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  Texas : Features : World War II

TRAGEDY OVER WEATHERFORD

The 1945 night-time collision of two B-29 Superfortress Bombers

by Bob Hopkins

The Story
A List of the Airmen Involved
A Letter From Col. Robert Morgan


Friday, August 17, 1945 was no different from any other summer day. The heat was stifling as usual, and the late summer humidity simply added to the oppressive Texas sun. The war in Europe was over and the Japanese had finally been defeated in the Pacific. Hopes for the future were beginning to return to the American spirit as the worst war in world history was coming to a close.

The horrors of the war, however, would be relived on that day in the small north Texas town of Weatherford. The event, here at home, would remind the small town residents that no one was safe from the tragedies created by the mechanisms of that war.

At 5:00 p.m., the crew of a B-29 "Superfortress" (heavy bomber) at Clovis Field, New Mexico, received orders for their last training run before they were to ship out to join the 21st bomber group at Saipan in the Pacific. The crew's orders were to proceed to Fort Worth, Texas and complete five radar-controlled night bombing runs on Meacham Field.

The bomb run was to simulate a real situation - of flying from Guam to Tokyo and return. No personal items were to be carried by any of the crew other than dog tags. No billfolds, notes, papers, or anything that would give the enemy any information in the event they were shot down.

Twenty-two-year old 2nd Lt. Edwin F. Smith of Glasgow, Kentucky, was the co-pilot on the Clovis plane that night. He recalled that there were 11 men on the plane, each with specific responsibilities honed through months of harsh training.

The pilot of that plane, 1st Lt. Robert A Mayor of Buffalo, New York, went through the usual motions as the heavy bomber left the runway. All other crewmen diligently tended to their duties just after take-off as the plane climbed to a comfortable "pressurized" cruising altitude on the last flight it would ever make.



The good folks of Weatherford were just settling down for the evening. Many were lounging in their yards or attending the movies at one of the theaters on the square. Others routinely took care of evening business or simply relaxed and looked forward to the weekend.

Smith recalled reaching Ft. Worth just as it got dark or shortly thereafter. "We flew over Fort Worth at 15,000 ft; turned east and flew a box pattern as to approach the target from the east. We made a good run and continued west until making a turn to the south for a second run. Just before making that southerly turn, 2nd Lt. Robert Knight, the Bombardier, shouted into the radio that the nose of the plane was dropping, and to do something quick".

"OK! OK!" yelled Smith; "I'll use the elevator override knob". The auto-pilot was letting the plane drop about 200 feet, and then correct and go back up 200 feet above the desired 15,000 ft. altitude. "The plane was going through the air like a dolphin", recalled Smith. "I unbuckled my seat belt so that I could lean forward to see the altimeter better", he said.

The bombardier began to shout once more, "Get this darn thing on 15,000 or we'll have to come back and do this thing again". "I'm trying", yelled Smith as he attempted to make corrections to the stubborn B-29, but Knight, the bombardier, and the auto-pilot were basically controlling the plane.

The pilot began to make the southerly bank when Smith heard his commander's last words, "Oh my God!" Smith looked up from the instrument panel just in time to see the wing of another B-29 bomber about 10 feet from his cockpit window. The world instantly exploded with the deafening sound of twisting metal and exploding fuel lines.



Ross Robertson, a boy at the time and mascot of the Weatherford Fire Department, was lounging on the couch at the old jail where his father worked. He was listening to the radio when he heard the terrible crash over the southwest part of the city, which lit up the sky like lightning.

He immediately ran outside to witness the two mighty airplanes scattering debris, burning fuel, and burning parachutes over a large area as they fell toward the earth. "The engines just made a loud whining sound," said Robertson. He reported that one plane fell in a spiral toward the ground as the other fell in a northerly direction. He remarked, "It was a horrible sight to see those planes fall to the ground and feel so helpless".. All who witnessed where stunned and horrified by the events. Some thought it was a Japanese attack while others thought it was the end of the world. The worse thing, said Robertson, "there wasn't anything anyone could do but watch as burning debris fell to earth".



Smith, the co-pilot, went on to say, "I was thrown all over the cockpit. At first I thought we had hit an airliner full of people. I was horrified and scared and my heart was pounding in my chest. The plane was speeding to the ground with the number one, two, and three engines still running. I was unable to find the throttle and the controls were completely frozen up. The night lit up and it seemed as if everything was on fire and the only way out was through the co-pilot's window. As I opened the window the sounds of the engines and the slipstream were terrifying. I was so scared, really scared and I could feel my heart beating wildly against my chest".

Smith crawled out the window up to his waist but the slipstream was so fierce that he couldn't straighten up. He was pinned to the fuselage facing the rear of the plane and looking directly into the number three engine, which was still running at full power. He was hung-up on something in the cockpit. The chances of surviving a jump from the B-29 in this situation was next to impossible - and he knew it.

He found himself in a horrible situation, he couldn't crawl back in and his chute would not go through the window. There was nothing he could do. "I am a Christian", he said. "I prayed. I didn't ask God to save my life, for my knowledge of this kind of accident told me that it was impossible to survive. I asked God to forgive my sins and help me prepare to die".

Smith went on to say, "I knew the plane was falling fast and then suddenly I heard a 'thud' as something hit my right side, briefly rendering me unconscious. I thought we had struck the ground then I regained consciousness and found myself falling to the ground with my parachute fully opened above me. I felt I must have pulled the ripcord which deployed the chute and pulled me from the plane. Then I hit the ground hard, and was out of it again".



In the meantime Ross Robertson jumped on the first out fire engine, which quickly responded to the plane that went down on the southwest side of town. Robertson recalled, "the plane fell on the old Edward's farm on the old Brock Road just south of the Ranger Highway. When we arrived it was fully involved with fire and exploding. We couldn't get to it. About that time a car approached us at a high speed, it had a big dent in it. The driver jumped out and told us that a body had fallen on his car, however, it was later discovered to be only debris from one of the planes.

The men on the fire truck decided there were no survivors on the Clovis plane and since it had avoided falling on any houses, they quickly re-routed their efforts to the Alamogordo plane that fell somewhere on the north side of town.

The firemen arrived to find the Alamogordo plane in a pasture just off the Jacksboro road (now known as Peaster Highway). It too was burning with intermittent explosions. The B-29 had broken up before hitting the ground, scattering debris and men over a large area. Robertson recalled a section of wing was leaning against a barbed wire fence on the north side of the road. The Army was quickly dispatched and arrived about an hour after the crash. They quickly secured the area and began searching for survivors and locating the dead.



Back at the Clovis crash site, Smith awoke to hear someone calling "Airman! Airmen!" He answered back and knew he had been found. A Captain in the medical corps quickly assessed his injuries and found that he had a severely dislocated shoulder, lacerations on his knees and thigh, a possible broken leg and a sprained back. He was quickly given morphine and transported to the Army hospital at old Camp Wolters in Mineral Wells.

"We arrived at Camp Wolters about 2:00 a.m.," Smith remembered. "The following morning I awoke in horrible pain, I couldn't move I hurt so bad. It was terribly hot and I had no air conditioning-not even a fan. A Red Cross representative arrived and informed me that there were no other survivors, that I was the only one out of both planes. I was devastated. Why was I alive and all those other boys dead? I felt so sad, so alone, stunned and depressed. I wanted my family, but on the other hand, I was so relieved to learn we hadn't hit a civilian airliner".



Later in the day the Army did inform Lt. Smith that there was one more survivor from his plane, waist gunner Cpl. Earl E.Wischmeier from West Burlington, Iowa. Wischmeier wasn't wearing his parachute at the time of the crash but did have on his harness. The impact of the crash and the spiraling plane had him pinned against the inside of the fuselage when a parachute came sliding toward him. He quickly donned it as fire began to engulf the plane all around him. He was able to kick out the heat-weakened gun blister and jump.

Wischmeier managed to open his parachute about 200 feet above the earth - resulting in a broken leg and a seriously dislocated ankle. He had already received serious burns on both legs after kicking out the Plexiglas blister as burning fuel running along the fuselage set his dangling limbs on fire. He was, miraculously, able to walk about half a mile to the Northington home and asked, of all things, for a drink of water.



Wischmeier reported to the Weatherford Democrat, in 1945, that he had survived because of prayer. "Anyone who doesn't believe in prayer is crazy," he remarked. Lt. Smith was very relieved when he received the good news about Cpl. Wischmeier and the two were reunited in the Army hospital at Camp Wolters two days later.

There were no survivors from the Alamogordo plane, piloted by 1st Lt. Aubrey K. Stinson of Caneyville, Kentucky, which was also on a training mission from a completely different bomber squadron. Many of the bodies from both planes were burned beyond recognition and scattered about the fields.



The following day brought hundreds of sightseers and souvenir hunters to the both sites to collect mementos or to simply satisfy their curiosity. The army attempted to secure the scene as best as possible but the area was too large to cover completely.

The reality of the crash had haunting effects on the two survivors of the Clovis plane as well as the citizens of Weatherford. With the exception of the local veterans who had previously witnessed the reality of war, nothing could have prepared these people of the horrors of that hot August evening. It was to date, one of the worst mid-air collisions in the U.S. according to the Glasgow Kentucky Daily Times.

The Weatherford Democrat reported in 1945 that the Saturday after the crash, Mary Edwards was out in the pasture with her father on their farm just south of town where the Clovis plane crashed. She came upon a shoe and went to pick it up to find a foot in it. The ordeal was quite disturbing to the young lady. Army personnel quickly took the shoe, as soon as they learned of it.

Mildred Edwards (now Mildred Beard), of Weatherford, was working in Fort Worth when the crash happened on her father's farm. She quickly rushed home to find her family's farm swarming with military vehicles and men. "The fences were cut, and the cows were out" she said. She reported that the incident was quite disturbing and disruptive to the lives of her family for quite some time.

About a week after the crash, Ross Robertson said he and a friend were going fishing on town creek not far from the crash site of the Alamogordo plane. As the boys walked down near the creek they found a crucifix necklace hanging in a tree. Just below it was a fully-loaded 50-caliber machine gun, apparently missed by the recovery team that had hit the ground with such great force that its barrel had been bent into an "L" shape. His father contacted the Army, which quickly arrived to claim the articles. Ross said "the smell of burned flesh and gasoline lingered in that area for years".



Smith and Wischmeier were released from the Camp Wolters Army Hospital after 34 days. Smith remembered that he had no clothes, no wallet, nothing. The medical staff had cut his flight suit off in the emergency room the night of the accident and he was missing his right shoe. The missing shoe was located on the Edward's farm with the end chopped off. Smith realized then that the propeller on that number three engine chopped the end of the shoe off and must have broken his right leg in the process.

Smith reported, "With the help of the Red Cross, I was able to obtain a khaki uniform, hat and a pair of shoes from the PX. I had no insignia". The Army gave him a one-way train ticket back to Clovis, New Mexico.



Return to Empty Barracks

After 36 days, Lt. Edwin Smith had returned to his home base. He went on to say, "At first I was quite anxious to return to my barracks where we all lived as a crew. The barracks was quiet and empty as if nobody had ever been there. The beds were there with blankets still on them and the windows had been left open just like we left them. There was mud on the blankets from rain. All of our personal belongings had been packed up and sent home to our families, our uniforms were gone from the flight line".

Smith went on to say, "I sat down on my bunk to pray for the souls of my crew and I cried. I needed counseling; I was 22 years old and in the last 36 days had endured just about all I thought I could stand. I felt guilty. If I had kept the plane at 15,000 feet perhaps the accident would not have happened. Smith then sadly remarked, "I grieve today as I did 57 years ago." "I will die with that grief in my heart."

Memorial Marker Sought

To this day no memorial or marker stands to remember the lives of those brave men that flew on that mission so many years ago. Many of those who remember the crash have passed on as well. The Weatherford Democrat re-visited the story in a wonderful article in September 1991, as did the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1997 when Smith returned to Weatherford for a brief visit.

Smith still lives in Glasgow, Kentucky with his wife. He has three children and seven grandchildren. He is 79 years old and continues an active work life to this day. Smith stayed in contact with Cpl. Wischmeier until his death in 1993.

In a letter to Bob Hopkins of Weatherford, dated October 2002, Smith stated, "My soul is full of sadness for the families of these 18 young, patriotic Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country; they gave their lives, but not in vain".

December 4, 2007 Update:
An historical marker has been established at the Weatherford Public Library, which is located in the general location above which the tragic collision took place. Perhaps you could update Mr. Hopkins' fine article. - Ann Hafften, Weatherford, Texas, December 04, 2007

List of Airmen Involved in the Crash
 
From Clovis Field:
1st Lt. Robert A. Mayer, Airplane Commander Buffalo, New York
2nd Lt. Robert L. Knight, Bombardier Mt. Vernon, Washington
2nd Lt. John W. Burtis, Navigator St. Paul, Minnesota
Flight Officer Robert Q. Zaliska, Radar Operator Los Angeles, California
S. Sgt. Clifford. D. Longmire, Engineer Columbus, Georgia
Cpl. Robert H. Aparian, Radio Operator Westerbury, Connecticut
Cpl. Jasper C. Wilson, Jr., Gunner Durham, North Carolina
Cpl. Willard Byarly, Gunner Chicago, Illinois
Cpl. Anthony J. Agliata, Gunner Newark, New Jersey
Survivors:
Lt. Edwin F. Smith, Co-Pilot/Flight Officer Glasgow, Kentucky
Cpl. Earl F. Wischmeier, Gunner West Burlington, Iowa
 
From Alamogordo Field:
1st Lt. Aubrey K. Stenson, Airplane Commander Caneyville, Kentucky
2nd Lt. Harold N. Swaim, Co-Pilot Wichita Falls, Texas
2nd Lt Gordon E. Myers, Navigator Kansas City, Missouri
2nd Lt. Binson W. Cohen, Bombardier Bronx, New York City
2nd Lt. Edward E. Lahmers, Flight Engineer Decatur, Illinois
Sgt. Donald E. Lefebure, Radar Operator Detroit, Michigan
Sgt. Johnny A. Mosely, Fire Control Columbus, South Carolina
Sgt. Donald E. Reed, Gunner Tyrone, Pennsylvania
Sgt. Clarence A Jurgens, Gunner Sidney, Nebraska
No Survivors  
   
MAY THEY REST IN PEACE...  
   

WW II brought out the worst that mankind had to offer but it brought out the best as well. Millions of men joined up to fight in the armed services. The Army Air Force was fully a volunteer operation. No one was forced to fly and no other armed service lost as many men as did those brave flyers. Some squadrons in the Army's Eighth Air Force (The Mighty Eighth) lost up to seventy percent of their bomb groups over France and Germany during the hard years of daylight bombing by the American Forces. The Fifteenth Air Force, stationed in Italy, suffered similar losses.

The B-17s and the B-24s were excellent heavy bombers. The war could not have been won without them. By 1944-45 they were beginning to be replaced by the new B-29s. They were bigger, could carry more bombs and were equipped with pressurized cabins and radar but were criticized by many of the pilots as having problems that needed to be addressed.

Letter from Colonel Robert Morgan
In October, 2002, Col. Robert Morgan (USAAF - WWII), sent a letter to the City of Weatherford and the Parker County Historical Society encouraging a memorial to remember those men of the Weatherford crash of 1945.
Col. Morgan wrote: "I have been asked to express my feelings about the two Boeing B-29's, which crashed in Weatherford, TX in August 1945. I was not aware of the incident until Bob Hopkins, who is working to memorialize this incident, contacted me.

Mr. Hopkins contacted me because I am best known as the pilot of the B-17 "Memphis Belle" but I also flew 26 more combat missions in the Pacific against Japan after I flew the Belle.

On 24 Nov 44, I led the first B-29 raid on Tokyo in my plane "Dauntless Dotty". You can read her bio on my website at www.memphis-belle.com.

A lot of brave men were lost training in B-29s and also flying them in the Pacific theater. The B-29 initially had a lot of mechanical problems and it took courage and bravery to keep climbing into those beasts until the mechanical issues were corrected by Boeing and military personnel.

Had the U.S. not pursued the war against Japan in these mighty bombers (with huge losses of planes and personnel), along with dropping the atomic bomb from the B-29's "Enola Gay" and "Bockscar", we would never have prevailed against them and the U. S. would have lost WWII.

In times like these it must be understood that the cost of freedom is and has always been very high. The true heroes of that war are the men and women who gave their lives for their country and did not come home as I did.

Therefore, the crews of the two B-29 bombers that crashed over the city of Weatherford, Texas in August 1945, must not be forgotten. I encourage any effort on the part of local organizations and your city government to work together to create some kind of memorial to honor their devotion, dedication, and courage.

Our generation is slowly passing as new ones emerge to carry on the spirit of the American people. It would be a pity to allow the memories of those boys of those planes to slip into oblivion. Please do what ever you can to honor their lives".

Sincerely
Col. Robert K. "Bob" Morgan
The Memphis Belle & Dauntless Dotty

They were mighty planes flown and operated by mighty men. They played a pivotal point in winning WWII. They trained, they flew, they fought, and they gave the ultimate sacrifice. They will forever be remembered, as Tom Brokaw termed, "The Greatest Generation". May God bless them all.

June 2003
Bob Hopkins
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