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Hikes, research uncover the history of a World War II bomber crash
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The Hardest Walk

Hikes, research uncover the history of a World War II bomber crash

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Crash bomber public domain.jpg

A Consolidated B-24 Liberator from Maxwell Field, Alabama, glistens in the sun as it makes a turn at high altitude. This plane is similar to the one that crashed in McDowell County on June 13, 1944.

The Pratt and Whitney R-1830 Twin Wasp, 1,200-horsepower, 14-cylinder, radial engine was throttled back to its cruising speed of about 175 mph.

Along with three other identical engines across the 110-foot wingspan of the B-24E Liberator, performance was being produced as designed at the manufacturing plant in San Diego. The turbosupercharger waste gate “lollipop” handles on the left side of each throttle were set to bleed off excess gasses and prevent the turbo from over spinning.

The machinery was performing as anticipated.

The new, shorter ring cowlings on each engine of the “E” model permitted the use of the wider Hamilton-Standard 6477A-0, variable pitch, paddle blades. These new, more efficient, blades were adding to the overall performance of the aircraft. They were an improvement over the older “toothpick” blades of the earlier B-24 models.

Inside the cockpit, the instrument panel emitted a soft red glow. Behind and below the pilot and co-pilot, the navigator’s table lamp was on. Just enough light to see the flight charts. Outside, the running lights were lit but all else was dark.

The round robin navigation training flight from Chatham Field, Georgia, to Raleigh was headed home but it was off course. After recent thunderstorms, the clouds were scattered at 4,000 to 6,000 feet, but visibility was unrestricted.

Flying the heading of 270 degrees, the glow of wartime Asheville could be seen far ahead. Hopefully, that faint light would allow the pilot and navigator to re-orient themselves and get back on course and head for home. But the sky was dark, too dark, and the Blue Ridge was dark, too dark, and the B-24E, with a full crew, was low … too low.

A hard hit somewhere on the left wing. A tall tree? Sharp spin to the left. No control from the cockpit.

Impact! The craft plunged down the steep hillside, and then … oblivion. In that tiny moment of time, 10 souls, who never left the shores of the United States, added their names to those lost in World War II.

Is that exactly the way the final moments unfolded? Maybe. Maybe not. Everything else is based on actual accident reports for June 13, 1944.

On the Blue Ridge

This hike will be different from the other hikes we have shared. I’m not going to describe the trail or the countryside or what shoes to wear. For this article, I’m not even going to give you the exact location.

Instead, I want to describe for you what, unexpectedly, turned out to be one of the most difficult hikes I have undertaken.

The investigation

As an Appalachian child, I have, most of my life, heard of the warplane that crashed in McDowell County. Many, many years later, as an adult, and now a writer of trail articles, I thought this would make an interesting trail to explore. However, when I started trying to locate the accident using the usual internet sources, I found no evidence of such a crash.

Finally, I went back to the old method of investigation. I headed to the McDowell County Public Library. With the help of Patti Holda, who operates the Abe Simmons Genealogy & North Carolina History Room, we poured over page after page of microfiche photos of The McDowell News and Marion Observer, starting with issues from 1943. We searched each front-page article until we found the front page of The McDowell News dated June 15, 1944.

The very small article briefly described the loss of life and the approximate location of the accident site. There was no follow-up article. The sad truth was that the loss of a few lives and another air disaster just wasn’t that unusual at this stage of the war. The reading public was still reeling from the bold and expensive — in loss of lives — Normandy invasion just a week before.

The relatively tiny number of 10 men lost on a hillside in McDowell County fell far in the shadow of what would become more than 73,000 killed and missing at Normandy.

The 10 lives were, however, beginning to mean something to me. As a veteran, I feel the very least we can do to pay back those women and men who die in service to our country is to, whenever we can, know and make note of where they perished.

Armed with the exact date and approximate location of the crash, I was able to find other resources.

As it turns out, there is an Army Air Forces archeology group in Arizona that keeps records of AAF crashes. I was able to contact the group and get specific facts about the accident. Facts such as aircraft model number, date of accident, home base of the aircraft and other important locators.

With all this, there was still no exact location of the site but I was getting closer. I knew there would be an accident report of the crash. Armed with the new facts, I once again went to the archeology group in search of the report.

This time, success. A copy of the actual accident report, in its entirety, was sent to me. Now I had date, time, and possible reason for the crash. Still no exact location.

At the time of the crash, the investigators who were sent to the crash site were not familiar with McDowell County or even North Carolina for that matter. They just wanted to find and interview a few witnesses and move on to the next investigation. One account identified a witness as a resident of “Brook” Creek instead of Buck Creek.

Each item I read contained a lot of general information that was useless but almost every time I found some scrap of unique information that became a piece of the puzzle. I was able to compare these small notes and decide that I was on the right track and that the plane did, in fact, crash very close to where I had been told so many years ago.

The next step was to do an onsite search for clues. I called a group of my hiking buddies, we picked a date and time and headed into the woods.

CRASH hike photo.jpg

Tagging the site of the B-24 crash during one of the hikes are, left to right, Walt Bagwell, Steve Pierce, Dan Smith and Jim Williams.

The first hike

No way to sugarcoat it. It was cold. COVID-19 cases were on the rise. We had our faces covered, but it was more as protection from the cold than from fear of infection. We bundled up, put on our backpacks, and started out. We hoped we would see something that would tell us we were on the right track. At this point, my friends were hiking with me because I told them I felt there could be the possibility of finding something, although never recorded, never mentioned, and probably just folklore fueled by a few scattered facts that I may have misunderstood in the first place. In other words, they were hiking the steep and cold hills because they were my friends.

Thinking I had the site pinpointed, we headed to the most distant and, of course, the highest peak along the ridgeline. To get there, we hiked from one mountain top to another, following the ridges so we could stay oriented in the woods. We had to climb several peaks, then descend, then climb again. There was no trail to follow. Just straight up. Then straight down to the base of the next hill.

After about three hours of searching without the slightest clue, we decided to call it a day. Even at this point, my buddies were still positive about the outcome. I was not. It was beginning to look very much like a wild goose chase to me.

As we headed out of the woods, I did what all boys, who are fortunate to be able, should do with a problem. I called my dad.

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My dad, also Jim Williams, hunted in these woods in 1946. He was recovering from a wound he received on Iwo Jima when a Japanese wooden bullet went through the back of his leg, shattering the shinbone. More than 70 years later, he could still remember the then-fresh scar the bomber had left on the countryside.

He was on speaker phone. I told him where we thought we were. With no hesitation, he directed us to a spot he remembered even though he had not seen it in over 50 years. I’m not sure anyone believed his directions were correct, but he told us with such confidence that we, once again, packed up our gear and started for another location.

When we arrived, we knew almost immediately that we were at the site. I can’t quite describe it, but everyone seemed to feel the difference. The landscape matched the old photos from the accident report, and the tree growth was a little different. Whether that was real or imagined I’m not sure, but it was enough to make us drop our backpacks and start to look around.

Fate steps in

Hunting in the forest for any clue of an event that took place more than 70 years ago might be called by some as foolhardy at best, but there we were, six grown men in a little group, like wild turkeys, kicking and scratching on the ground.

My guess is that anytime you have a group of veteran hikers together, at least one of them will have a plastic bag to collect trash. It’s what all of us tend to do as stewardship for the land that we share. As our efforts to find an airplane looked fruitless, unfortunately, the trash collecting was going quite well. Plastic bottles and a few aluminum cans were filling the trash bag with little effort on our part.

Then one of the collectors found another piece of trash that looked a little different. We took some notice, but not much. I made a mental note to examine it before sending it off to city trash dump. It wasn’t as though we were Howard Carter entering the tomb of King Tut.

We finally left the site confident that we were at the right place but with no real proof that we were at the final resting place of the B-24E — or so we thought.

Verified

As I had planned, I foraged the unusual piece of “trash” from our collection of bottles and cans. It was just a rusty old piece of metal that could have been easily overlooked. The overall shape, although badly distorted, reminded me of one of those hose clamps that help attach the hose to the radiator of your car. It was bigger in circumference, but the shape was similar.

With a cotton swab and some rubbing alcohol, I started to remove the years of dirt and rust. Every so slight, a stamped part number began to appear. No doubt, it was military in composition and had some of the identifiers I was hoping to find.

I sent a photo of the metal piece along with the part number to the archeology group in Arizona.

The reply: “You have a part from a B-24E. It is shown in the parts manual.” Now it’s like Carter entering the tomb of King Tut!

Another call to the hiking group and we’re off for what will probably be our final step.

The second hike

The group gathered once more for another hike. We needed to confirm the longitude and latitude coordinates of the area where we found the piece of wreckage. This time we knew we were hiking on top of the crash site. I was impressed, moved actually, by the somber tone of the group. I have to admit, this time, when I saw the crash site, I felt a little heavy somewhere inside.

As we approached the site, the sky was the clear blue that only the high mountain air can reveal. The leafless trees were pristine in the sunlight. The clouds were below us causing the illusion of being on a deserted island in a white ocean.

Closer now to the final resting place of the war machine, the wind begins to stir, just enough to put a slight chill on our cheeks. The clouds begin to fill and climb up the hillside toward our location and surround us with fog moving silently through the trees. In my mind’s eye, at least I thought it was in my mind’s eye, I caught a fleeting image of 10 young men standing just inside the veil of the fog. Not solid but wispy, they were wearing baggy, olive drab, flight suits. Some were in leather jackets with fur collars. Some with skull caps, their chin straps open and hanging loose at the throat. They looked with a lost gaze at where the plane must have rested almost 77 years ago. Then … they were gone.

Back to the mission at hand. Our reason to be here today was to mark the longitude and latitude of the accident site. We wanted to be able to give as much information as possible to state and federal authorities so the site could be properly recognized and, perhaps, memorialized in some way. We moved to the location where we reckoned the “trash” was found. One of our group used a trail app to record the longitude and latitude coordinates of the location, and we were ready to head home.

As we left, there was an unplanned pause. It wasn’t organized but everyone stopped for a moment. I think it was to pay tribute to those who could have gone on to have productive lives and families. There could have been sons and daughters and grandchildren who, now, would never exist because of the sacrifice here on the hillside.

We never discussed the impromptu stop. It just happened but I think each of us shared something and, at the same time, experienced something deeply personal. This mission was now complete.

Where we are today

CRASH the crew (2).jpg

Among those hitting the woods to uncover the story of the crash were, from left, David Ricketts, Arvin Hicks, Walt Bagwell, Scott Hollifield, Jim Williams and Dan Smith. Veteran hiker Steve Pierce was not available for the photo that day.

We have recently completed our third hike to the area of the accident. This time we worked under the very capable direction of Scott Ashcraft, who is the archeologist for Pisgah National Forest. We used metal detectors to find and mark the locations of debris at the site. No artifacts were removed. Once the pieces were detected and flagged, we were able to stand back and, along with Scott, determine the impact area and the flow of the wreckage as the plane disintegrated.

crash ashcraft mug crop.jpg

Scott Ashcraft, US Forest Service

Even that scientific task proved to be somewhat daunting to those of us who were a little more emotionally invested than we might have thought. Standing on top of the steep hill, looking out on the many flags, each representing a part of the plane that carried 10 Americans to their death, was a sobering sight.

Scott will move forward with classifying the site so it will be identified and properly recorded.

We are working with Jeff Futch, regional supervisor of the Western Office of N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. Jeff will lead us into the final chapter. With his guidance, we will be placing a memorial marker. Probably along a well-traveled trail, to identify the approximate location of the crash.

We are looking into the placement of another remembrance marker at a public location. I hope to follow up with you in the near future with good news.

Final thoughts

It was, indeed, a privilege to be able to hike and share this experience with that group of “explorers” who encouraged me and who had faith, for some unknown reason, in the outcome of our journey together. You know who you are. Thank you.

A special thanks to my friend and aviation advisor on this article, retired Air Force Lt. Col. Kintner “Kit” Alverson, a veteran of 600 combat missions in Vietnam and recipient of three Distinguished Flying Crosses. It took several cups of coffee and many conversations on my front porch to decide we had something worth pursuing and not just mountain folklore. With his passing, I lost a friend, and the country lost a true patriot.

As I write this article, I try to think of what must have been in the thoughts of my dad as he, fresh from the war and an old man at 19, walked these hills. Now, I can’t help but think of another 19-year-old kid who was in the belly of that plane, and who, for whatever reason, decided to stand with his country in the face of a world war, and in so doing, sacrificed his life on an isolated hillside in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.

What a generation.

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