years ago. I watched him gently examined the historic relic while he told us how the gun worked and the safety measures needed to keep this weapon under control.”

The gun had weathered its stay in the ocean and only a few parts were needed to bring it back to its original condition. “Dad was given a part of the gun (the ejector cam) that couldn’t be restored due to corrosion, and was delighted to be able to take a piece of his own history home with him. It was a reunion between two survivors.”

“The gun looks better than me and it’s been in the ocean for over 50 years!” –Don Atkinson

Don and Kay learned a lot about the Icelanders involvement with WWII during the trip and came away with a new understanding of why the Icelandic people are so appreciative of the efforts of the British and Americans during the war. “Dad was treated with much respect and admiration as one who helped secure the prosperity that Iceland appreciates today.”

“I was honored to be able to experience this merger of yesterday with today by watching Dad’s reunion with his past. History is fascinating…especially if it involves loved ones willing to tell their riveting and provocative stories.”

“To partake of the sacrifices that the ‘Greatest Generation’ experienced and survived restores and energizes future generations.” — Kay Ball

“I learned a great deal from this reunion trip not only intellectually, but also spiritually and emotionally. Dad’s complete accounting of this remarkable event couples with his genuine enthusiasm and passion helps me understand more about the past and my heritage. The members of the Greatest Generation definitely have an important story to tell, therefore, we must make the time to listen to them. I’m so glad I did!”