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No Way To Die: During World War II, It Wasn't Just the Enemy That Could Kill You

No Way To Die: During World War II, It Wasn't Just the Enemy That Could Kill You

During World War II, more than 13,000 American aviators lost their lives in training accidents at home before they ever faced the enemy. Their sacrifice is all but forgotten today.

It was Christmas Day, 1944. A U.S. Navy C-47 Skytrain with five men aboard was en route from Naval Air Station, Olathe, Kansas, to Columbus, Ohio. It was a routine training flight. The pilot was beginning his landing approach into the Indianapolis municipal airport but a heavy fog shrouded the runway.

Realizing that he had overshot the runway, the pilot attempted to pull up but slammed into a tree. Everyone on board was killed.

A freak accident? Yes. A rare occurrence? No.

Tragically, there were far too many such accidents that took the lives of thousands of U.S. Army Air Forces, Navy, and Marine personnel during World War II. Their story, however, has gone largely unknown, their sacrifices unrecognized.

As everyone knows, flight involves risk. Heavier-than-air flying machines, operated by young, inexperienced pilots (and even seasoned veterans), are subject to mechanical failure, unfavorable weather conditions, and human error—even before they arrive in an overseas combat zone, where the dangers quickly multiply.

Planes (and gliders, too) have crashed ever since they were first invented. But with the tremendous buildup of aviation forces during the war—with rushed training and a punishing manufacturing schedule to churn out planes (the aircraft plant operated by Ford Motor Company at its huge Willow Run, Michigan, facility built a complete B-24 every hour; see WWII Quarterly, Spring 2017), things were bound to go wrong.

Accidents happened even before the start of the war. Boeing bet the company’s future on its design for a new, four-engine bomber, the B-17. The prototype, known as Model 299, took off from Dayton’s Wright Field on October 30, 1935, with Chief Test Pilot Leslie R. Tower at the controls. (The plane’s maiden flight had occurred three months earlier.)

Everything went perfectly during the flight—until it was time to land. A part that was inadvertently left in a locked position caused Model 299 to crash, killing Tower and his co-pilot, Major Pete Hill. Undeterred by the fatal mishap, the government awarded Boeing a contract to build 13 more B-17s. Eventually the company would build nearly 7,000 of them, while two other contractors built another 5,745.

In another prewar accident, on June 17, 1940, two twin-engine Douglas B-18 bombers, with 11 men on board, were flying out of Mitchel Field, Long Island, New York, when one passed too closely beneath the other. The mid-air collision resulted in airplane parts, engines, fuel, and bodies raining down on Bellerose, New York. Everyone on board was killed, as was a woman on the ground.

Gliders have their own particular dangers. On the sweltering day of August 1, 1943, a large crowd had gathered at Lambert Field, the St. Louis, Missouri, municipal airport, to watch a glider demonstration. A local company, the Robertson Aviation Corporation, had just built a CG-4A troop-carrying glider and the government was eager to show it off in hopes of increasing the sales of war bonds.

On board the glider were 10 of St. Louis’s most prominent citizens: Mayor William Dee Becker, Thomas Dysart of the Chamber of Commerce, Judge Henry Mueller, and Max Doyne of the city’s public utilities department, along with William B. Robertson, head of the company that had built the glider, and his vice-president and general manager, Harold A. Krueger. Piloting the brand new CG-4A was Captain Milton Klugh.

Robertson was a well-known figure in aviation circles. In addition to founding the municipal airport in St. Louis and the Robertson Aircraft Corporation, he also funded the design and construction of the history-making plane that Charles Lindbergh flew in 1927 from New York to Paris—a plane dubbed the Spirit of St. Louis.

Towed aloft by a Douglas C-47, the two conjoined aircraft circled the airport to the cheers of the crowd, estimated at about 10,000 people, before the towrope was released. Almost immediately, the right wing of the glider snapped off, and the engineless aircraft plummeted to earth, killing all on board.

A post-crash investigation revealed that a manufacturing defect in a wing strut was responsible.

Prior to the time that Pearl Harbor was attacked, the U.S. Army Air Corps had approximately 4,500 pilots, only 2,000 of which were on active duty. Once in the war, the United States greatly expanded both aircrew and ground-crew recruitment and training. By the end of the war, more than 435,000 pilots had been trained. (This number is exclusive of the thousands of Navy and Marine Corps aviators who were also trained.)

Naturally, with such high numbers, the likelihood of aviation accidents increased exponentially. Many times “hot-shot” pilots fresh out of (or still in) flight school found themselves in over their heads with a high-performance aircraft beyond their capabilities. At other times, it was a moment of inattention or simply “operator error” that spelled doom.

On October 23, 1942, over the Los Angeles area, a Lockheed B-34 Ventura bomber was being ferried from Long Beach Army Air Base to Palm Springs Army Air Field when it clipped the tail of an American Airlines DC-3 with nine passengers and a crew of three. The B-34 managed to land safely but the passenger plane smashed into a mountain in Chino Canyon, killing everyone on board, including Academy Award-winning Hollywood composer Ralph Rainger, who had composed entertainer Bob Hope’s signature theme song, “Thanks for the Memories.”

A post-crash investigation revealed that the B-34’s pilot, William N. Wilson, was friends with the pilot of the DC-3 and was attempting to maneuver close enough to wave at him. Wilson miscalculated the distance between the two planes and his starboard engine chopped the DC-3’s tail to pieces.

Ironically, the same B-34 Ventura was destroyed the following August 5 when an engine failure caused it to crash during a ferry flight into mountains in Rhode Island, killing all three crew members.

In another disaster, a B-24 bomber flying out of Wendover Army Air Base, Utah, on August 8, 1942, experienced engine failure, lost altitude, and tried to land on a desert highway seven miles east of the base. Its speed was too great and the plane slid off the highway and plowed into a freight train that was passing by, shattering 26 of the Western Pacific Railroad’s boxcars like balsa wood toys.

A few minutes later, a westbound train, unaware of the accident, came along and plowed into the wreckage. Ten injured air crewmen were rescued by the train crews, but the pilot later died.

On August 10, 1942, a U.S. Navy bomber on maneuvers over Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, developed problems and crashed into a loaded bus, killing eight civilians and the three-man bomber crew.

The Lockheed P-38 Lightning was notoriously difficult to learn how to fly, and numerous P-38s crashed and many pilots died during training and ferrying operations.

On August 19, 1943, a P-38 collided with another P-38 over San Diego, causing the twin-boom fighter to crash into a house in the Mar Vista war-housing project. Three young children, playing in the front yard, were killed by the falling debris while the pilot fell from his aircraft and crashed through the roof and into the living roof, dying immediately. The other P-38 crashed into a canyon but the pilot parachuted to safety.

In another P-38 incident, Lt. Col. William E. Dyess died on December 22, 1943, after his aircraft caught fire during a flight test over Burbank, California. Refusing to bail out and risk his plane crashing into a populated area, Dyess heroically stayed with it and brought it down in a vacant lot; no one on the ground was hurt but Dyess lost his life.

Ironically, he had been captured by the Japanese on Bataan in April 1942, escaped a year later, and fought with guerrilla forces on Mindanao before being evacuated by an American submarine. Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene, Texas, was named in his honor.

On rare occasions, disasters occurred for which there seemed to be no logical explanation. For example, on January 2, 1944, while on a flight from McChord Field in Tacoma, Washington, to Los Angeles, a B-17 carrying 14 personnel exploded in the overcast skies above McClellan Field, northeast of Sacramento, California. One person escaped by parachute but the other 13 were killed. The cause of the explosion was never determined, but an onboard fire was not ruled out.

It seemed that planes were going down all over the country on a weekly basis. On February 11, 1943, a B-17 went missing on a flight from Walla Walla, Washington. Three days later the wreckage was found; the plane had evidently crashed into a ridge in the Blue Mountains, 17 miles east of Walla Walla; all 11 on board were killed.

The next day, engine failure brought down a Consolidated B-24, flying from Biggs Field, Fort Bliss, Texas; it crashed near Roswell, New Mexico. One crewman parachuted to safety, but the other eight did not survive.

Five days later, a B-24 carrying 34 passengers crashed at Tucson Municipal Airport, killing six Consolidated employees who were on board.

On May 20, 1943, a B-24 from the 1014th Pilot Transition Training Squadron departed Tarrant Army Airfield in Texas on a four-hour flight to Chicago, which was shrouded in fog and a light rain. The pilot never saw the 500-foot-tall, 20 million-cubic-foot gasometer—the largest natural-gas storage tank of its type in the world—in front of him as he approached Chicago’s Municipal Airport (today known as Midway Airport). In the ensuing massive explosion, the tank was destroyed and all 12 men aboard the bomber perished.