Today’s column concludes the series I’ve shared on the tragic losses recorded among pilot trainees at Seymour Johnson Field during World War II. I trust that as you read about these young men you were able to reflect upon them in a personal sort of way — that you have been able to some degree “feel” the grief shared by their loved ones.
After all, they died with full intentions of learning how to destroy an enemy whose sole aim was to destroy you and me and our way of life.
Should you have recollections of any of those crashes and would like to share your experience, I would love to hear from you. My contact information appears at the end of each column. — Sherwood
If military planes were crashing today at Seymour Johnson at the rate recorded during World War II, it would likely have prompted a congressional investigation.
On the other hand, winning the war was so urgent that pilots, many just boys, were being rushed through training schools at an accelerated pace.
It is possible that pilots responsible for the training may not have been among the best the military had even though one article suggested that most were war-tested seasoned pilots.
And since I was not in the hangers or on the flight line, my suppositions are speculative, but could some blame for those crashes be placed squarely on the shoulders of inept mechanics?
Well, despite the P-47’s faults, those propeller driven craft and their pilots proved, in the long run, to be sufficiently adept at getting the job done. Some have suggested the P-47 Thunderbolt was the most effective bomber of them all.
Nov. 11, 1945 — To probe cause of fatal crash near Mount Olive
Flight Officer Lester W. Tinnes, 22, husband of Mrs. Wilma Ross Tinnes, Keota, Iowa, was instantly killed Wednesday morning when the single engine fighter plane he was piloting crashed near Mount Olive, during a routine mission.
Officer Tinnes entered the service at Keota in April 1943, becoming a pilot in November 1944. He was transferred to Seymour Johnson Field from Bluethenthal Field, Wilmington, on July 15 of this year.
A board of qualified Army Air Forces officers has been appointed to determine the exact cause of the crash.
Officer Tinnes’ death certificate gives immediate cause of death: complete mutilation of body.
For the record, the last account I’ve read of a P-47 crash in which the pilot was killed occurred when an experienced flier, 56-year-old Bill Gordon, crashed into the Hudson River in May 2016. In part, the report read:
“The pilot of a World War II plane was killed after his aircraft crashed into the Hudson River. The single-seater P-47 Thunderbolt began smoking and listing to one side as it buzzed over the water and went down just south of the Edgewater Marina in Edgewater, N.J., around 7:30 p.m., witnesses said. Others said it sounded like the plane was having engine trouble just before it nosedived into the river.” Source: New York Daily News.
Four years after WWII ended, Air Force heavy-duty bombers continued to fall at an alarming rate.
Nov. 18, 1949 — Sixth B-29 lost in past 15-day period
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — A B-29 crashed Friday while starting to join the search for the missing B-29 off Bermuda. Five crewmen were killed, four injured. One of the motors developed trouble when the aircraft reached 1,000 foot altitude five minutes after taking off from MacDill Air Force Base. Smoke poured from the engine, then flames.
The pilot tried to make it back to the long runway and was within 500 feet of safety when the Superfort plunged into the mud and slime off Tampa Bay. The tide was out in the bay. It struck 200 feet from shore. Four of the crewmen were thrown clear. Although dazed, they walked away from the scene. Four were killed instantly and one died on the way to a hospital. The ship was shattered into small bits. Only a big tailpiece was recognizable. Flames burst from the wreckage.
The waters near Bermuda were the scene of another B-29 crash Nov. 3. The ship, crippled by engine trouble, fell into the Atlantic Ocean. Ten of its crew died. Three survived.
On Armistice Day, a B-29 out of control fell on a farm west of Indianapolis. All of its 12 crewmen parachuted from the disabled plane, but two of them were killed. Five days later, two B-29 Superfortresses on a training flight collided in the air 5 miles above Stockton, Calif. In this disaster, 18 were killed. Three parachuted to safety.
(An alarming total of 35 good men perished in that series of crashes. One report offers these startling facts: 276,000 planes were manufactured in the United States. 43,000 were lost overseas, including 23,000 in combat. 14,000 were lost in the continental United States.) Source: Spitfire Association.
As with the story above, a reprint of the following crash out of Seymour Johnson Air Force Base certainly does not fall within the World War II time frame, but is one that will likely bring back memories to many folks around Fremont.
The T-33 was a primary pilot trainer used at Seymour some nine years after the base reopened. (The Field had been closed for a few years after World War II.) The T-33 proved to be one of the most proficient pilot trainers ever designed. Many of those trained pilots would go on to fly countless missions over Vietnam).
March 14, 1961 — AF Pilot survives fiery crash of T-33 on farm near Fremont;
‘Lucky,’ says captain who couldn’t eject
FREMONT – A veteran Air Force pilot rode his crippled jet trainer to a fiery crash Monday night and lived.
“Gee, I’m really lucky,” Capt. J.G. Petit said again and again in the emotional aftermath of the crash on a farm 3 miles east of Fremont near N.C. 222. Capt. Petit’s plane went down less than 5 miles from where a B-52G jet bomber crashed, killing three men on Jan. 24.
When medical personnel removed the captain’s orange flight suit to treat a broken leg, his only serious injury, the 40-year-old pilot asked for his rosary, which was in a pocket of the suit.
“I was working outside when the plane came over,” said Calvin Owens, who lives about one mile from the crash scene. “I knew it seemed to be running very quiet, but I didn’t pay much attention to it at the time.
“But a little later I heard an explosion and the whole area lit up from the flames. I knew then the plane had crashed,” Owens said.
Harvey Sullivan, who lives on the farm, said he did not see the plane when it fell, but he did see the explosion. “At first I thought it might be someone dynamiting stumps, but when I saw the flames I knew it was another plane. I ran out to see if anyone was hurt,” he said.
Two rural volunteer fire departments went to the scene but were not needed. Members of Antioch and Saulston fire departments said the Air Force had everything under control when they arrived.
Capt. Petit’s T-33 jet flamed out at 11,500 feet on takeoff from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base for a return flight to Griffiss AFB, N.Y., where he is assigned to the 49th Fighter Interceptor Squadron.
“He tried the regulation four to six air starts with no luck,” said Capt. Jerry Holland, Air Force public information officer who talked with Petit before he was put under sedation.
“He popped his canopy and pulled up the safety levers on his seat and grabbed the triggers, but the seat wouldn’t eject.”
So Petit, a veteran of 4,600 flying hours, was forced to ride it down. The trainer clipped some trees and came in for a flag-angle crash in a 40-50 acre plowed field about 15 miles from Seymour Johnson.
“I got out and hippity-hopped away from the plane,” Petit told Holland, and the cockpit burst into flames. Three civilians met the injured pilot and helped him away.
The three, Frank and Henry Cuddington and Jesse Tucker, then took Petit to Seymour Johnson.
Capt. Holland said that in the minutes just before the crash Petit was too busy with emergency routine — radio calls to the base, restart attempts, ejection procedure — to think much about his prospects of surviving.
“He remembers hitting the timber,” Holland added.
But by the time Petit had reached the base hospital, the significance of his experience came home to him. He was talkative, nervous chain-smoking, happy and grateful, Holland said. The pilot was concerned too, about his wife and two children in Rome, N.Y.
Two Air Force flying safety officers, themselves veteran pilots, who went to the crash scene expressed amazement that Petit got out alive. The wings of the jet were ripped off, and the fire seemed to have been concentrated around the cockpit.
“Call it luck, God or skill — or a combination of all three,” Holland said.
A fire chief at the crash site said Petit “couldn’t have picked a better place to crash.” The big plowed field is in an 80-90-acre cleared area of a farm owned by Oscar Turlington. Woods surround the area.
“He hit about 500 to 600 yards from the closest building,” Turlington said. “There was no livestock or anything to be damaged.”
Petit came down only 5 miles from where an eight-jet bomber from Seymour Johnson crashed last Jan 24 with a nuclear device aboard. Three crewmen died in that crash, and the Air Force still is digging for a portion of the nuclear device, which it describes as not dangerous.
Summary this column, WW II era: one crash and one death. Grand total for all six World War II SJF columns: 27 crashes and 25 deaths.
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.
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.