Plane Crash in McDowell County

Welch Daily News
July 2, 1942

Identify 17 Army Plane Dead

Investigation Of Crash Near Premier Begun

Big Converted Airliner Crashes and Burns Near Premier; Many Persons Saw Army Transport When it Fell

Identification of 17 of 21 United States Army Air Corps men killed early Wednesday afternoon when a converted airliner crashed and burned on a mountainside near Premier was announced this afternoon at Patterson Field, Dayton, O.

Those identified were:

As provided by the army at Patterson Field, Dayton, O., the identifications were:

Staff Sgt. Salveston Barone, Morris, N. Y.
Russell A. Carter, Meridan, Kan.
Leon A. Olin, Big Tinder, Mont.
H. M. Dickson (no address available).
2nd Lieut. Walter Baugh, Paris, Tex.
Claudius Haywood Ambler, Montgomery County, Pa.
Lester S. Erickson, Smith Ridge, Miss.
Elma G. Edmonds, Payson, Ill.
Staff Sgt. Anthony W. Belcher (no address).
Leo Thomas Colburn, Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Edward F. X. Carr, (no address).
Denver W. Koppe, Columbus, O.
Kermit Masters, Greenview, Mont.
Elmer J. Campbell, Luray, Va.
Chester Petranski, Auburn, N. Y.
Lieut. E. A. Harness, Paporte, Ind.
Archie W. Chamberlin, Levenworth, Kan.

Meanwhile, three separate investigations were in progress to determine the cause of the crash.

1st Lieut. Les A. LeBois of Patterson Field, Dayton, Ohio, was conducting one investigation and said he would report his findings to a board of investigation at Dayton.

Sgt. James G. Greenway was assisting Lt. LeBois. He devoted most of the night to an attempt to identify the bodies.

Major E. N. Townsend, regional safety director at headquarters of safety region 10 at Patterson Field, was conducting another inquiry, and a third was being made by Capt. W. B. Whitacre, of Indianapolis, Ind.

Bodies Brought Here

Bodies of the 21 victims remained in local funeral homes. Most of them were mangled and burned beyond recognition, but identification of many was established by means of identification tags or articles removed from clothing.

A list of men aboard the former American Airlines flagship when it crashed about a half mile from Premier at about 12:05 o'clock Tuesday afternoon had not been released.

The transport, a former flagship of the American Airlines, lost a wing at about 500 feet and plunged with smoke pouring from it into a community garden approximately 300 yards up a mountainside and into a ravine. Everyone aboard met instant death and wreckage was scattered for nearly 200 yards down the hillside.

Cause of the tragic accident, first fatal airplane crash in the history of McDowell county, may never be known. A number of persons who saw the plane in trouble just before it plummeted earthward gave different versions. No one lived to tell the true story of what happened in the fleeting minutes when the plane appeared to be in trouble until the time it crashed and exploded.

A closer examination of the scene today indicated that the pilot apparently lost due to a low ceiling and poor radio reception, came down low to get his bearings and hit the top of a ridge, shearing off about six feet of the right wing. The pilot may have given the ship 'the gun' in an attempt to gain altitude but vibration caused the rest of the wing to fall, then the tail came off but momentum carried the plane a considerable distance and it struck the side of the mountain. It cut through the brush, slithered on down the mountain until it struck the other side of the ravine and overturned and slid on its back for a distance. By this time it was nothing but a mass of twisted and burning wreckage.

One piece of the wing was found nearly a mile from the scene of the wreckage. The motor was found at another spot.

Thousands Visit Scene

Several thousand people visited the little mining community of Premier during the afternoon and evening, but few were able to obtain a view of the wreckage. West Virginia state policemen in charge of Lt. F. C. Crawford of Beckley, McDowell county deputy sheriffs and constables were on duty within a short time after the crash. Later in the ev[e]ning about 20 members of Company "E" of the West Virginia state guard in command of Capt. J. A. Blevins assisted the police officers. Military police took charge today. McDowell County Sheriff Lucian Fry was also on the scene and Police Chief Harry Chaffins of Welch lent his assistance.

The death toll, first reported at 10, rose steadily during the afternoon as officers dug into the wreckage. An eleventh body was found, then a twelfth and finally all 21 were discovered within a radius of 50 yards. Twenty were found within an area of about 30 yards.

Lt. LeBois declined to comment on the wreck, saying he was here for an investigation and would report back to Patterson Field.

While several witnesses said they saw what appeared to be an explosion just before one wing fell off, others said the ship was diving earthward and that the pilot managed to straighten it out for just seconds before the wing was seen to fall. Then the ship dropped, it was reported.

The first bodies were moved at about 3:30 o'clock. Volunteers helped ambulance crews down the steep and slippery hillside to hearses at the foot of the mountain. The last of the bodies was taken out at about 7 o'clock. Rain which fell throughout most of the day made the freshly plowed ground difficult to travel over.

Saw Plane Fall

A number of persons at Coalwood and Premier saw the plane just before it disappeared into the mountains. They reported seeing a wing fall off and said it looked like other objects fell from the ship as it plunged crazily downward.

The first report of the tragic accident was received in Welch at about 12:10 when Editor J. K. Moreau of the Coalwood -Caretta News telephoned The Daily News. Several residents of Coalwood said they saw the plane flying at about 500 feet as it came out of a cloud and noticed a wing fall from the ship. They also said it looked as if smoke was pouring from the airliner. Then it suddenly disappeared.

Mr. And Mrs. Lawrence Runyon of Premier and a niece, Miss Columbia Charles, H. B. Fain, mine checkweighman, and W. A. Williams, also of Premier, reported seeing the plane before it fell.

Mrs. Runyon and Miss Charles were on the back porch of their home and Mr. Runyon was upstairs.

"I heard a kind of a roaring noise," Mrs. Runyon said. "I looked up and saw a big airplane which appeared to be in trouble. The plane appeared to be in a nose-dive, then I saw what looked like a wing fall. The ship then plunged earthward."

Heard Roaring Noise

Mr. Runyon said he heard a roaring noise but paid no attention to it at first, thinking that the sound came from a truck on the highway nearby. When Mrs. Runyon called to him, he said he looked out the window in time to see the plane.

"I saw at once that the plane was in trouble," the Premier Pocahontas Colliery company superintendent said. "The pilot appeared to be fighting to keep the ship in the air and pull it from what looked like a barrel roll. He did manage to straighten it out once, but the wing came off and the ship plunged earthward.

Mr. Runyon said he rushed out of the house and rounded up several men to begin a search. He went in one direction and Andy Orban, Junior Bunn, W. A. Williams and Shorty Grimes in another. Members of the last group soon came upon the wreckage.

Mr. Runyon said he reported immediately to state police at Welch, and Troopers Earl Yeager and Tom Harrison were on the scene within a few minutes.

H. B. Fain, mine checkweighman, was another eye-witness to the crash.

He said the plane "hit the trees and seemed to bounce before bursting into flames."

Fain was standing near the tipple and his attention was attracted when "I heard what sounded like a small explosion. I looked up and saw the ship about 300 feet above the ridge. A wing tore off and I saw it fall. About 15 seconds later the plane nosed into the mountains. What sounded like a second explosion occurred and the ship bounced down into the ravine."

The plane then burst into flames, Fain said.

Fain and several other persons did what they could to extinguish the flames but to no avail.

Struck Mountainside

From all indications the plane fell against the side of the mountain after going over the top. It cut a wide path through the trees, then hit the opposite side of the ravine and burst into flames. Wreckage was scattered for a considerable distance.

The missing wing and one motor were found near the top of the mountain. The other motor of the twin-engined 24-place converted airlines plane was found in the wreckage.

When word of the crash was received in Welch, it was assumed immediately that the plane was one of an airline which operates over this area daily. However, a quick check of the home field of the line brought word that all planes had been accounted for.

Persons who made their way down from the scene reported seeing U. S. Army equipment scattered along the hillside. There was duffel bag, pieces of uniform, parachutes which apparently bursted open from the impact, steel helmets and other atricles [sic], including personal belongings.

Wartime censorship quickly clamped down on many details of the tragedy.

Police Present

Lt. Crawford headed a group of nine state policemen who took charge. With him were Corp. A. Scalise, also of the Beckley station, F. E. Springer and Mike Hofstetter, of Princeton, C. A. Thompson, of Northfork, T. A. Maupin, of Berwind, and Sgt. C. E. Dye, Tom Harrison and Earl Yeager, of the Welch detachment.

Removal of the bodies was started under Lt. Crawford's direction after his arrival at 3:30 o'clock. A search through the debris by state police, county officers and workmen revealed 10 bodies unreported in an early afternoon report.

Most of the bodies were found, one officer said, in what he called the fuselage of the plane which rested in the nest of the ravine.

Searchers were hampered considerably by the mud and removal of the bodies to waiting ambulances some 300 yards below was extremely difficult.

Lt. Crawford reported at 7 o'clock that "all 21 bodies had been recovered." He gave no indication of how he knew, but asserted that was the number of men on the ill-fated plane.

Thirteen were identified as they were removed by identification tags worn about their necks. One identification was made by clothing and another by a ring. The identity of six could not be found.

Crawford said he did not know if the plane's identity had been established. "Our men will stand guard," he said, "until the proper authorities arrive to relieve us." He then announced that Lt. Les LeBois would arrive some time during the night.

Sheriff Lucian Fry and many other county and district officers, including Welch city police, were at the scene. These officers aided in the search and many of them combed the woods for other traces of the plane before announcement that all bodies had been recovered.

These included Deputy Sheriffs Hubert Bellamy, Joe Runyion, C. J. Baker, Okey Stafford, R. B. Christian, Constables M. M. Day and Lonnie Mitchell, Conservator B. C. McClane and Chief Harry Chaffin and Vance Spangler of the Welch police force.

Troopers Yeager and Harrison began their vigil barely 15 minutes after the plane crashed. Arriving after being notified by Premier persons, the two stood guard and conducted the search which later led to the finding of the tail assembly and bits of a wing on top of the ridge some 300 yards above the main wreckage.


West Virginia Archives and History