Sacrifices on the Home Front
Tracy H. Turner
A number of years ago I had heard some talk of a World War Two bomber that had crashed somewhere near Sharp Top Mountain at the Peaks of Otter along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia. Being interested in all things related to aviation of that era I started to do some research to find out if it was true and if so, learn some of the details such as the type of plane, where it was from, fate of the crew, and the exact location of the crash site. I went to the library and started a search of The Roanoke World News and found the report dated February third, 1943. A subsequent search on the internet revealed a complete accident report done by the U.S. Army Air Force.
Eventually I was introduced to a fellow who said he had led a group of Boy Scouts to the site about twenty years before and even though he could not remember the exact location he offered to hike up there with me to try to find it. We started our hike on a cool winter day with bright sunshine and a clear blue sky. There were no leaves on the trees other than a few evergreens and rhododendron to obscure any views. When we arrived near the top and stopped to survey the area from a rocky pinnacle with a spectacular view known as Buzzard’s Roost, I noticed something bright reflecting the brilliant sunlight below on a steep slope.
Figuring that must surely be the wreckage I was searching for, we started the very rough traverse through the brush going down the steep slope toward the shiny object. Suddenly, there it was! I saw a large portion of one wing, a large radial engine, and many other small parts either rusty brown, dull silver aluminum, stainless steel, and olive drab in color. Further research indicated that the aircraft was a B-25D, basically the same type plane made famous by General Dolittle in the 1942 Tokyo raid flown from an aircraft carrier. There were five crewmen aboard this tragic flight. They were second Lieutenant Paul Pitts, pilot, second Lieutenant William McClure, co-pilot, second Lieutenant George Beninga, bombardier, second Lieutenant Hilary Blackwell, navigator, and Corporal Peter Biscan, engineer. They were from Oklahoma, Indiana, South Carolina, California, and Illinois respectively. They were from 21 to 29 years of age and were performing a night navigation training mission which was supposed to be a flight of a little over three hours in duration.
Their planned route after takeoff from their base in Columbia, S.C. was to proceed to Florence, SC, continue northward to Raleigh, NC to Lynchburg, VA, and then back to Columbia via Greensboro, NC. Their last reported position was over Raleigh at 8:58 p.m. The plane was cleared to fly at 3000 feet which would have likely not been a problem if there had not been a 4000 foot mountain in the near vicinity of Lynchburg, VA, their northern turning point. This had tragic results, as at approximately 9:40 p.m. the B25 Mitchell flew into the side of Sharp Top Mountain, with fatal results to the entire crew.
The loss of this plane and crew, belonging to the 376th bombardment squadron (medium), of the 309th bomb group of the 3rd Air Force resulted in the change of some flight rules for future missions that made flying at night a much safer practice than before. In researching this unfortunate accident, I learned that this was but one story of one air crew among many that were making the ultimate sacrifice while training in the United States. This crew, as many were, was training to be replacement crews for combat losses overseas.
Seeing the remnants of the wreckage of this warplane that met its fiery end on a routine training flight on a cold night in February long ago is a moving experience. As time passes, the history of the major world conflicts of the 20th century and the individual sacrifices that were made continues to fade from public memory. It is vastly important that future generations of Americans remember the sacrifices of the men and women who defended the freedom we can so easily take for granted. The unfortunate nature of humans dictates that if the United States is to continue to exist as a leader in upholding individual freedom for its people, we will always need someone to stand guard and defend that freedom, just as these five Army Air Force B-25 crewmen were doing on the night of February second, 1943.