From the Sunday Republican, May 28, 1989
Lost airmen get final tribute
Boyhood discovery, curiosity led to monument at crash site
By STAN FREEMAN
The tail of the B-24 Liberator touched the trees first, clipping the tops of the tall pines which rose between it and the rock face of Mount Holyoke.
Just a few minutes out of Westover Field on a training mission and nearing midnight, the pilot struggled to get the plane's nose up. Just 75 more feet of altitude and they'd make it over the summit.
The four-engine bomber strained to escape the trees. But it couldn't. The tail snapped off. Then a wing. The bomber skidded and dragged through the tree tops for nearly 200 yards before it finally slammed headlong into the cliffside.
For the crew of 10, boys mostly in their early 20s, who had volunteered for Army Air Corps flight training for a chance to fly combat over Europe, death was instantaneous.
An explosion, a ball of flame, and on that May evening in 1944, World War II for them was over.
Machine gun cartridges exploding much of the night around the burning wreckage were their 21-gun salute.
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Yesterday, at the site of the crash on Mount Holyoke 45 years ago, a granite monument was dedicated to the memory of the crew that died there. Air Force and Army officers and an honor guard were joined by some 60 relatives of the dead airmen. They had come from as far away as Mississippi, Colorado, Virginia, Georgia and New Jersey.
The monument came to be largely because of a hike a young boy took on Mount Holyoke in 1958. Frank Tencza, who was born the year before the B-24 crashed, found twisted scraps of metal in a clearing while climbing a slope on the upper reaches of the mountain, something he quickly realized were the remains of an airplane.
"Beyond the excitement of coming across something so far out of my experience, I remember a feeling of wonderment and sadness that such an awful thing had happened in this gentle, quiet place," said the South Hadley native.
For Tencza, the scraps of weathered metal on that quiet scorched slope became something of a symbol, as they easily could for anyone trying to imagine war in times of peace. In the intervening 30 years, he hiked the mountain many times and returned to the crash site many times.
Ironically, Tencza went on to see combat himself, serving in Vietnam for a year and eventually returning to settle in Wilbraham.
But he continued to visit the Mount Holyoke crash site, sifting through what remained of the wreckage and scouring the mountainside for undiscovered fragments of the plane that might give him a clue about its identity. He asked people around South Hadley about it, "but all they could remember was that it was a big plane and it crashed at night, and it was during the war or maybe right after."
Then, last year, he found a piece of twisted, fire-blackened aluminum covered by dirt near the wreckage. Taking it home and washing it down, he saw faint lettering. Looking through an old gunner's manual, he came across a picture of the object. It was part of a fuse box for a tail turret of a type found only on a World War II B-24 Liberator bomber.
From that, he eventually was able to get a copy of the accident report of thcrash from the Air Force in Washington.
Life in 1944, apart from the concerns about the war, could have an easy pace in Western Massachusetts. And that was reflected in the daily newspapers of the war years.
Front pages on the eve of the Allied invasion of Normandy were blazoned with headlines and lead stories of the war. "Vienna Raided by U.S. Bombers." "300 Planes Hit French Coast." "Fliers Rip Behind the Atlantic Wall - 2,000 Planes Blast French, Belgian and Luxembourg Targets."
But down the page, the local news was less dramatic. "Grand Chapter of Order of the Eastern Star Elects Officers;" "Postmaster Pay Raise Attacked;" "Wastepaper Collections, Wards 4 and 5, Sunday;" and "Minors' Right to Hang Out in Liquor Places Deplored."
Betty O'Connell worked at Westover Field (as it was then named) during the war. She worked in supply, outfitting the aircrews of young men who were training in B-24s for combat in Europe.
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"It was my first job. I lived in Holyoke and worked at Westover, which was a city in itself," said O'Connell, who retired as Westover's base public affairs officer in 1982 and who still lives in Holyoke.
"We all felt patriotic that we were really doing something during the war. Everybody accepted that you had a brother or sister or father in the service, and you just felt you were a part of it. We all had our food stamps and our ration stamps for gasoline and tires and sugar. But I don't think we ever had the feeling that we, ourselves, were in danger, or that the enemy would be coming here.
"I used to write to as many servicemen as I could, and my mailman told me I got more mail man everyone on the street put together. Mostly they were fellows I met at Westover. We got to meet a lot of them and kept up a correspondence with them, 20 or 25 at a time," she said.
On most Saturday nights, she and her girlfriends had a ritual. They would go down to Sweeney's on High Street, then stop off at Red Shea's, two popular Holyoke night spots. "These places were standing room only. They always had live bands. You might have to walk a mile and a half home but you weren't afraid to do it in those days."
She said both places were filled with Westover servicemen on Saturday nights. "So many of them had that attitude that they were going to have a good time, no matter what. Drink and be merry. They weren't rowdy, though. They just liked parties, to have a good time.
"But I think underneath it, we had the feeling that here are these fellows going over there, so good-natured, nice young guys, and you wondered how many of them would not come back."
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The flight was to be a night-time training mission, one of the last scheduled for the crew and their B-24 before they departed for Europe. On this night, May 27, sandbag 'bombs' were to be dropped on Block Island, a frequent target for the bomber crews training at Westover. although the machine gun ammunition on board would be live.
The Liberator would carry a maximum load to give the crew experience in handling a fully weighted plane, something they would have to do on bombing missions over Europe.
The plane itself was imposing — a wingspan of 110 feet and an empty weight of more than 18 tons. With its full load of bombs and its 10 machine guns on board, it could still reach speeds of 290 miles per hour and had a range of 2,100 miles — easily enough for England to Berlin and back. It was one of the workhorses of the Army Air Corps.
These training missions were not without risk. B-24s out of Westover had gone down before in the area. One had crashed into a farmhouse in Granby. Another fell into a swamp in Belchertown. But relative to war losses in Europe — some 400 Allied bombers each month during the height of the air war over Europe in 1943-44 — training missions were relatively-safe.
The crew of 10, hailing mainly from the South and Midwest, were a team. They had trained together on this particular B-24. And as was the Air Corps' philosophy in training bomber crews, the crew would fly together as a unit in Europe, and would continue to fly the same B-24.
Most of the crew were in their early 20s. The 21-year-old pilot, Talbot Malcolm of Westfield, N.J.. spent a year at Harvard before he joined the Air Corps. His wife was two-months pregnant as he prepared for the flight that night.
Don Dowden, 25, the navigator, from Indianapolis, had been exempt from military duty because of his job in the aircraft industry, but he had volunteered for the Air Corps anyway. Bill Ashley, 20, of Ohio had washed out of pilot training and so had become a bombardier.
Wilburn Dechert, 21, the flight engineer, was the sole support of his family in Texas and was just on the verge of receiving a hardship discharge. Ronald Lloyd, 29, a gunner, had been bored by service in the Coast Guard and so had decided to transfer to the Air Corps.
The radio operator, Ambrose D.Griffith, 28, of Arlington, was to be married in June. As he tested his equipment that night, his fiancee was receiving the congratulations of friends at a prenuptial shower in Cambridge.
The assistant engineer and gunner, Kearney Padgett, 24, of Mississippi, was very religious and it was astonishing to his family that he should end up a gunner on a bomber.
The crew was rounded out by two Chicago natives, Arnold Anderson, 23. a gunner, and Robert Ohr. 20. the assistant radio operator.
Just before midnight, the B-24 prepared to lift off from Westover. But at the last minute, the control tower called it back. Austin Lemon, the crew's regular copilot, was told to give up his seat to John D. Logan from Kansas who needed some extra flying hours. So Lemon did.
Mount Holyoke was only six or seven miles from Westover. The plane was about 500 feet in the air and turning as it approached the summit.
The crash, when it came, was heard all over South Hadley. Some residents actually saw it. They heard the plane flying low, peered out windows and saw the plane struggling to gain altitude. But many others who heard the explosion and saw the flames on the mountaintop knew instantly what it was.
The B-24's path was evident from the tops of trees it sheared off and the trail of burning gasoline is left over the mountainside.
Fire departments of South Hadley and neighboring towns were immediately called to fight the blaze.
The next day's story of the tragedy in The Springfield Daily News said dozens of civilians also tried to reach the crash site.
"Gaining the summit of Mount Holyoke after terrific labors, the volunteer rescuers worked their way down the mountainside and about half a mile westward to the 25-foot cliff where the giant of the air had crashed. There was no doubt about their destination. An angry pillar of oiled-fed flames guided them.
"Their progress was impeded by the slippery ground and rocks, and the large amount of hurricane-felled timber. There was no aid to be given when the rescuers reached the scene. It was too late," the story said.
The pilot and navigator, Talbot and Dowden, and their wives had lived in apartments on Lyman Street in South Hadley, right across the street from each other.
Shirley Dowden didn't hear the crash but she was awakened by the sirens. She wasn't able to get back to sleep. So, just before dawn she walked across the street to see if Mary Faith Malcolm was up. The two wives were keeping each other company when the car cameout from Westover with the chaplain and officers. It was Austin Lemon, the co-pilot who had given up his seat, who broke the news to them.
It took the rescue teams well into the next day to bring all the airmen's bodies down off the mountain, and finally to quell the fire.
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Tencza said that to this day, there still are bits of metal, parts of the fuselage, melted into the rocks at the crash site. Although there are ashes and scorched earth in places, much of the area is now grown over with small pines and hemlocks.
It was never known what caused the plane to crash, whether there was any mechanical reason why the huge bomber had not gained sufficient altitude to clear the mountain. But Tencza said B-24s were not planes that allowed their crews much margin for error in their operation.
"These were young kids with very few hours comparatively, a couple of hundred hours, and these were complicated planes," he said. "They were carrying maximum loads that they would have to carry in war. So there wasn't much room for forgiveness.
"It's a sad thing," Tencza said. "These men were casualties of the war like those who were killed in combat in Europe or the Pacific. They should not be forgotten."