How 13,000 Americans Lost Their Lives to Training Accidents During World War II

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March 20, 2020 Topic: History Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: World War IIAviation AccidentsPlane CrashU.S. Air ForceAmerica

How 13,000 Americans Lost Their Lives to Training Accidents During World War II

Just terrible.

Four months later, a B-24 bomber, based at Lowry Field, Colorado, crashed into a residential neighborhood near the University of Denver on September 26, 1943. A witness said, “I was working in my back yard about 9:20 am when I saw the plane coming in low from the direction of Denver University. Its left engine was dead and it apparently was having trouble trying to gain altitude.

“When it was directly overhead, the pilot must have noticed the vacant lot because it looked to me like he was trying to pancake a landing. It all happened within a split second. The plane crashed and exploded. A sheet of flame shot up about 60 feet and seemed to fall over the houses.

“The heat was so intense that you couldn’t get close. I noticed wreckage flying through the air over the front of the plane.” At least seven airmen died in the crash.

At midnight on July 11/12, 1944, a B-24 bomber that had just taken off from Biggs Field at Fort Bliss, Texas, with eight men aboard slammed into Mount Franklin, which looms over the city of El Paso.

An eyewitness said, “The [plane’s] lights showed for three or four seconds against the mountain, and then the pilot must have seen that he was about to crash into the rocks. He nosed the plane up, and it zoomed about 100 feet, then crashed head-on into the mountain. There was no fire before the plane hit, and the plane did not dive or fall. When it hit, there were three or four small fires that sprang up, then all at once a big flash and a big fire.”

Another B-24 accident happened on August 1, 1944, after six B-24 Liberators took off from Muroc Army Air Field for gunnery and formation-flying training over Death Valley, California. One plane, a B-24J, collided with a B-24D and sheared off the B-24D’s tail; eight men in that bomber died. One student gunner in the B-24J was able to parachute from the plummeting plane, but his fellow eight aviators perished. Scattered debris from the crash is still visible in Death Valley National Park.

Texas, with its many military airfields, saw many military aviation disasters, with one of the worst occurring on September 10, 1943, 40 miles off the shore of Galveston. Two B-17s, with 11 men in each plane, had taken off from Alexandria (Louisiana) Air Base for gunnery practice over the Gulf of Mexico but, for unknown reasons, collided in mid-air. Investigators believed that one of the planes may have lost its position in the formation and, in an attempt to maneuver back, collided with the other ship. One plane exploded and both sank into Gulf waters immediately afterward. All 22 men were lost.

Learning to fly was dangerous to both students and instructors. On April 14, 1943, two crashes occurred a few hours apart that took three lives from the Air Corps Basic Flying School in San Angelo, Texas. In the first, Cadet Raymond L. Stephenson was soloing when his AT-6 crashed at a ranch about 25 miles east of the air base.

The second crash involved a cadet and an instructor; both were killed when their trainer, for unexplained reasons, fell from an altitude of about 700 feet and burst into flames upon impact with the ground; both bodies were burned beyond recognition.

On October 2, 1943, a training plane from the Army Navigation School at Hondo, Texas, crashed into a home, killing five Army officers, two enlisted men, and a civilian navigation instructor. Fortunately, no one was home at the time.

In another Texas crash, this one involving a four-engine bomber from the Big Spring Bombardier School, a pilot instructor and four students died when their plane hit a mountain 11 miles east of Big Spring on February 14, 1944.

It wasn’t only bombers that were falling out of the sky; the same thing was happening regularly with fighter planes. On March 23, 1943, a Republic P-47 Thunderbolt took off from Mitchel Field, New York, developed mechanical troubles shortly after takeoff, and crashed into Barnard Hall at Hofstra College in Hempstead, Long Island, New York, killing the pilot and setting the building on fire. Luckily, no one else was killed or injured.

In 1939, the Heisman Trophy, emblematic of the country’s best college football player, was awarded to the University of Iowa’s Nile C. Kinnick, who was also the student body president. After graduation, he received a commission in the Navy and went on to flight school.

On June 2, 1942, while on a training mission off the coast of Venezuela, his Grumman F4F Wildcat lost oil pressure and he was forced to ditch in the sea four miles from his carrier, the USS Lexington; his body was never recovered. In 1972, the University of Iowa renamed their football stadium “Kinnick Stadium” in his honor.

On September 12, 1942, another F4F Wildcat flew too closely to the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge; it ran into a suspension cable that sliced off the tail and a wing, raining debris down on the motorists below. Miraculously, no civilians were hurt, but the pilot died.

On May 5, 1945, nine officers and an enlisted man were killed and two enlisted men were injured when a Navy Catalina flying boat crashed into a fog-shrouded hill southwest of Sausalito, California. Two enlisted men, who suffered first-degree burns, were thrown clear of the plane and survived.

The B-29 Superfortress was not immune from mechanical failure. On February 18, 1943, a prototype of the big bomber had one of its engines catch fire, causing it to crash into meat packing plant in Seattle. All 10 men on board were killed, as well as 20 people on the ground.

On July 2, 1945, another B-29 was flying east from Davis-Monthan Field in Tucson, Arizona, when it went down in rugged country about 20 miles east of Salt Flat, Texas. None of the 12 men on board—seven officers and five enlisted men—survived.

American fliers weren’t the only ones going down; the U.S.’s northern neighbor, too, saw its fair share of fatal accidents and disasters. On October 12, 1943, a B-24 Liberator bomber carrying 24 Royal Canadian Air Force personnel from eastern air stations to Montreal crashed into the St. Lawrence River. It was announced that poor weather conditions likely contributed to the crash and the deaths of all aboard.

Seven days later, another B-24 belonging to the RCAF was en route from Gander, Newfoundland, to Mont-Joli, Quebec, with 24 people on board. Due to weather and a navigation error, the plane slammed into a Quebec mountain, killing everyone. The wreckage went undiscovered for two years.

Tragedies also happened to foreign fliers in the United States. Two experienced pilots from Britain’s Royal Air Force—Squadron Leaders Basil B.W. Howe and R.S. Harmon—were in the United States to serve as trainers; both had taken part in many combat missions (Howe had already completed 27 bombing missions over Germany). On January 14, 1944, they were flying from Dayton, Ohio, to Washington, D.C., when their plane developed serious engine problems.

While Howe tried to control the stricken craft, Harmon safely bailed out; Howe then followed but landed in the icy Ohio River. The plane crashed near St. Mary’s, on the West Virginia side of the river. After struggling in the water for about 15 minutes, Howe went under, a victim of exhaustion and hypothermia. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

In 1942, in order to free up more men for combat, the United States instituted a program called the Women Airforce Service Pilots—WASP for short. The program was designed to train women to fly military aircraft from the factories where they were built to the U.S. air bases where they were put into service. More than 1,100 women were accepted into the WASPs—and 38 lost their lives in flying accidents.

A National Public Radio story said that one of those killed was 26-year-old Mabel Rawlinson, the daughter of a minister in Kalamazoo, Michigan. She was stationed at Camp Davis in North Carolina and was coming back from a night training exercise with her male instructor on August 23, 1943, when the plane, a Douglas A-24 Banshee dive bomber, made a fiery crash-landing at the base. Upon hitting the ground, the instructor was thrown from the plane and suffered serious injuries, but Rawlinson’s hatch was jammed, preventing her from escaping.

A fellow WASP was there: “I knew Mabel very well. We were both scheduled to check out on a night flight in the A-24. My time preceded hers, but she offered to go first because I hadn’t had dinner yet. We were in the dining room and heard the siren that indicated a crash. We ran out onto the field. We saw the front of her plane engulfed in fire, and we could hear Mabel screaming. It was a nightmare.”

Because Rawlinson was a civilian, the military was not required to pay for her funeral or pay for her remains to be sent home, so her fellow pilots raised the money to ship her body back to Kalamazoo.