A hero sleeps: War hero and Vail pioneer Pieter Cramerus lived large and long
Reporter’s note: Some of this material was gleaned from the Vimeo album “The Amazing Adventures of Pieter Cramerus.” Do yourself a favor and spend a few minutes with it. Cramerus’ life really was amazing. The quotes from Cramerus in this story are from that video album.
VAIL — True heroes can walk among us for years and we might not know it.
Pieter Cramerus was a hero for so many reasons: World War II fighter pilot with the 322nd Dutch Squadron of the Royal Air Force, shot down five times while shooting down many more. Captured by the Japanese three days before Pearl harbor, he escaped that same day.
When the war moved to Europe, so did he, flying against the German Luftwaffe in many battles. He was shot down three times.
Some called him “Mr. Lucky.”
Vail pioneer, rancher, world traveling fly-fisherman — a life so remarkable that historian Tom Poederbach created an oral history about it.
Pieter Cramerus was not only alive for 101 years, July 17, 1916, to Dec. 2, 2017, he lived them all.
War and Peace
Cramerus was born on an Indonesian rubber plantation and was 4 years old when his father died. The family migrated back to their native Holland, where the weather left him consistently sick.
A winter in Switzerland cured his ills, so his widowed mother moved the family there.
He graduated high school and studied medicine until his mother died, when he decided he should get a job. A shipping company offered him a position in 1939.
The job took him to Indonesia, where he learned to fly.
The world was about to be engulfed in war, and Cramerus was about to be in the thick of it.
He volunteered with the Dutch East Indonesian Air Force. On Dec. 4, 1941, three days before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he was ordered to go back to the boarding house where he was staying, pay his bill and report to his squadron. They were headed to Borneo.
They arrived at dusk.
“Normally, after landing the air crew goes to billets — a room and a bed. Instead, we were ordered to help load bombs,” Cramerus said. “I often wondered what somebody knew what was happening in the Far East.”
‘I don’t want to … be a prisoner’
When the Japanese overran the Dutch West Indies, including the Indonesian island of Java, Cramerus, his commander and a sergeant were captured and taken to a building where they were tied up. Cramerus didn’t stay tied up for long.
“I soon found I could loosen the ropes,” Cramerus said.
In a monumental understatement, he told the sergeant, “I don’t want to stay here and be a prisoner for the rest of the war.”
He didn’t. He freed himself and raced out the front door, past a Japanese guard armed with nothing but a ceremonial sword, over a fence and down the street to an officer’s club. The bartender was smashing whiskey bottles with a hammer. The Japanese ordered him to, he said, otherwise their troops would get drunk.
He kept running — out the other side of the club, over another fence and into a sewer. Sewage runs downhill. Cramerus didn’t. He ran upstream.
When he came out the other side, he was near the main road. The Japanese occupation of Java was still spotty, so he figured if he stayed on that road he’d find someone to help him. An Indonesian on a motorcycle gave him a ride to a Dutch government building where he was safe … for a little while.
Cramerus was evacuating Borneo when he was shot down south of Darwin, Australia, in the harsh west coast outback. He and Jo Muller found themselves completely disoriented, dehydrated, almost naked, without shoes and baked by the heavy outback sun.
“There was only one thing to do, and that was to keep walking,” Cramerus said.
With no water and very little hope, an Aborigine found them and offered to lead them to a Catholic mission. They wouldn’t make the trek that late in the day, so the Aborigine killed a kangaroo with a spear, cooked it, and they spent the night.
“It didn’t taste very good,” Cramerus said.
Nuns looked after him until they could make their way to Perth and a hospital, and eventually to London, and the 322nd, formed from Dutch pilots already flying with the Royal Air Force. His group was split — half to fly Spitfires with the Royal Air Force and the other half to aircraft carriers.
They trained … briefly … “The speed is so much faster than anything you’ve ever flown before, that it’s a surprise,” Cramerus said.
‘Too damn close’
They were thrust back into the war against Germany’s Luftwaffe. Cramerus said the “serious stuff” was flying cover for British B-25 and B-26 bombers hitting the coast of France, hitting Nazi V-1 rockets aimed at England.
They didn’t tangle with many German fighters on those runs; the Nazis didn’t have enough gas for them. However, there was anti-aircraft fire.
“When you see that, you know you are too damn close,” Cramerus said.
By 1944, the Spitfires of the 322nd had a new assignment: bomb a Gestapo intelligence headquarters in the city of Doorn. That was Jan. 28, 1945.
“It was a treetop attack, and the job was to put the bomb through the front door,” Cramerus said.
He did not exactly have the right tool for that job.
“You had to roll the Spitfire over to make it work,” he said.
The bombs were supposed to delay five seconds before they detonated, giving the Spitfire time to get away. Some bombs didn’t delay and pilots died.
Spitfires were built for air defense of England, and when the Germans stopped flying missions across the English Channel, hundreds of Spitfires were left without a purpose. Those who manage wars soon found one.
Pairs of Spitfires would fly low, “armed reconnaissance,” looking for trains, trucks and other “targets of opportunity.”
“The Spitfire is not really built for that,” Cramerus said. “The radiator is under the right wing. It’s a liquid cooled engine. One bullet through that, and after 10 to 15 minutes, the engine quits.”
They took horrible casualties. They made their feeling known, which brought some commanding officers to them.
“They told us, ‘We know about your losses, but we want you to know that this is important.’ We were stopping all traffic. The Germans could not transport food, supplies … anything … because we would catch the trains.”
As the war wound down, they did what Cramerus called “joy flying” over German cities. The country lay in ruins.
“There was not a house with a roof on it,” Cramerus said.
Happily ever after
He married a U.S. citizen and became one after the war, moving to Texas.
The challenge beckoned of early Vail, where he owned a couple hotels and several condos.
He migrated further north to become a rancher in Montana and finally retired in Bow Mar, Colorado, with longtime partner Mary Lou Flater.
He leaves behind two daughters: Joanne Bertosh in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Maryke Cramerus in Houston, Texas, a son Pieter F.W. Cramerus, and seven grandchildren.
During the war, before he joined the 322nd, Cramerus helped train Dutch pilots at Camp Selby, Mississippi. He will be laid to rest there with a small ceremony.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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