By Jim Buchanan
Jackson County, with its high peaks and rugged terrain, offers a challenge for pilots, like most mountainous areas.
The county has seen its share of tragic accidents over the years, and memories of them remain fresh after years or even decades.
But one crash in 1944 seems to have fallen down the memory hole.
That’s perhaps understandable because in this case, no one died. World War II was at perhaps its height, with U.S. forces engaged in heavy fighting from Italy to France to the Pacific. It was a rare Sylva Herald front page that did not carry the news of a lost, wounded, missing or captured county son.
And so it was that when a B-25 medium bomber was spotted circling over Sylva one evening in late September, people thought little of it. “Those who saw it thought that it was some boys from Sylva passing over,” the Herald reported.
The bomber was on a routine training mission out of Greenville, South Carolina. Apparently lost and running low on fuel, the five crewmen aboard decided to bail out around 2 a.m. The pilotless craft crashed on the head of Locust Creek; all the crew survived.
The Herald reported “The first pilot was the last to leave the plane, and he came down near the crash, he said that he walked four hours before reaching Sylva. The plane was completely demolished.”
The five crewmen landed in different parts of the county. One spent the night hanging from a tree.
There seemed to be no follow-up reporting in the Herald. One mention of the incident can be found in an Army Air Corps publication from early 1945 under the indelicately titled heading “Plane Boners analyzed by Veteran Pilots.” The incident was described, somewhat harshly, as follows:
“A B25J pilot and crew forced to abandon their bomber after becoming hopelessly lost in instrument weather. All bailed out successfully. COMMENT: The pilot, who was flying on a CFR clearance, violated practically every rule in the book. He failed to check the weather before the flight, to contact weather stations en route, to request an IFR clearance from Airways Traffic Control, to turn back when instrument weather was encountered and to ask his radio operator to obtain a bearing. If a pilot is to bring his crew and plane back safely, he must obey at least the basic rules of flying.”
And the war, and the news, moved on.
The incident on Locust Creek was replicated time and again during the war. Hundreds of thousands of planes were produced in the U.S. during WWII, and those planes needed pilots. The pilots needed training. And training isn’t useful unless it’s difficult enough to prepare for the real deal.
According to an article by historian Robert Blanchard, 15,000 young Americans died in training accidents in the continental U.S. during the war. Citing military records, he reported that in 1944 alone there were 20,833 training accidents resulting in 5,387 wrecked aircraft and 5,616 deaths.
The five who made it safely to the ground in Jackson County were among the lucky ones.