Even after the war in Europe ended in May 1945, aviation tragedies continued. In a well-known incident, on July 28, 1945, an Army Air Force B-25 Mitchell bomber slammed into the 79th floor of New York City’s Empire State Building, then the world’s tallest building (see WWII Quarterly,Fall 2010). The pilot was attempting to land at La Guardia Field on Long Island but became lost in fog and was seen flying between skyscrapers in Manhattan seconds before the crash.
The disaster killed the pilot, two other crewmen, and 11 people in the building. Debris—parts of the plane and the building—rained down on the street below. The death toll would likely have been much higher had it occurred on a weekday instead of a Saturday.
On December 8, 1945, a C-47 transport plane, carrying 21 overseas veterans flying from Newark, New Jersey, to Seattle, Washington, for discharge or reassignment, crashed a mile west of Billings, Montana; four men survived.
A newspaper account described the horrific scene: “Screams of the dying and injured could be heard as the police officers approached the field, where in the glare of the burning plane were six army men and one of the pilots. The other pilot was under the ship’s motor, which had been torn loose in the crash….
“The blaze was extinguished by city firemen while smoke still curled from the twisted mass. City and county officers began extricating bodies from the wreckage. Twelve smoldering black and red charred forms, some with their arms and legs still in sitting positions, were carried out and placed in metal boxes for removal to local funeral homes.”
From 1940 through 1945, according to statistics gathered by Anthony J. Mireles, the U.S. Army Air Corps/Air Force suffered 6,351 fatal accidents, with more than 13,600 fatalities and the loss of more than 7,000 aircraft. Most of the fatal accidents (2,101) occurred in primary, basic, and advanced trainers, while 2,796 aviators died in the 490 fatal B-24 accidents, followed by 1,757 who died in 284 B-17 crashes.
Of the fighter plane accidents, 455 pilots died in 404 crashes involving P-47 Thunderbolts, while 369 and 337 lost their lives in P-39 and P-38 accidents, respectively.
The U.S. Eighth Air Force in Europe suffered more than 26,000 men killed due to enemy action, mechanical problems, and accidents during the war. But training, as we have seen, was just as hazardous, with more than 15,500 losing their lives in service to their country before they were ever able to face the enemy.
Unfortunately, their sacrifices were seldom noted. At a few places around the country, a simple plaque or marker or monument lists the names of those who died but, because they did not die due to enemy action, they were not eligible to receive the Purple Heart medal, posthumously.
For the most part, their sacrifices are forgotten by the nation they had sworn to serve and protect.
Originally Published March 19, 2019.
This article originally appeared on the Warfare History Network.