The last time Willie Schludecker saw this northeastern England village he was in the cockpit of a German bomber during World War II.
On May 1, 1942, his plane damaged by British fighters during a mission over Sunderland, Schludecker jettisoned his bombs and fled for home.
One bomb slammed through a wall of 1,000-year-old St. Andrew’s Church in the village of Bolam. It came to rest inside without exploding, but three other bombs detonated nearby.
On Monday, Schludecker returned to Bolam to say sorry.
“I felt very bad when I found out I had hit a church — I was aiming for the railway line — but very pleased that it did not go off,” he said through an interpreter. He met with churchgoers, some of them old enough to remember the night of the bombing.
“This is wonderful to feel such friendship here,” Schludecker said.
Joy Scott, whose house was nearly hit by Schludecker’s plane as it dived, said she bore no ill will toward the pilot.
“He was only a little lad when he did this, just 21 or 22, and he was doing his job,” she said.
In an interview with British Broadcasting Corp. radio, Schludecker, 84, said he put his Dornier 217 into a steep dive after being attacked by two British fighters.
“I wanted to jettison the bombs on the railway line, because the plane was damaged and I wanted to get rid of the bombs so it could fly back home,” he said.
Schludecker did not know where his bombs had landed until he was tracked down last year by local historian Bill Norman.
The hole left in the church by the unexploded bomb was turned into a memorial stained-glass window. A bomb crater nearby is now a duck pond. A letter from the vicar’s wife to her son in the air force, describing her lucky escape, is posted in the church.
“Providence watched over us that morning, for our house still stands,” it says. “Windows and lots of frames gone. Roof badly damaged, doors broken or damaged, glass everywhere, we were smothered with it in bed, and have not even a scratch.”