It seemed probable that some small piece of the remains of a B-17 bomber that crashed near Ralph Kelly’s chicken houses on May 9, 1944 would be found during massive excavations for a new housing development.
The Flying Fortress crashed around 5:30 p.m., and plowed through pine trees as big around as a man’s waist. The plane – 103 feet wide, 74 feet long and 12 feet high – cut a swath that was 600 yards long and 100 yards wide. The fully armed plane burst into flames, exploding ammunition and bombs.
No spectators or Raleigh firefighters who answered the call were reported as injured. The remains of two airmen were found at the crash site.
But no signs of the plane have been spotted during the recent excavation.
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Joel Geniesse, division president of Smith Douglas Homes, which is developing the Vandora West site, said neither Smith Douglas’ head of land development or the development company at the site have seen any bit of wreckage during the current excavations.
Relics have been found in the area through the years. Norman Bellamy, whose transmission shop was down the road a bit, saw a six-inch-long green piece of metal that was found with a metal detector years ago on the site. He said it was common knowledge that local boys had recovered the handles from one of 13 50-caliber machine guns from the B-17’s armament. The handles were mounted in a window and became the boys’ imaginary machine gun.
People have used metal detectors on the property for years, seeking part of the airplane or relics from the large Union force that camped nearby in April 1865 at the close of the Civil War. A Union rifle was found nearby.
Pieces of plane turned up occasionally as recently as 20 years ago.
Recently, though, there was nothing now as essentially every square foot of land near the crash site was overturned. Huge mounds of uprooted trees are being shredded into mulch.
The B-17 was flying from Hunter Field in Savannah, Ga., to Dow Field in Maine with a stop at Fort Dix in New Jersey. The fortress carried a full crew of 10 men.
The fire started, according to the official crash report, when navigator 2nd Lt. Thomas J. Scheurell rotated the top turret of the fortress a full 360 degrees. He was tracking clouds, following them in the gun sights.
He noticed sparks flying from the base of the turret. Within seconds the sparks were replaced by a flame 2 inches wide and 3 feet long as an oxygen line fractured. 2nd Lt. Arthur L. Stevens, the pilot, compared the flame to five acetylene torches.
The engineer’s compartment, which was directly behind the pilot and co-pilot, was quickly consumed by fire, and at least three of the crew’s parachutes were burning within seconds.
Stevens sounded the bell for the plane to be abandoned. The top turret was near the front of the plane, but Stevens made it through the fire to the rear of the plane and saw that every airman in the back had jumped. He then parachuted.
The co-pilot, bombardier and navigator were cut off by the flames from the rest of the plane, and they bailed out of the nose.
About four miles south of Garner, Marshall Grissom watched the last of the crewmen as he floated down.
“I was in the yard playing,” recalled Grissom, who lived on what became N.C. 50. “I don’t remember what I was doing, but I was outside near the barns when I saw the plane over toward the west, over Jordan Road. You could tell it was in trouble because it was smoking. I didn’t see anyone jump, but I saw one man in a parachute coming down.”
Seven men had jumped, leaving Scheurell, who was wearing a parachute, and engineer SSgt. Rufus A. Todd and radio man Sgt. Albert Takerian in the plane’s nose. Todd and Takerian did not have parachutes.
“Both of them were hanging onto my legs and both were hysterical,” Scheurell wrote in his report. “I talked with them awhile and told them the only way they could avoid being killed was to get back and get chutes.”
Scheurell saw Todd dive through the flames back toward the bomb bay, where there might be more parachutes. Eventually, he shoved Takerian through the flames toward the bomb bay.
Grissom likely saw Scheurell. He landed safely near Rand’s Mill, near Swift Creek at N.C. 50. Scheurell got a ride to Garner and was reported as nervously drinking milk at a local barbecue stand while being questioned by authorities about the crash.
Garner’s Homer L. Wall was driving on U.S. 70 (now old 70) when he saw the plane crash on its left wing. “I tried to get near the plane to render help, but flames and exploding ammunition prevented me from doing so,” he told investigators.
M.P. Pollard, who lived near the crash site, was interviewed by the Army after the crash. He had gone to the crash and saw body parts, including one decapitated body hanging in a tree. The body was likely the remains of Todd or Takerian.
Ricky Pearce of Garner recalled his father, Milton Pearce, telling him about the crash. Mitt, as he was called, and his grandfather saw the plane and heard it crackling and sputtering. They left their fields on Creech Road and drove a pickup to the crash site.
“There were already people there, and they were trying to keep everybody back because of the exploding shells and the fire,” Ricky Pearce remembered his father saying. “But then Old Man somebody, Daddy said the name but I can’t remember it, came up from the crash site carrying a combat boot with part of a leg hanging from it.
“That moment was emblazoned in my father’s memory.”
Playing cards and letters were scattered at the site, along with garments that had been in the plane at the time of the crash. Several pairs of Army trousers, helmets and leather jackets were scorched or burned and littered about, according to newspaper reports.
Homer Creech, 90 and now living near Atlanta, and his cousin Vann Massey hopped on their bicycles and pedaled from Weston Road to the site. Creech said they were among the first on the scene. They saw both bloody bodies and left when officials began clearing the area because of the danger from the bombs on board.
Massey picked up a small piece of the airplane.
“It was very thin and light, but it was heavily tempered,” said Bobby Creech, Massey’s half-brother. “We did everything that knew to bend it but we couldn’t. It was really strong.”
Photos of the crash site look as if it had been bombed. The large trees have been flattened, but more limber, smaller trees stand, although stripped of leaves.
The Army’s investigation found the fire was caused by an oxygen leak at the swivel joint of the turret. The same type of fire had happened twice before on B-17s and investigators recommended that the turret not be turned when oxygen was being used.
Eight members of the crew dodged death that day, but five were killed a few months later.
Stevens, Scheurell, waist gunner Paul Taliaferro, gunner Thomas J. Minnick III and ball turret gunner John Leskowics were flying a mission to bomb a German airfield in Chartres, France when their B-17 took a direct hit from antiaircraft fire on Aug. 1, 1944.
The plane exploded at an altitude of 1,500 feet.
Tail gunner Laurence Doyle, who also survived the crash in Garner, parachuted from plane the before the explosion. He was taken as a prisoner of war and was liberated at the war’s end. He retired to Sacramento, Calif.
Joe Vukovich, who was Stevens’ co-pilot in Garner, had transferred to another plane in France and survived the war despite his plane being shot down. He parachuted out, but was listed as killed in action.
He retired to Medford, Ore., and visited Garner on May 4, 1997. He came to the field where two of his companions perished and walked the grounds.
In Amilly, France, near where Stevens and his crew perished, there is a memorial with an airplane prop and a black plaque dedicated to them. Stevens, Taliaferro and Leskowics are memorialized at Arlington National Cemetery. Minnick is memorialized at the Normandy American Cemetery.
In Garner, the crash is remembered only by a few.
“We don’t know our history,” Ricky Pearce said. “There are an awful lot of Garner people who don’t know that we had airmen die here during World War II. The life we enjoy was secured by people who gave their lives.”
Tim Stevens writes stories about Garner for The News & Observer. He can be reached at Timstevens710@gmail.com.