PEAKS OF OTTER — Nearly 80 years ago, on a cold winter’s night in February 1943, five young men from around the country were flying north over Southside Virginia, training for war in a U.S. Army Air Corps B-25D twin-engine bomber. No doubt they were looking forward to returning to their base in Columbia, S.C., for some rest and a hot meal, anticipating combat in Europe or the Pacific as America entered its third year of war. But that night, their military service ended in violent death not over a foreign land, but in the Virginia mountains.
Only a few years before, they’d been young civilians preparing for the rest of their lives. Now, the 20-somethings were inside a powerful aluminum, glass and steel machine they’d learned to fly only the previous year, roaring through the night sky, lost, too low, headed northwest instead of north. They were due to turn back toward South Carolina at Lynchburg. As they passed over Bedford city around 9:15 p.m. and hurtled toward Sharp Top, one of the Peaks of Otter, visibility was likely nil. Their B-25 struck the mountain with such force that one of the engines partially melted. “The wreckage reported a scene of horror not often witnessed,” reported the Bedford Bulletin the next day. Only one of the bodies was identifiable. In combat, the B-25 would have been bristling with machine guns and carrying 3,000 pounds of bombs, but this flight was apparently unarmed.
Part of an engine, the rear of the fuselage, and the remainder of a wing bear witness to the deaths on a remote portion of the mountainside. Most of the airframe was aluminum, which doesn’t rust, and smaller pieces are strewn around the nearby woods, only visible after the green undergrowth dies back. The crash site is commemorated with a fine plaque, bearing the five fliers’ names and bolted to a nearby boulder. In 2001, the same year the plaque was erected by volunteers from Bedford County, the General Assembly passed a joint resolution memorializing the crew and declaring each Feb. 2 as Forgotten Airmen Day in Bedford County.
In the latest tribute, a group of Lynchburg hikers ventured down a mostly unmarked path Wednesday and placed five handmade bouquets of evergreen and holly under the plaque. Hiker John Welker was inspired by Wreaths Across America, started in the 1990s by a Maine wreath company owner who wanted to find a use for surplus holiday wreaths. Originally associated primarily with Arlington National Cemetery, it has expanded across the country with more than 3,100 locations participating this year on National Wreaths Across America Day Saturday, Dec. 18.
I’m one of the hikers, the BG Hilltrippers, a group of mostly-retired friends who trek together in various combinations every Wednesday. Named for our founder Billy Giles, we’ve gone up and down and around the Blue Ridge Mountains from Daleville to Montebello and most points in between. This was at least our third trip to the crash site.
The Sharp Top casualties included:
2nd Lt. Paul M. Pitts, the pilot, 21. From Poteau, Oklahoma, he’d learned to fly about six months before the crash, only earned his instrument rating about a month before, and had 112 hours flying experience, nearly half of it at night. He and the other four men were buried in their hometowns.
His co-pilot was 2nd Lt. William McClure, 22, of Indianapolis. When he enlisted, McClure was working as a reporter at the Indianapolis Star, where his father was an editor. His best friend and fraternity brother died in another war-related crash the same day. More than 6,000 military planes crashed in the United States during World War II, killing more than 15,000 fliers.
2nd Lt. Hilary S. Blackwell, 22, from Santa Monica, California was the navigator. His father, Major Hillary A. Blackwell, had founded Hollywood Military Academy in 1923. The elder Blackwell had died in 1934 and his son is buried next to him in Woodlawn Cemetery.
The bombardier was 2nd Lt. George R. Beninga of Marietta, Minn., 23, the only married crew member. He’d been in the National Guard. A cap with Beninga’s name and “Columbia Air Base” was found near one of the bodies, the only identifiable personal item searchers recovered. His photo is the only one I could find; it shows a very young man with a serious expression, in uniform.
Cpl. Peter J. Biscan Jr., 29, the flight engineer, was from Chicago. The Army listed his brother as next-of-kin, and their mother, Barbara Biscan, applied for a headstone marker for his grave in Illinois about a month after the crash. “Peter Biscan, thank you for your service to our country. May you forever rest In peace,” said Welker after placing the five evergreen bouquets. He repeated the sentiment for each of the airmen. The words were suggested by Wreaths Across America, but Welker said he was particularly inspired by a trip to the military cemetery in Normandy, France, where he wondered about casualties who weren’t buried in military cemeteries.
The rugged mountainside was sunny and bright on Wednesday, nothing like that night nearly 80 years ago in the midst of war. There’s no marked trail to their mountainside memorial. Although the eroded aluminum and rusted steel stand out in the monochrome landscape of trees and dry leaves, it’s hard to find if you don’t know the way. The return hike up the steep hillside involves grabbing saplings and rocks to keep from sliding backwards in dry leaves and soft dirt.
Today, the site is most approachable from above, the Blue Ridge Parkway side of Sharp Top. In 1943, search parties of Bedford County volunteers struggled up the mountain the other way in the dark as two inches of snow fell, then carried the bodies as best they could back down though the rugged terrain.
It’s fitting that this place where the fliers died is remote. It’s as peaceful and solemn as a graveyard. The greenery placed Wednesday will weather away.Welker and hiker Dave Frantz used holly and evergreen to assemble the five bouquets, and Welker carefully cut the wires holding them together to make sure nothing permanent was left behind. Several small American flags were already there, along with a faded plastic bag that held a Bible. Unfortunately, a few knuckleheads have also managed to find the site over the years, moving some wreckage, removing aluminum, and defacing the fuselage with graffiti. The site is owned by the National Park Service which purposefully keeps it difficult to locate.
The enduring reminders of deathand sacrifice, the wreckage and the plaque, are thought-provoking and it’s easy, or maybe impossible, to know what the young airmen felt when they realized they were about to crash. Only one parachute was found, partially open, along with some parachute flares. An official Army investigation determined that the B-25 first hit the treetops, then was pulled downward to the ground, broke apart and skipped up the hill.
The plaque erected by Bedford residents in 2001 includes a sentiment from the famous war correspondent Ernie Pyle: “In solemn tribute to those thousand of our comrades — great, brave men that they were — for whom there will be no homecoming, ever.”
For much more about the crash, see these stories by Chris Dumond, published in The News & Advance. Crash of B-25 Bomber recalled in Bedford County. Other sources for this story include the Bedford Bulletin, the Associated Press, the U.S. Army Air Corps official investigation report, findagrave.com, and togetherweserved.com