Reportedly the P-47 Thunderbolt was the largest and most expensive fighter ever built to be powered by a single piston engine. It was effective as a short and medium range escort fighter and in high-altitude air-to-air combat. Due to payload capacity, it was extremely successful as a fighter-bomber.
In my writings, I may have seemed to be casting negative shadows over the craft, but in fact I have revealed only facts that I’ve uncovered. An extensive record exists showing the frequency of crashes for all major U. S. war planes used during the 1942-45 period.
The following stats apply only to accidents occurring within the continental United States. The incidents of crashes numerically were the P-40, 3,591, followed closely by the P-47 with 3,049. However, the P-47 led all fighters and bombers actually “wrecked” with 1,125.
Total lives lost in those Thunderbolt crashes numbered 404, of which Seymour Johnson had its proportionate share. Though higher in total number of crashes, deaths attributed to the P-40 numbered fewer at 350.
Fatalities among all U. S. military men killed in crashes within the United States numbered an astonishing 9,922 — a sizeable fighting force. More troops perished in the continental U. S. while serving aboard B-24 bombers than any other with a total of 2,796.
With the stage set, let’s return to Seymour Johnson. The majority of crashes I’m reporting on today happened near or after the war’s end.
May 31, 1945 — SJF pilot killed instantly in plane crash near Eureka
Flight Officer Edgar E. Stockton, 21, son of Mrs. Sara N. Stockton, Decatur, Ala., was instantly killed about 5:30 Wednesday afternoon when his single-engined fighter plane crashed about one mile south of Eureka. He was on a combat training flight.
Previously stationed at the Lincoln, Nebraska, Army Air Base, Flight Officer Stockton had been stationed at Seymour Johnson Field since April 4.
Reports from the scene said the plane crashed very near where a man was picking huckleberries. The berry picker told Fremont people he missed being crushed by the plane only by inches.
A board of officers has been appointed to determine the cause of the accident.
June 5, 1945 – SJF pilot killed
Flight Officer Richard C. Combs, of Norwalk, Ohio, was killed about 1:30 Monday afternoon when his single engine fighter plane crashed into a heavily wooded section about 3 miles south of Warsaw.
Appointed a flight officer in December of 1941, Combs was transferred to Seymour Johnson Field from the Richmond Army Air Base six weeks ago.
Sept. 1, 1945 — SJF officer killed as planes collide
Flight Officer Leon C. Kirk, 20, son of Mr. and Mrs. Charles W. Kirk of 2128 Susquehanna St., Harrisburg, Pa., was instantly killed in a plane collision over Richmond, Va., Saturday morning, according to Col. Dudley B. Howard, commanding officer of Seymour Johnson.
The colliding planes were both Army fighters and were on a training mission at the time, it was said.
The pilot in the other plane parachuted to safety, said Howard. He was the plane’s only occupant.
Kirk was transferred to Seymour Johnson Field six weeks ago from the Bluethenthal Army Air Base, Wilmington. He had been in service since April 1943.
A board of officers has been appointed to determine the cause of the accident, Col. Howard said. (End of article).
A bit of research into the life of Officer Kirk shows that he was a 1942 student at William Penn High School in Harrisburg. Penned by his photograph were these words: “How ’bout that. Leon is a very pleasant chap. He goes around school as if he owns it and the campus. Although Leon is rather quiet, avoid engaging in an argument with him. He can talk rings around his closest rival and his vocabulary is second only to that of_____? We can depend on Leon to make good in whatever he does.”
Virginia death certificate lists cause of death: decapitation and traumatic amputation of all extremities.
Sept. 19, 1945 — SJF pilot dies in crash?
NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — An unidentified plane crashed and burned Wednesday on a Sewell’s Point road in Norfolk.
A witness said the plane was flying very low, probably due to motor trouble, when it came over the houses at Oakdale Farms and crashed into a tree at the edge of a spinach field. This witness said the pilot attempted to bail out but failed to get clear of the plane, which burst into flames when it crashed. Norfolk firemen responded to an alarm and fought the blaze.
Sept. 20, 1945 – Plane accident victim was from North Carolina
First Lieutenant Duke A. McLeod, 21, of Seymour Johnson Field, brother of Mrs. A. Richards of Norfolk, Va., was instantly killed Wednesday morning when the single-engine fighter plane he was piloting crashed at Norfolk, Va., while on a routine training mission, according to Col. Dudley B. Howard, base commander.
Entering service at Jamesboro, N.C., February 1943, he became a pilot in April of 1944, and was transferred to Seymour Johnson on Sept. 7 of this year.
The Virginia death certificate gives cause of death: compound fracture of skull with avulsion of brain.
By the end of August 1945, the war was over. Thus ended the greatest slaughter of human life ever witnessed among the inhabitants of mother earth. Did the lives lost of so many flying men have bearing on the nation’s desire to come up with airborne weapons of destruction that could win wars while sparing lives?
I thought it interesting that three months after the war, the government was demonstrating a pilotless plane. To have built one ready for demonstration in November suggests the concept had been under experimentation long before the surrender, and likely there were expectations of arming them.
Nov. 9-10, 1945 — Pilotless plane shows war secret
The Army’s radio-controlled target plane, with its seven-man team from Fort Bragg to operate it, appears in Goldsboro Sunday at 4 o’clock p.m., at the municipal airport. The crew is known as RCAT Team No. 40 and will be headed by Lt. C.A. Tepper of the First Army Headquarters.
During the war the planes were one of the Army’s closest guarded secrets. The plane is 9 feet long and has a wing spread of 12 feet. There are no strings or invisible wires attached to it; it is strictly radio controlled. The plane weighs approximately 100 pounds and is driven by an eight horsepower two-cycle constant speed gasoline engine.
The team which operates the model plane from the ground is led by 1st Lt. Johnny E. Gambill. The team rolls out a 36-foot launching ramp onto the field and catapults the model target plane into the air and proceeds to put on a spectacular performance.
This robot plane can be controlled in its target maneuvers from the ground or by another plane following at some distance. In target work when a hit is scored, the plane is protected in its fall by an opening parachute and the observations made and repairs effected preliminary to further use in training.
The plane loops, spins, dives and zooms in “eerie maneuvers” under the controls of Lt. Gambill. Chairman John L. Henderson of the Wayne County Victory Loan campaign Saturday said the plane was being presented in Goldsboro as a Victory Loan feature on Armistice Day. Invitation to all the people of this area to witness the demonstration was extended by Mr. Henderson.
Could those early radio controlled models have proven the forerunner of today’s rockets, missiles and even the modem flying robots we call “Drones”?
Model plane flying enthusiasts may remember the day when flight was controlled by hand-held cables attached to the plane, limiting their capacity to flying in round-and-round circles. I know nothing about the sport but understand that method is still popular among some “flying” competitors.
I received an interesting email from a dedicated reader after he read last week’s column. Here it is, though I cannot verify his father’s claim: “I remember Dad talking about those young Seymour pilots who enjoyed practice buzzing the farmers’ fields and scaring their mules. Some farmers’ shotguns were standard equipment on their tobacco trucks. Were there any buckshot holes found in those crashed planes?”
Summary today’s column: five crashes, four deaths
Death certificate and pilot photo reference: Ancestry.com
Sherwood Williford writes a weekly column for the News-Argus. Contact him at 919-440-8811, Sherwoodowl@hotmail.com, or P.O. Box 175, Princeton, NC 27569.