Vintage: Mount Tom memorial marks 75th anniversary of deadly B-17 crash in Holyoke, US
16 Coast Guardsmen were killed when the B-17 aircraft they were flying as passengers in crashed into Mount Tom, Massachusetts in the US. A mighty workhorse of the US Army Air Corps’ bomber force in World War II, the aircraft had been converted for use to ferry soldiers and sailors home from war duty. On the night of 9 July 1946, it had been flying south from Goose Bay in Labrador, Canada. These Coast Guardsmen were all returning from duty in Greenland. This is the single largest loss of Coast Guard life outside of a maritime accident.
Excerpt from “The Flying Fortress on Mount Tom” by author Chris L Freeze
Near Holyoke, Massachusetts, 9 July 1946; “Cross-roads of the World”
Gander was chosen for the construction of an airport in 1935 because of its location close to the northeast tip of the North American continent. Construction of the airport began in 1936 and it was opened in 1938, with its first landing on 11 January 11 of that year, by Captain Douglas Fraser flying a Fox Moth of Imperial Airways. Within a few years it had four runways and was the largest airport in the world. Its official name until 1941 was Newfoundland Airport.
During the Second World War, as many as 10 000 Canadian, British and American military personnel resided in Gander. The area became a strategic post for the Royal Air Force Air Ferry Command, renaming the airport to RCAF Station Gander in 1941, with over 20 000 American and Canadian-built fighters and bombers stopping at Gander en route to Europe.
After the Second World War, the RCAF handed operation of the airfield back to the dominion government in March 1946, and the town of Gander grew as the airport was used as a refuelling stop for civilian transatlantic flights, earning its name "Cross-roads of the world" as nearly all overseas flights had to stop there before crossing the Atlantic.
Swords to Plowshares...
On the afternoon of July 9th, 1946, a Boeing B-17G “Flying Fortress” bomber, tail number 43-39136, that had been converted for passenger transit, departed from Gander, bound for Mitchell Field on New York's Mitchell Field, making a stopover at Westover Field near Springfield, Massachusetts. The pilot of the plane was Flight Officer Herman J Valdrini Jr, a native of Prescott, Arizona. He was a week short of being discharged from the Army.
Also members aboard the bomber that were of the US Army Air Corps.were Captain Henry A Lebrecht, 1Lt Wayne L Austin, Flight Officer Samuel A Turrentine, Sergeant Daniel R Roe, PFC Howard E Carson, PFC Eulogio Sanchez, PFC Rex A Tansey.
Carried as passengers aboard Lieutenant Frank G Meriam, Lieutenant Wilfred U Johnson, Lieutenant (junior grade) George E Orford, YNC Hugh J Worth, RM2c Lee Winnard, BM2c Russell S Scott, RM3c Alfred L Warm, RM3c Arnold J Simons, RM3c Ernest R Gillis, ETM3c George R Benfield, ETM3c George E Fleming, S1c Arthur C Miller, S1c Stanley P Warshaw, S1c Gregory S Davenport and S2c David F Archilles, all of the US Coast Guard. Also aboard were two civilians, Lieutenant Pasquale P Coviello, an assistant surgeon with the United States Public Health Service (USPHS) that was assigned to the Coast Guard, as well as Arthur Bailey of the American Red Cross.
Slated originally to land at 8h27 in the evening, the bomber circled the town of Holyoke for nearly two hours, steadily losing altitude while circling. Cleared to land at Westover Field, the bomber descended to down to 800 feet, on approach to the field and in the direction of Mount Tom, a steep, rugged mountain peak on the west bank of the Connecticut River. According to Massachusetts highway patrolman Frank O'Connell, a beacon was lit up on the hill but the flight crew of the bomber must not have seen it or they did but too late.
A frightful sound...
At about 10h20 at night, the plane impacted at the southern face of Mount Tom. It first brushed the treetops, tearing off an engine and gasoline containers which ignited and then struck a bare, rocky space further up the elevation, exploding on impact and starting several fires. The first men to respond to crash stated the heat was so intense that they were only able to get within 100 yards of the crash.
The broken bodies of the occupants were scattered among the plane's wreckage along a 400-foot swath torn by the bomber through dense woods 200 yards from the hill top. Also littering the path were a gold wrist watch that somehow withstood the shattering crash, glittered among the ashes; its hands stopped at 10h20, the time of the crash. Vinyl musical records, charred and torn parachutes, unopened, lay in piles strewn among the wreckage, amongst naval pea jackets, burned shoes, wallets, blankets and several letters.
It was quickly clear that the 25 people aboard the plane were all killed on impact ,deeming the accident at New England's worst air disaster at that time. Luckily, a heavy rain downpour and misty weather prevented a serious forest fire from starting.
The impact was witnessed by many of the thousands of people attending events at the Mountain Park Amusement Area on the mountain's eastern side. Holyoke police stated that it was quite fortunate that the bomber had not struck the park, as an estimated 4 000 were in attendance there.
Robert Hodash, a correspondent for the Associated Press, was at Mountain Park and was one of the first to reach the scene, following the bed of an abandoned cable railway up to the crash site. He described it as "a gruesome spectacle" with some of the bodies "horribly mangled," trees knocked down across a wide strip, others singed by fire and wreckage scattered over hundreds of yards.
The following morning, hours after the crash, the forests still were smoking, with occasional bursts of flame keeping the Army guards busy with portable extinguishers. The molten engine nacelles and mangled parts of the fuselage still gave off an intense heat from still-unburned fuel. Charred wreckage was spread in small pieces over the quarter mile square area.
The crash site went unmarked until 1994 when someone piled rocks there as a memorial. Holyoke resident Norman Cote noticed the rock memorial and persuaded local officials to establish a permanent monument on the old tramway. Fifty years after the tragedy, a monument was constructed at the crash site, dedicated on 6 July 1996, the Saturday before the 50th anniversary of the mishap.
Lieutenant Wilfred Johnson, a graduate of the Coast Guard Academy class of 1944, was enshrined in the Academy's Chase Hall's “Hall of Heroes” on its “Wall of Remembrance”.
Excerpt from “70 years after crash strangers keep service members’ memories alive” by Petty Officer 3rd Class Andrew Barresi
It was 1946 and World War II had just come to an end. Petty Officer 3rd Class Alfred Warm was on his way home. An entire life, limitless in possibility, lay ahead of the 19-year-old. Warm was smart and athletic. He spent his childhood playing pickup stickball and handball games in his Brooklyn neighbourhood. He was an Eagle Scout and planned to be the first in his family to go to college.
“His father was a letter carrier, a postman and immigrant,” said Alfred Stettner, Warm’s nephew who is named after him. “He didn’t come from a family of means.”
Warm enlisted in the Coast Guard as soon as he was eligible. He trained as a radioman and was assigned to a long range aids to navigation station in Greenland. “He would send pictures home and write funny notes on the back,” said Stettner.
After completing his tour, Warm was ready to return home to start his civilian life. Warm hopped on a B-17 Flying Fortress out of Greenland. They were bound for Westover airfield in Massachusetts, which sits in the shadow of the 1 200-foot peak of Mount Tom. He and 24 other passengers and crew made the long trip only to circle the airfield for two hours before being cleared to land.
Finally, at around 22h30 on 9 July 1946, with a light rain falling, the B-17 began the final descent dropping to 800 feet.
They were on a direct collision course with the mountain.
All 25 lives, including 15 Coast Guardsmen, each with unique stories and hopes for the future, were lost upon impact. For 50 years the crash site went unmarked until a group of dedicated volunteers decided that the 25 departed deserved more.
Today nestled near the site of the crash is a memorial remembering those who died, so close to returning home.
For years hikers made makeshift memorials. They would stack pieces of the aircraft in piles near the crash site. Eventually one man, Norman Cote, decided something more should done. “Norman came into my office saying there had been a crash up on Mount Tom 50 years before, and that nobody had ever put any kind of a memorial up,” said Robert Cahillane, co-chairman of the B-17 memorial committee and former director of the Centre for Veteran Services in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Cahillane remembers Cote being persistent and described him as the original driving force for the memorial. He thought a plaque or a marker along the hiking trail near the site would be appropriate and decided to reach out to his veteran’s services counterparts in the bordering towns of Holyoke and Easthampton.From there the project grew bigger as the story of the crash resonated with more people. “Seventeen of the best people came out of the woodwork and said ‘I want to be part of this, I want to help’,” said Cahillane.
Soon the small marker turned into a tree lined path and a granite stone listing all 25 names.
The group also tracked down family members of each of the men, including Dorothy Stettner, Alfred Warm’s sister, who was 15 years old at the time of the crash. “When my mother got the call back in ’96 that some local people were building a memorial on the site, it was a literally life changing event,” said Stettner. “My mother used to say it was her mission to keep their memories alive, and now the memorial is doing that.”
For Stettner it was another way for him to connect to his namesake, the uncle he never met. He grew up hearing stories from his mother about her older brother, who she idolised. “It’s interesting how someone can become a part of your life like that, even though I never knew him,” said Stettner.
With plans drawn up and family members notified, it was time to break ground near the site of the crash. “The day they backed up with the memorial; one of the workman jumped off the back of the truck because he saw something shiny,” said Cahillane. “It belonged to a gentleman by the name of Roe, it was his ID bracelet. I say it was like the hand of God pushing it up from the ground for us to find. We cleaned it up and returned it to the family.”
By 1996, 50 years after the accident, the memorial was complete.
Today, a row of 25 birch trees line the path that leads to the circular clearing and the etched granite monument. “When we had the first ceremony on the mountain it was very emotional and really something,” said Stettner. “We go back every year and every year it’s very emotional to talk about him and remember his life and their tragic deaths at an early age.”
“It’s been a labour of love,” said Cahillane adding that a new generation of volunteers has started to take over from the original committee.
One of those people who has picked up the torch is Debbie Malek, a Veterans Services Officer for the city of Holyoke. “I went to one service and have been drawn to go back every year,” said Malek. Though Malek had no personal connection to any of the men, she says she has come to know each one through the stories that have been passed by their family members. “How can I not give tribute to men who lost their lives serving their country and were on their way home and never got past Holyoke?” said Malek.
According to Malek, the memorial is primarily maintained by a pair of hikers that came across it one day. “They felt the love that surrounds the place and painstakingly work every year to keep it pristine,” said Malek.
Stettner and his family continue to be moved by the fact that strangers have taken it upon themselves to build and maintain the memorial. “The community built a memorial out of true altruism,” said Stettner. “So many people still recognise and appreciate the sacrifice these young men made; it still resonates with people and always will.”
Seventy years after the crash, the memories of Alfred Warm and the 24 other service members continue to live on because of the humanity and love of strangers. As years pass and memories fade, this memorial will stand as a peaceful salute to the promising lives that were cut short and enduring power of respectful remembrance.
The Coast Guardsmen killed included:
Lieutenant Frank G Meriam
Lieutenant Wilfred U Johnson
Lieutenant (junior grade) George E Orford
YNC Hugh J Worth
RM2c Lee Winnard
BM2c Russell S Scott
RM3c Alfred L Warm
RM3c Arnold J Simons
RM3c Ernest R Gillis
ETM3c George R Benfield
ETM3c George E Fleming
S1c Arthur C Miller
S1c Stanley P Warshaw
S1c Gregory S Davenport
S2c David F Archilles and
Lieutenant Pasquale P Coviello an assistant surgeon with the United States Public Health Service (USPHS) that was assigned to the Coast Guard.
Source: Sean M Cross