Some of the most vivid memories of any army airfield were its aircraft accidents. The fast pace of the training environment in the United States produced pilots and crews at a rate that is unthinkable by today’s standards. As these pilots and planes were rushed through the paces of combat training, sometimes things went wrong. There were thousands of aircraft accidents with thousands aircrew killed in training accidents in the continent United States during the war.
The local communities rarely got a close-up view of the Army’s airplanes. They were rattled daily by the roar of aircraft engines overhead, but only observed them from the ground, since the bases were closed to the public. When an airplane crashed off of an airbase, it was often the first time people had seen one on the ground and the first time to see a part of the war close up.
Millville got a rude awakening from the very beginning. The airport was still under construction and still accessible to the public, when the first army planes arrived from Philadelphia in May 1942. Men and planes of the 59th Fighter Squadron came to checkout new pilots in the P-40F. Army planes were new to the people of Cumberland County, and many people flocked to the airport to watch. There were several minor landing accidents, as you might expect with new pilots, but on the last day of their visit, a serious accident occurred.
2LT Edward L. Jett was landing after a formation training flight. His airplane rolled off the runway and went about 100 feet to the right into construction area. As workmen ran for cover, the plane hit a ditch and two trucks. Guiseppi Ricciuto, an Italian immigrant and employee of the C.T. Burkett Company, had been working on the airfield drainage system. He was killed instantly when hit by the wing and thrown 75 feet. When the investigation was completed, the unit packed up and returned to Philadelphia. It would be nearly a year before Millville would see the return of army planes, but this event would never be forgotten.
The people South Jersey quickly grew accustomed to the sound and sights of the Army Air Corps. Training flights from Philadelphia Municipal Airport where routinely conducted over their communities, and there were a number of accidents in New Jersey.
On August 3rd, 1942, 2LT John S. Smith was killed when his P-40 dove into the ground in Westville.
A similar fatal accident occurred on September 9th when 2LT John P. Heck crashed in Burlington.
Lieutenants Haskel Arterburn and Richard T. Conley jumped from their planes over Hopewell Township on October 1st after a collision in flight. There were also several crash landings, including one piloted by 2LT Albert A. Alenius on Millville Airport on December 2nd.
In February 1943, the Millville Army Air Base opened as a P-47 gunnery school for the Philadelphia Fighter Wing, and airplanes became be a part of daily life in Cumberland County. In the following three years, there were nearly 200 accidents on and around the air base, but very few were released to the public. During the war, newspapers were not permitted to mention anything about a crash or any other military activities, until it was released by the base, which rarely happened.
After the initial response and clean up of an aircraft accident, a great number of administrative tasks had to be accomplished, depending on the severity of the accident. The first order of business is to notify the Office of Flying Safety in Winston-Salem, North Carolina by radio. They assigned a control number to the accident and awaited the final report. The base then notified next of kin, in the case of a fatal accident. If there were a news release, it would be given at this point, but usually only on the most severe or visible accidents. Then came the investigation, normally immediately after the accident. A board of officers was appointed to collect all information regarding the accident, and determined a cause or possible cause. The completed report was sent to the Office of Flying Safety, where it was reviewed for corrective action needed and filed for reference and statistics.
The AAF categorized the most common accidents in the following types: collision in flight with another aircraft, collision in flight with object other than aircraft, spin/stall, forced landing, landing accident, take-off accident, taxiing accident, fire in flight, fire on the ground, and structural failure.
The first major accident of Millville AAB was on April 6, 1943. F/O Francis L. Edwards (351FS) developed an engine fire during a camera gunnery mission over Atlantic County. He tried to make a nearby field, but the heat and flames forced him to jump near Germania. He was hospitalized for several months with severe burns. It was followed by the first fatal accident on April 17th, when 2LT Morgan J. Barton (352FS) lost control during an instrument training flight and spun into Barnegat Bay.
Barton’s P-47 in Barnegat Bay
The first major accident in the Millville area occurred April 23rd, when 2LT Leslie P. Cles and 2LT Gordon Burlingame, both of the 352FS, collided during a dogfight. Burlingame’s plane suffered only minor damage and he landed safely at the field after cutting off the tail of the other plane. Cles described his escape: “After the collision, my ship went into a right spin. The spin was violent with oscillation of the nose. Soon it went out of that spin and went into one to the left. When it came out momentarily, I cut the throttle and made an attempt to control this ship, but found the stick frozen in the rear position. The plane went into a slow flat spin. I then opened the canopy and unfastened my safely belt. I left on the left side, which was the inside of the spin. I slowly slid the length of the wing and fell clear of the ship.”
On May 14th, 2LT Emory E. Bagwell (354FS) crashed in the marshes along the Maurice River following engine failure after take-off. The plane broke into four pieces and came to rest in wetlands. The guards sent by the army to watch the plane stayed on the nearest land, which was about 200 yards east of the plane. Some local teenagers managed to avoid the guards and get some “souvenirs” including the radio. As they sat in school the following day, an army jeep pulled up. They were removed from school and strongly scolded. They were given a brief tour of the base after they returned the radio.
2LT James D. Grey (365FS) crashed just short of the Woodbine NAAS on June 5th. He was trying to make an emergency landing, but couldn’t make the field. He saw a house in his path, turned to the right, tore a wing off on a tree, and stopped in a plowed field.
On June 26th, a F/O William M. Bell Jr (366FS) made a crash landing near Carmel after engine problems.
2LT Robert R. Meyer (376FS) jumped from his plane after an in-flight fire on August 12th. The plane dove straight down from about 8500 feet and made a big crater just east of the field. By the end of the summer, the base
totaled 68 accidents and lost only one pilot.
That record ended in October when two 365FG pilots were killed five days apart. 2LT John D. Rumbaugh (388FS) was flying the tow ship for an aerial gunnery mission on October 18th. He called the flight leader and said he had to make an emergency landing, but never said the nature of the problem. Rumbaugh proceeded to Atlantic City Municipal Airport and attempted to land with the target. As he approached, the target was torn off on a playground across the stream of water adjoining the field. His approach appeared to be perfect. About one quarter the length of the runway, the ship turned to the right and started to pull up sharply. The ship stalled on the turn, dove into the ground and exploded.the field. By the end of the summer, the base totaled 68 accidents and lost only one pilot.
Several days later, on October 23rd, 2LT James F. Thompson was firing on Ground Gunnery Range B. He made his first pass on the target and started his pull up. His plane rolled to the right, then upside down, and dove into the ground. The plane exploded on impact throwing wreckage for 300 feet. The crash was ruled “undetermined” but the investigators suspected either the prop-wash of the previous plane or the right ammo bay door came open in flight.
Parts from Thompson’s Propeller found in 1984
As the year ended, the last of the squadrons prepared for movement overseas and Millville AAF prepared to change its mission to Replacement Training Units. The last accident involving the Operational Training Units occurred on Christmas Day. Two mechanics were running up the engine of a P-47 and found it idling too fast. Sergeant Peter Wojteszek explained “While on the wing adjusting the idle, I noticed a glow and when I turned around it looked like the supercharger was burning. I pushed the throttle forward to blow it out and instead of doing this it flamed up higher, so we cut the engine by pulling the throttle and mixture controls back and turned off the switches and fuel. Then I got off the wing and took a fire extinguisher and tried to put it out.” The airplane had vented fuel on the fire and was destroyed.
The New Year brought new types of training and many more accidents. The year of 1944 holds the all time record of accidents for the Army Air Forces. That spring it was not unusual to have over a hundred accidents on a single day. Millville was no exception. There was a drastic increase in accidents and losses of men and planes.
On February 8th, 2LT Robert G. Derwent was killed in take-off accident. He was number three of a flight of four ships taking off for an aerial gunnery mission. He made a normal take-off and went straight ahead. At about 300 feet, the ship started to make a flat turn to the left. It then spun to the left, crashed, and burned. An inspection of the wreckage revealed that the propeller governor linkage was disconnected causing a sudden change in propeller pitch.
On April 2nd, Captain Harold H. Crossley, a seasoned veteran of the North Africa and instructor, drowned in the Atlantic Ocean. Crossley led a flight of five P-47s on an aerial gunnery mission on the Atlantic City Range. During the mission, he was seen jumping from a flaming plane. He was burned, but landed safely in the ocean and his flight radioed for help. The Atlantic City NAS crash boat left shore 40 minutes later. He was dead when pulled from the ocean.
Damaged Home in Absecon Highlands, NJ
2LT Paul A Ziegler attempted to make an emergency landing at Atlantic City NAS on April 8th. His engine cut out about 5 miles short of the runway and he crashed into a house in Absecon Highlands, injuring two people in the house. Sylvia Smolowitz, one of the injured, described what happened: “Mother and I were in the kitchen and I was just going to the steps to go upstairs when I heard a loud crash and everything started falling on top of me. I was knocked down and dazed. I was trapped in there with my mother lying down next to me. Then the pilot came in; he with my father and myself, got my mother out.”
2LT Charles M. Weber died on May 23rd when his P-47 crashed on Ground Gunnery Range B. Weber was number six man of a flight of six aircraft firing on the scoring range. He made four dry passes and, on the fifth pass, flew directly into the target. The ship knocked down the target, struck the ground, and exploded.
On July 12th, 2LT Earle Hepburn, Jr. crashed on landing after a tow target mission. After three attempts to drop the target, Hepburn was approaching the field to land with it. He approached runway 22 at about 400 feet where witnesses saw smoke and flame coming from the engine cowl and exhaust ports. The engine backfired several times as the plane rolled to the left, over on its back, and inverted into the trees. It hit the ground, exploded, and burned.
Another fatal accident killed F/O John F. Driskill on July 26th. Driskill was on a night formation flight in the number two position. In the vicinity of Trenton, he slid away from the formation and started a series of dives and recoveries. The flight leader made several attempts to contact him, but with no response. The dives continued until the ship hit the ground and exploded near Mercerville.
Aerial gunnery was a major part of the training, and a major source of accidents. A pilot would fire on the target and collide with it as he made his pass, or the target would break loose in the path of the plane. The stiffening bar of the target was about four feet long with a metal weight at the bottom. This allowed the target to remain upright in flight.
Collisions with this bar usually caused only minor damage, but on August 11th, a flight leader received major injuries. 2LT Richard V. Finch hit the target in flight at 270 mph. The target weight grazed the propeller, went through the windscreen, and struck the pilot in the left shoulder. He was hospitalized for about four weeks. There were five P-47 pilots killed in accidents like this throughout the United States during the war, one of which was a pilot from Dover AAF who crashed into the ocean off of New Jersey.
Another accident at Millville is much different from the others. On September 23rd, 2LT Andrew J. Easterwood was killed in a crash in the Atlantic Ocean. Easterwood was the number three man of a flight of five aircraft on an aerial gunnery mission. On his fifth or sixth pass at the target, his aircraft apparently hit the target cable and began a slow roll to the right. The ship continued forward, rolled on its back and started a spiral to the right. The aircraft crashed into the ocean and was never recovered. Easterwood’s aircraft crashed as the result of hitting the ¼ inch cable and not the stabilizing bar.
2LT Asa W. Shuler, one of Easterwood’s closest friends, thought otherwise. Shuler had been in pilot training with Easterwood and reported to Millville at the same time. When attending his memorial service in Alabama, Shuler mentioned to a family member that he thought that Easterwood had been shot down. This would have been impossible based on the information in the accident report. All of the airplanes in the flight had fired all of their ammunition, but that same report fails to address possible defects in the airplane and health issues. We can only speculate about the cause of this unusual accident, as Shuler was killed in action in France.
The accidents dropped off during the fall off 1944. Only one aircraft was lost during the October-November time period. On November 8th, 2LT Norman Bachman hit the surface of the water and crashed into the Delaware Bay. The formation-training mission took his flight near the shoreline just off Milford, Delaware. The throttle stuck and, while his attention was directed to the throttle, he hit the water tearing off all four propeller blades. The plane skipped over the water tail first and came to rest wheels and flaps up in the shallow salt water. Bachman climbed out, inflated his dinghy and was later picked up by authorities from Dover AAF.
Two more planes were lost on December 1st in another mid-air collision. The flight was returning from an aerial gunnery mission and was killing time to meet the landing schedule. They moved to a string formation and began a Luftbury Circle. F/O Eugene F. Palmer was number four man, and 2LT Joseph N. Fox was the number five man of the formation. Palmer was unable to hold his position and falling back, as the flight leader was closing in on Fox, who tried to cut ahead of Palmer in the turn. Palmer’s plane cut the entire tail from Fox’s plane. Palmer explained the collision “The ships ahead of me were leveling out from the turn and I was almost leveled out when an aircraft came up from underneath and my propeller cut his tail plane off. My engine started vibrating quite badly and smoking. A few seconds later, flames started coming out from the engine. I unhooked my harness, opened the canopy and jumped.” Both aircraft crashed about 7½ miles southeast of Mays Landing. Palmer’s plane crashed into a swamp and was abandoned where the wreckage was discovered in 1994.
Bullets and parts from Morrison’s P-47D
Another pilot lost his life on December 22nd. F/O Ceylon R. Morrison was scheduled for an aerial gunnery mission, but his engine failed right after take-off. He was diving into Union Lake in Millville and managed to restart the engine just above the water. He turned to the right, stalled into the ice-covered lake, and hit a sandbar about 3½ feet deep. The plane was dragged out several days later, leaving behind many parts, which were discovered in the 1980s.
The next major accident occurred on February 4th, 1945. A flight of P-47s was returning from an aerial gunnery mission, which took them just north of the Wildwood NAS. They encountered some Navy F4U Corsairs and proceeded to dogfight with them. This practice was routine, but strongly condemned by both the Army and Navy. The official records make no mention of the Navy planes, but witnesses on the ground observed the entire event. They claim that the plane began to smoke during a high-speed maneuver with the Corsairs. Officially, the pilot noticed smoke coming from the engine while over the coastline and headed for Wildwood NAS to make an emergency landing. 2LT Marion B. Hayes said in his statement “I headed for Wildwood Navy Field and as I passed over the coast, I could see smoke coming from the engine. I checked all engine instruments and as far as I could remember they were within green limits. About one mile from Wildwood, some oil was thrown on the windscreen. At this time the smoke looked too bad for a forced landing and my flight leader instructed me to bail out. I rolled the ship upside down in a stall and dropped out. My right leg hit the tail and was cut slightly. Several seconds later the chute opened.”
2LT Henry A. Jones was involved in an accident during a ground gunnery mission on March 13th. “I was flying number three position in a flight led by Captain Keith. The number four man was late in taking off, so we proceeded to the ground strafing range as a three ship flight and made a dry run on the target. Number four joined on before we made the next pass and was behind me. As I turned on approach to the target, I decided I was too close to the number two man to fire on the target, so I moved out to the left a little. I started on a dry run, and immediately as I started to pull up from the target, the engine seemed to lose all power. At about the same instant, the airplane seemed to be mushing in a very nose high attitude and went into the trees, which must have knocked off the tail assembly, or at least the elevators because there was no vertical control. The plane went up into the air momentarily and started down in a steep dive.
When it finally stopped, I was still conscious and was attempting to get out, as fire was all around the plane. I had to unfasten the safety belt and unsnap my parachute and dingy strap, before I could get out. I managed to free myself and proceeded to get away from the plane as fast as possible. My head was bleeding freely, so I folded my handkerchief up into a pad and put it over the cuts on my head. Then I put my helmet back on to put pressure on the wound. I proceeded to the strafing area which seemed to be a block or more away. I attempted to signal the airplanes firing but failed to do so.
The three airplanes in my flight continued making passes until their ammunition was gone, then another four ship flight came over and started making passes at the targets. I had been circling my Mae West around over my head trying to attract attention, but with no results. I knew they did not miss me yet because the other ships came in to fire. By this time I had walked down to the road which runs across the range and I stayed there until the four ships left, all this time I was circling my Mae West over my head.
When the four ship left the range, I decided that I should start walking, so I proceeded West up the road. I went about three blocks when I noticed a single ship circling the range and thought that maybe he could be looking for me so I walked back. About that time, I got to the clearing the plane had left, so I started back up the road. All the time that the ships were firing on the range, there was a cloud of thick black smoke coming up where I crashed and the planes had to fly by it on their pattern. After I had walked up the road for some distance, I saw the red flashing light of the crash truck coming down the road.”
Wreckage of P-47G 42-25129 in swamp near Cedarville, NJ
The worst accident of Millville AAF was a mid-air collision on May 2nd in which two pilots were killed. 2LT Lee L. Pryor Jr. and 2Lt William D. Slater were part of the three ship combined aerial gunnery and skip bombing mission. After take-off they proceeded to the skip bombing range to accomplish the first part of the mission. Pryor was number two in the flight and Slater number 3. They made one pass over the target and while in the base leg of the second pass, Slater lost sight of his front man, who had his downwind base leg out further than necessary. Slater turned inside of him, and the ships collided in the turn at 1000 feet. Another pilot described the collision “I was firing on Range A and I just pulled up from making a dry pass when I saw two planes collide. The first burst into flames and went down in several pieces. The second plane went straight down completely out of control.”
Another crash on May 14th took the life of 2Lt William E. Canniff. In which a four-ship flight was flying a chemical spray mission over the Delaware Bay. The flight leader was not satisfied with the first run and decided to initiate a new run. About that time, he noticed smoke on the water and pieces on Canniff’s plane sinking below the surface of the bay. There were no witnesses to the crash, but the investigators believed that the added weight of the full spray tank combined with his flying technique may have caused a stall or loss of altitude and collision with the water.
Following Germany’s surrender, the training and accidents were reduced dramatically. Millville’s excess planes were ferried to other parts of the country, several of which crashed in other states. 1LT George S. Fitch of ATC was killed in a crash in Greenwich, Connecticut on July 2nd.
Several accidents at Millville that summer should be mentioned.
On August 17th, Brigadier General Hawkins, the Commander of First Air Force, landed on the field in a B-25. The official report indicates that the landing gear collapsed due to material failure, but it was a very common error to pull up the landing gear, instead of the flaps.
Captain Robert J. Burns crashed on September 20th, which his words best explain: “I approached runway 30 with three other ships. While in the turn from my base leg of the landing pattern, my left foot became wedged between the rudder pedal and the foot guide on the floor board section. This made me unable to apply opposite rudder to recover from the turn, thus enticing a roll to the left. I applied throttle to aid my recover but the engine sputtered and did not catch until just before the aircraft hit the ground. During this time I tried to jerk my left foot out of the shoe and did so just before contact with the ground.”
The last P-47 accident and last fatal accident occurred sadly after the war was over. It happened on September 24th at 1610 “Eastern Peace Time”. 1Lt William S. Malone was part of a six-ship flight firing on Ground Scoring Range A. He failed to recover from his third pass a collided with the terrain behind the targets. The aircraft exploded and was scattered over a wide area. The flight leader described the crash, “Lieutenant Malone was firing on target number five, hit the ground directly behind the target, and at this time his ship was enveloped in flames. It was apparent that he had initiated his pull-out too late and bellied his ship into the ground.”
In the twilight days of the Millville AAF, there was one last accident. An A-26 from Myrtle Beach AAF was caught in bad weather on October 2nd and made an emergency landing. The pilot was unable to stop the plane, and it ran 200 yards off the end of runway 9 into the woods.
The Millville AAF closed in October 1945 with the loss of 14 lives. That loss could never be justified, but the investigations of those accidents and others and the corrective actions that followed, contributed to the overall decrease in accidents and many of the flying safety practices of today. You might say that the sacrifices of these men helped to establish the rules that help save lives every day.