November 18, 2013
A HIKE TO A LONG AGO PLANE CRASH
NORTH WOODSTOCK, NH – Fewer and fewer people are now alive who remember the rank anxiety that gripped the United States at the beginning of 1942. Just before Christmas in 1941, planes and submarines of the Japanese navy had attacked Pearl Harbor. Four days later, Germany and its ally Italy, who judged (mistakenly, as it turned out) that Japan would make short work of the United States and would then help Germany defeat the Soviet Union, also declared war on us. Suddenly our two oceans didn’t seem the barrier to attack they had been.
After the surprise at Pearl Harbor, no threat seemed unlikely. German submarines were active just off the coast of New England, sinking shipments of food and materiel to Great Britain and the Soviets. The Office of Civil Defense began installing wailing air raid warning sirens on tall buildings and appointing neighborhood air raid wardens; radio spots urged us to keep our mouths shut in public and report anything suspicious; “The Fifth Column,” those among us whom we imagined to be working to betray us, became a national obsession.
It was against this backdrop that an Army Air Force B18A bomber took off from Westover Air Force Base on January 14 for an antisubmarine patrol down the Atlantic coast to the vicinity of Newfoundland and back. The B18, a military version of the Douglas DC2, was already on the verge of obsolescence in 1942, and was soon to be replaced by faster and better-armed bombers; but its slow cruising speed was an advantage in antisubmarine warfare. It carried, on this mission, 300-pound bombs. If it had an Achilles heel, it was probably its crew: A pickup group of men trained in the faster, larger, and better equipped B24, they were not old crewmates. And, though it may be difficult to appreciate now, they were what we would call kids. The combination of the threat of war and the romance of flight had drawn thousands of young men, many just out of high school, into combat flight responsibilities.
A group of us gathered this morning at the beginning of the trail to the wreckage marking the end of that ill-fated mid-January flight. Besides the film crew of Steve and Phil, we had the family – father, mother, and two young boys – that had won this year’s “A Day with the Crew” auction, and Sarah, a National Forest Service archeologist and site interpreter. The wreckage is on federal land, and there’s no official trail to it, in an effort to preserve it from degradation – for some reason, a lot of people seem to want a piece of charred aluminum or an ancient spark plug as a memento – and part of her job was to remind us of that. The site is a memorial to the young airmen who died there long ago.
There was a bit of snow on the ground at the start of our climb, promising more farther up – the trail climbs an impressive 1100 feet in just over half a mile – so I tucked my studded creepers into my pack, a very wise act, as it turned out.
As the bomber droned back toward Massachusetts on that dark January evening, it ran into heavy winds and snow squalls. The navigator had no way to measure the plane’s drift and was now dictating the course by dead reckoning. It’s hard for us to imagine now, with our advanced radar, global positioning devices, and satellite communications, how difficult it was then. The old maxim was, that if you didn’t know where you were, it was impossible to know how to get to where you wanted to go. Through a break in the clouds, the crew spotted the lights of a city. Providence, Rhode Island, the navigator reckoned, and set a course for Westover. But the city they saw was Concord, New Hampshire, and they were now headed toward the White Mountains. When the wings began icing, the pilot dropped down to 3800 feet, below the level of the unsuspected peaks.
Francianna Huot of North Woodstock stepped onto her porch and heard a roar overhead. Looking up, she briefly saw an American bomber – the old marking was a white star in a blue circle with a red “meatball” in the middle of the star – and a few minutes later heard the concussion of the crash. Everybody in town heard it, and then two more explosions. After several hurried phone calls, rescue teams began to assemble for the trek up the mountain toward the bright flames.
I tried to imagine, as I struggled up the steep path toward the wreck, what it was like for the first rescue party to do that in a snowstorm in the dark, with one flashlight and a kerosene lantern among them, through a couple of feet of snow, and hindered by the jackstrawed timber felled by the Hurricane of 1938. They shouted as they climbed, heard finally some faint cries for help, and met three injured men, in bloody flight suits and suffering from shock, straggling down the mountain toward the lights they’d spotted in the valley. Some rescuers guided them down toward the next parties, which had toboggans and first aid equipment, and the rest continued up to the blaze, where they found two more men alive. Two men were trapped and dead in the fiery wreckage.
Sarah’s GPS gave us on demand the distance to the site. In my head, I looked at the slope and calculated instead the hypotenuse: The 500 yards on the GPS translated to about 700 yards of climbing. But at length we came to a large radial engine and spotted above us the flash of an American flag. The plane’s copilot had at the last moment tried to raise its nose, and turned hard right, so that, instead of slamming headfirst into the slope, it had plowed at a low angle into the birch forest, scattering parts everywhere, but preserving a few lives.
There are now a pair of memorial plaques there, and a dozen or so tiny American flags stuck into the soil. We ate our sandwiches in the snow, amid somber memories of a long-ago war.