Growing up in the Netherlands, Bart Smeets had heard the stories of the day the American warplane crashed on his grandfather's farm near the border with Germany.

His mother would tell him how the twin-engine C-47 Skytrain was hit by a German antiaircraft blitz and crashed in a ball of fire on Sept. 17, 1944 -- eight months before the end of World War II in Europe.

Thirteen 82nd Airborne paratroopers bailed out safely. The 14th, Pvt. Ralph P. Bellesfield of Allentown, didn't make it. The four- man crew perished as well.

Though they were unknown soldiers, the townspeople of Groot- Linden buried the Americans in the church yard at St. Lambertus Catholic Church on Sept. 20, 1944.

"I always wondered who the soldiers were," says Smeets, "and who were the families they left behind."

Out of respect to the fallen Americans, the 36-year-old human relations manager undertook a mission to contact the families of the five servicemen who died in the liberation of his country.

Using the Internet white pages and, Smeets, from the Netherlands, located the families -- including Bellesfield's brother, 84-year-old Albert Bellesfield of Allentown.

Research by Smeets and the Rev. Gerard Thuring, a Dutch World War II historian, tell a compelling story of an Allentown soldier's brief but heroic involvement in World War II.

Their findings coincide with articles that appeared in The Morning Call and Evening Chronicle in the 1940s.

Steelworker, biker, paratrooper

Ralph Bellesfield was working at Bethlehem Steel when, at age 19, he was inducted into the Army in February 1943. He ran with the Salisbury Motorcycle Club and, not surprisingly, chose the physically demanding and dangerous life of a paratrooper.

Bellesfield hit the beach in Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944, with Company A, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment.

WSAN Radio heralded Bellesfield's battlefield exploits, which apparently included the North African and Middle Eastern campaigns, on its "Salute to Servicemen" on Aug. 19, 1944.

Stationed in Ireland for a time, Bellesfield was transferred to England in preparation for the invasion of the Netherlands.

Bellesfield was aboard Army Air Corps aircraft No. 20, dubbed "Satan's Fate," when it left the runway at Langar Airfield in England for a 12-hour flight to Drop Zone T Groesbeek: Wylerbaan Road.

Mission: Take "Devil's Hill," a Nazi outpost 5 miles from the German border, and hold it until relief arrives.

A few miles from the drop zone, the C-47 was hit by intensive antiaircraft flak. First Lt. Jim Martin, a muscular Georgian with a Clark Gable mustache, kept his burning plane in formation until Lt. John Foley's paratroopers had jumped. Eyewitnesses said the plane's wing crumbled and the plane fell into a field on Piet Martens' farm, on the outskirts of Groot-Linden.

Bellesfield, the last paratrooper to jump, was found dangling from the mangled fuselage by the strings of his parachute. Unlike the crew, whose charred remains were unrecognizable, Bellesfield's body was not burned.

"We can only speculate as to what happened," concludes Smeets, who first heard the story as a teenager 20 years ago. "Either there was some sort of problem with the jump, or he was wounded and couldn't complete his jump."