Historians unravel emotional story of fated flight

Relatives of US pilot killed when his B-17 bomber ploughed into the Chasms plan memorial to the victims

By James Campbell

An amazing partnership between Manx and American historians has unravelled the emotional story behind one of the Island’s most tragic plane crashes.

Just three weeks before VE Day on April 14, 1945, a B-17 bomber carrying six crew and five passengers, all American, crashed at the Chasms, near the Sound, in bad weather.

Now the Manx Aviation Preservation Society and the relatives of the pilot Robert Vieille have teamed up under remarkable circumstances to paint a clearer picture about what happened.

Historians Sandy Lydon, who is married to Robert Vieille’s niece, said: ‘In 1998 I was giving a lecture in California and they wanted me to stay over and give some more lectures but I said I couldn’t because I was going on holiday to Ireland and the Isle of Man.’

‘I was then approached by Ted Moughtin, an Island resident. He asked why we were going to the Island and we told him about the crash.’

‘He said he knew about it and we kept in touch. When we arrived in the Island he had planned a meeting with Steve Poole and Ivor Ramsden, of MAPS, and Tynwald President Noel Cringle.

‘We had contacts with the whole Island within two days of arriving.’

Sandy and wife Ann visited the crash site during their visit and from that day Robert Vieille’s family and MAPS kept in contact by e-mail.

Sandy said: ‘It’s like rubbing a coin onto paper. With each stroke the story comes into view but it takes a lot of rubbing.’

Sandy explained the family have pieced together the story through genealogy.

He said: ‘We have contacted historical societies, families, acquaintances and ex-servicemen.’

Robert’s brother Richard and sister Joie Felts visited the Island for the first time last week.

They were given special permission to visit the crash site and took the necessary precautions against foot-and-mouth disease. It was a heart-rending moment as Richard explained.

‘I was in the air corps when I heard of Robert’s death and I was absolutely stunned’ he said. ‘I could understand him getting shot down but the irony of dying while on the way to recreation and rest was hard to bear.’

‘It devastated my father and he never got over it.’

‘As a trained pilot and having visited the site I can completely understand how the plane could have hit the ground.’

‘The slope was very severe and he didn’t have much of a chance. It was a very emotional experience.’

Joie said: ‘It helped to understand what happened.’

Robert was a member of the 367th Squadron, based at Thurleigh, Bedfordshire, and just prior to the accident the pilots were to have a party but this was cancelled due to the death of President Roosevelt.

As the men had some days off they took the opportunity to fly to Ireland for a break.

The plane was not supposed to fly over the Island but was blown off course.

Visibility was very poor and, at the time, the best way to navigate was to fly under the poor weather which could be as little as several hundred feet above sea level.

Robert saw land where he didn’t expect it and the plane crashed, skidding along the ground before hitting a stone wall and exploding. There were no survivors.

In one of the story’s many twists flight surgeon Dr. James McClung was due to board the flight but forgot his parachute. He went back to retrieve it but the plane had already left when he returned.

The plane was known as combined operations because it had been recycled using the front half of a Douglas manufactured B-17 and the back half of a Boeing.

Mr Ramsden believes this is an apt name for the research that has taken place although he has played down his role.

He said: ‘We have been rather peripheral in the research.’

‘I build models and have got to know what the plane looked like but along the way I have found myself getting more involved, it is a heart-rending story. You cannot build models of people.’

Eight of those killed are buried at a US military cemetery just outside Cambridge while the bodies of three others were flown home.

Robert was born and educated in southern California and married Ella Bushnell less than a year before his death.

The family’s research has uncovered information about three of the other victims.

Co-pilot second Lieutenant Collins E. Liersch came from Wisconsin and became very good friends with Robert.

Navigator Howard LeCompte Jr came from Baltimore, Maryland, was known as a friendly, out going man. All three men held the Air Medal with two oak leaf clusters.

Emily Harper Rea was the only woman aboard the plane.

She was in the American Red Cross and based in Paris. She was extremely well regarded by the men and Sandy said that when talking to men based at Thurleigh they always remember Miss Rea.

Sandy said: ‘There is magic afoot in this whole story. Apparently Emily pinned the promotion medal to Glen Miller when he became a major and he gave her his captain bars which were later buried with her.’

Little is known about the other victims, engineer Ernest Gallion, radio operator Chester Smalczewski, Captain Wilber Butterfield, Captain George Cubberly, second lieutenant Austin Parrish, master sergeant Derrell Jones and technical sergeant William Starbuck but the research continues.

Robert’s family are now hoping they will be given permission to put in place a permanent reminder of the victims at the crash site.

Sandy said: ‘We have been discussing an appropriate commemorative marker with various people and I don’t think anybody should be forgotten.’

‘It can be something discreet like an understated plaque.’

Sandy also has plans to bring over a group to the Island.

He said: ‘I hope when we come back foot-and-mouth will be over. I think this is the beginning of a long-term relationship with the Island.’

The family have now headed off to Cambridge to visit the cemetery where Robert is buried.

The above newspaper article appeared in the Isle of Man Examiner, 29th May 2001.

Further details about this fatal flight can be found in Steve Poole's book, "Rough Landing or Fatal Flight"; see the articles on the North Barrule B-17 crash in the Remembrance section of this web site for further details on Steve's book.