Wednesday, June 11, 2014

1943 plane crashes in New Kent County remain unsolved: Seventy-one years later, cause of accidents, pilot deaths undetermined

NEW KENT — This Thursday marks the 71st anniversary of one of the most tragic, yet mysterious plane crashes in New Kent County history.

According to the U.S. Army Air Forces War Department in Richmond, two Langley Airfield pilots were performing a local high-altitude training mission on June 12, 1943, when they crashed and landed in two fields in Lanexa during World War II.

In a 1943 statement to the War Department, Flight Leader Lt. Milton E. Soward said he had left Langley with Second Lieutenants James R. Nall and Henry J. McCaffrey that afternoon at 1:30 p.m.

“At 23,000 feet, the flight went into a dive for the southeast with Nall and McCaffrey flying good formation on my wings,” he wrote.

Soward reportedly started recovery from the dive at 15,000 feet and completed it at 11,000 feet with an air speed of 400 mph.

When he came up from the dive, Soward did not see Nall or McCaffrey.

The missing planes were believed to have crashed at a high speed 2 miles apart in a wooded area of New Kent County, according to the War Department.

Although the exact cause of the accident was never determined, the War Department reported two days after the accident that both pilots failed to recover from power dives.

The Tidewater Review reported about the incident on June 17, 1943. In the article, “Planes Crash, Killing Pilots,” the Review identified Second Lieutenants McCaffrey, of Bronx, N.Y., and Nall, of Mayfield, Ky., as the two pilots killed in the accident.

“The two planes struck about two miles apart and both exploded, blowing the machines and pilots to bits,” the Review reported. “The two planes crashed in a wooded section of New Kent, between Slatersville and Barhamsville (on Stage Road).”

According to the Review, Army officials were on scene shortly after the crash and started an investigation to determine the cause of the accident.

Some witnesses believe one of the planes landed in a field on Sweet Hall Ferry Road in Lanexa.

Now 87 years old, Lanexa resident Clifton “Boogie” Davis was just 16 when he witnessed the crash.

“I think it was in the afternoon when I heard the planes flying around,” said Davis. “All of a sudden, I heard a screeching noise as one of the planes was going into a dive.”

“I thought they had collided into the air and fell to the ground.”

Like many people at the time, Davis and his brothers were aircraft spotters and were required by law to report any plane sightings to Byrd Airfield in Richmond.

“People were aircraft spotting throughout the state because the country wanted to know whether it was friendly plane or an enemy plane,” Davis said.

When the planes hit the ground, Davis and his brother joined the crowd surrounding the wreckage.

“There was a hole in the ground where one of the planes hit and my brother and I found part of a hand where we were standing,” Davis said.

The two pilots were unrecognizable and were identified by their hair color, he added.

“One was blond and the other had darker hair.”

According to the War Department, the Army Air Base took witness statements from Edward Mills and Willie Cooper, both of Lanexa, on June 17, 1943.

“When I saw the two planes come below the clouds, one seemed to be in a partial spin but had started into a partial dive. All of a sudden, the plane started into a more excessive dive and crashed into the trees,” Mills said in 1943.

“The second plane followed shortly after and dove into the ground about two to two-and-a-half miles from the first plane. One plane was found the same afternoon but (they) could not locate the other until the next morning. Both planes were smoking and one appeared to be on fire.”

Cooper's statement was almost identical to that of his neighbor, but added that “one plane seemed out of control and the pilot seemed to regain control but crashed at approximately a 60-degree dive. The second plane followed about 30 seconds after and dove straight into the ground.”

Though many believe that McCaffrey and Nall collided in the air, no one knows for sure.

The U.S. War Department released two separate crash reports, indicating that they were unrelated crashes. However, witnesses Cooper and Mills claim to have heard and seen the planes in flames before they struck the ground.

Air Corps Capt. Robert B. Dockstader released a statement with the War Department on June 21, 1943, saying that, “the inexperience of the pilots in a new ship (P-47D) might have had some bearing on the accident.”

Flight logs show that out of Nall's 270 flight hours, 34 had been in a P-47D. McCaffrey had logged 265 flight hours, 37 of which were in a P-47D.

“Accidents during those early training maneuvers were not uncommon,” said Moon, Va., resident Tom Robinson, a pilot of 53 years. “The planes were quickly assembled and the pilots were just as quickly trained, with very few total hours of experience during the war years.”

Though McCaffrey and Nall flew out of Langley Airfield, Davis believes they were part of the P-47 Squadron at Byrd Field in Richmond.

Robinson, a member and Executive Officer of the Byrd Field Cadet Squadron, Virginia Wing, Civil Air Patrol, took cadets on two practice search and rescue missions during the 1960s to one of the crash sites in New Kent.

“Although the main body of the plane had been removed immediately following the crash, a large debris field remained,” Robinson said. “In addition to the many small engine parts that were still very visible through the underbrush, the discovery and collection of hundreds of live 50-caliber machine gun rounds became the highlight of each trip.”

“Remember, there were no government agencies in place at that time to protect us from ourselves and our actions,” Robinson said.

Though Robinson has a long career of recovering such finds like the crash site of Audie Murphy, one of the most decorated U.S. soldiers in World War II history, the New Kent County mission has always stuck in his mind.

“Each member would fill their helmets with their military treasures for the return trip home and there was never an accident,” Robinson said.

“It's crazy to think of doing that these days, but it was pretty amazing that all that live ammo was still there 20 years later.”

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