One result of Pearl Harbor
Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 7, 2003
My grown-up grandchildren are avid campers and the Peaks of Otter Mountain near Bedford is their favorite campsite. They have been angry to occasionally find that people would dump things like washing machines and refrigerators by the trails rather than haul them to a landfill. They spoke about it many times, complaining that people who lived in those parts should be ashamed as it reflected on them and spoiled the otherwise beautiful landscape. Recently they discovered the truth.
Back in 1943 Second Lieutenant Paul M. Pitts, age 21, pilot, from Poteau, Okla., was stationed at Shaw Army Air Force Base in Columbia, S.C.
His crewmembers were Second Lt. George Beninga from Marietta, Minn.; Second Lt. Hilary Blackwell, 22, from Santa Monica, Calif.; Second Lt. William McClure, 22, from Indianapolis, Ind. The gunner was Corporal Peter Biscan, 29, from Chicago. They left Shaw at night on a scheduled triangular flight. They were to fly, using only instruments, northeast, later a southwest leg was to be followed by a southeast leg, returning to Shaw. A training flight was always dangerous but during wartime was necessary and time was of the essence.
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Their plane was a B-25, a Mitchell bomber and the kind Jimmy Doolittle used on his raid over Tokyo. It was big, 16 feet high, 53 feet long, each wing held a powerful Wright R-2600 engine and it could hit 272 miles per hour. The estimated nighttime flight was 3 hours and 10 minutes. After numerous checks and preflight briefing, they took off at 1700 hours, never to return.
On the evening of Feb. 2, 1943 at about 9 p.m. the plane was seen coming from the south over Bedford, Va.
Witnesses reported seeing the planes interior lights, exterior beacons, and landing lights. The glass nose canopy was a bright ball of light in the surrounding darkness. Witnesses also reported that the massive engines were out of sync and they felt the plane was in trouble. It came over Bedford at an altitude so low it seemed to touch the trees. In the near distance the Peaks of Otter was obscured by fog and Sharp Top was close.
It was not uncommon in 1943 that young pilots had accidents and near-accidents. It was not unusual for aircraft to be forced down just about anywhere. Often a golf course or highway was the necessary landing strip, or farmer’s open fields. On this flight an extra 500 feet of height would have meant safe passage over the Blue Ridge Mountains but treetops only slowed the descent and a violent impact followed as the Mitchell slammed into unyielding Sharp Top.
High-rising flames and dark smoke made it easy for the local people. Those who wanted to help and those who were curious came in droves but there was no way to save those who were part of the grizzly scene. The boys were badly disfigured and burned. Only playing cards and partially opened parachutes spoke of those last hours and minutes.
Noble efforts were made by the locals, crawling up the Peaks of Otter in the dead of winter is an admirable feat. Had the Bedford area received early warning of what was to follow on Omaha Beach in 1944? None of the young men in that plane were from Bedford, but they were dead.
There was no in-flight recorder to hear the pilot’s last desperate words, no modern day radar to warn of danger, just lousy luck. Now my camper grandchildren know those pieces of metal were not dumped refrigerators. Each year the field of debris grows smaller as souvenir hunters remove parts of the ghost plane that rolled out of the North American Aircraft factory in Inglewood, Calif.
This column is a reduction of 10 pages on the subject by &uot;Jeff&uot; Clemens, pastor of New Prospect Church, Bedford.
Robert Pocklington is a resident of Suffolk and a regular News-Herald columnist. He can be contacted via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org