Saturday, January 02, 2016

Thousands of pilots died in training runs — this is one story

Between December 1941 and August 1945, the U.S. Army Air Forces lost 14,903 pilots, aircrew and assorted personnel, plus 13,873 airplanes — inside the continental United States. Many were preparing to fly a B-24 Liberator.

Mike LaReau holds the Crash Area Diagram of the plane crash that killed his father, Aaron, in 1944 during training in Tennessee.

Aaron LaReau's name won't show up in any roll call of World War II heroes. The Kankakee High School graduate died in the cockpit of a B-24 on May 2, 1944. But he crashed into the rural Kentucky landscape, not war-torn Germany or Japan.

LaReau was a pilot, assigned to train the crews that eventually would be shipped overseas. Those duties might have seemed mundane, except it also was part of his job to sort through the glitches that came with these planes that were being quickly rolled off the wartime assembly lines.

Mike LaReau, a professor in social work at Olivet Nazarene University, is Aaron's son. He doesn't remember his dad. He was only 18-months-old when this "domestic accident" took place. But that doesn't mean he isn't still curious about exactly what happened to his dad that day.

What he's discovered so far is that his father's circumstances were not rare. The World War II Foundation has compiled some remarkable statistics on this type of incident. Between December 1941 and August 1945, the U.S. Army Air Forces lost 14,903 pilots, aircrew and assorted personnel, plus 13,873 airplanes — inside the continental United States.

Aaron's crash was one of the 52,651 aircraft accidents. Obviously, not all these involved fatalities, but planes were dropping out of American airspace at the rate of 1,170 per month, nearly 40 a day. While the bulk of the crashes took place in training settings, almost 1,000 Army planes disappeared en route to their foreign assignments. Yes, there were 43,581 aircraft lost overseas, but Aaron's crash was definitely not uncommon.

"Dad is buried at Memorial Gardens Cemetery, but his remains aren't in that casket," Mike said. "It's just uniforms, stuff that was in his locker. The debris from the plane crash was spread over 12 acres. They say there was an explosion in the cockpit before the crash. There were no identifiable human remains at the site."

But 2016, is going to mark Mike's first visit to that fateful spot, outside of Smyrna, Ky. He can't explain exactly why but he needs to know more.

"The information on the accident was classified for 50 years. I didn't see the report until 1996," he said. "I read it over and over. And I gave it to Viv Lock [a former WWII flyer from Kankakee who died in 2010], and he went over all the information, too."

There were eyewitness accounts and references drawn from other crashes, but there were no definitive answers for Mike.

"They had fuel heaters on board and what I learned is that the most likely circumstance was a leak in a fuel line and a spark in the cockpit," he said. "All I can hope is that the explosion left everyone unconscious and they didn't see anything while the plane was in a nose dive.

"I wouldn't want to think that my dad might have been that terrified for his last minutes of life."

Life went on for Mike, his mother, Alberta, and his sister, Karon, who was born five months after her father's death. Alberta remarried in 1947, and her husband, Harold Kunde, became a stand-in father for Mike. Still, when Harold died, Mike couldn't help but think again about his biological father.

"I feel bad for him: He's as dead as any pilot who died overseas, but there were no metals for giving his life for his country," he said. "I see the way we honor troops when they return these days, and it makes me think about dad. People tell me I should be over this by now, but it just hasn't worked that way for me."

So, at 73, Mike is ready to make the trip to the crash site this spring. He knows all the details. The plane that crashed had just five hours of flight time. Takeoff was at 1:40 a.m. The explosion took place at 1:55 a.m. And Mike has seen the accident inspector's site map. He's even thought about reaching out to the families of the other men on that flight.

"I don't know what I'm looking for. I just hope I find some peace. That I can get rid of some of the anger and frustration I feel.

"And no matter what happens down there, I do know this: If I go to heaven someday, the first thing I'm going to do is meet my father."


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