Q: Recently, I saw a “Pawn Stars” episode on The History Channel that featured an AT-6, which was used to train pilots during World War II. This made me remember that in the early ’40s, I recall an AT-6 or an AT-20 crashing near what was later the Hecker Nike missile base. Could you find out more about this crash?
Melvin Wagner, of Hecker
A: Just about the time Pensive was starting his bid for racing immortality at the Kentucky Derby, two young Belleville women were being notified that their husbands had died in a plane crash.
They had taken off from Scott Field about 12:30 p.m. that Saturday, May 6, 1944, in their Lockheed AT-18, an advanced trainer. At 44 feet long and a wingspan of nearly 66, the plane could cruise at about 250 mph as its 1,200-horsepower Wright engines powered its twin tri-blade propellers.
They were on a routine combat training flight for the radio school of the Army Air Force’s Training Command. But on this day, the plane suffered a mechanical failure about 15 minutes after takeoff and crashed in a farm field about two miles south-southeast of Hecker. It’s one of Hecker native Jim Mertz’s earliest vivid memories.
“When that happened, everybody in Hecker went out there to view the site,” Mertz said. “I was only 3 years old, but my dad took me. There were no military people there yet. It had just happened, so we walked all over that area and looked at what was going on. Finally, the military people did show up and, naturally, they scrammed everybody out of there, as I recall.”
As usually happens in such crashes, the wreckage was strewn across a wide area. Ralph Eckart, now of rural Hecker, still remembers spotting pieces of the plane in a tree while he and his father later walked through the nearby woods.
Killed were the pilot, 2nd Lt. Robert R. McLean, 28, of Mount Vernon, New York, and his crew chief, Alexander Papalexis, 21, of the Bronx, New York. McLean had been stationed at Scott the previous October, and he and his wife, Cathleen, had bought a home at 11 N. Virginia Ave. in Belleville. Papalexis had joined the Army in February 1943 and moved to Scott a month later. He and his wife, Rose Geraldine, moved into a home at 7 S. 37th St. The Gaerdner Funeral Home eventually shipped both bodies backed to New York as a board of Air Corps officers was convened to investigate the tragedy.
Now, the www.aviationarchaeology.com website simply lists the cause as a “KEXSF” — killed in an explosion due to structural failure. (The website lists all air mishaps month by month.) Mertz, however, wanted to do more than occasionally tell friends of his childhood anecdote. Now 76 and living in Waterloo, Mertz still takes part in Hecker’s annual St. Augustine Catholic Church Cemetery Memorial Day services, where he reads the names of all Hecker-area residents who died serving their country.
He decided that even though McLean and Papalexis were from New York, their names should be included on his list since they lost their lives near Hecker. So he went to the Monroe County clerk’s office, looked up their death certificates, found out more details about the crash from area newspapers and began including them in his list last year. He now is thinking of also including the names of Capt. Robert Boyd, 25, and Capt. Lewis Anderson, 27, who died in an AT-6 crash on Hermann Weinhoff’s farm near Waterloo on June 13, 1946.
Finally, a big shout-out to Carol Prest, of rural Tilden, whose persistence above and beyond the call of duty was instrumental in this answer. Originally, I misread the reader’s handwriting as the 1970s, so I called the Career Center of Southern Illinois to see if any old-timers might have remembered such an accident.
Using my timeline, Prest, a secretary, could not find anyone who did. Later, I realized my mistake, but did not bother Prest again, figuring she probably wouldn’t find anyone who would remember the ’40s. Instead, Prest herself talked to another friend — Ralph Eckart’s wife, Kathy — who remembered talking with Mertz at a restaurant about the crash,
“I’m like a dog with a bone,” Prest told me Monday. “I just don’t let go.”
Thank you hugely.
After nearly 70 years of racing, what happened for the first time during the 1944 Triple Crown?
Answer to Sunday’s trivia: The next time you find yourself mowing the lawn instead of golfing or fishing, just keep muttering the name of Edwin Beard Budding under your breath. In the early 1800s, this English engineer was impressed by a machine he found at a local clothing mill. It used a bladed reel that could trim the irregular nap from wool cloth to give it a smooth finish. Budding decided the same principle could be applied to cutting grass, and, on Aug. 31, 1830, he was granted a British patent for what is often considered the world’s first lawn mower, a 19-inch-wide machine made of wrought iron. At first, it was used as a practical replacement for the labor-intensive scythe to keep sports fields and large botanical gardens looking neat. But over the course of the next century, inventors improved upon the idea to create first horse-drawn mowers (c. 1840) and steam-powered contraptions that reportedly took several hours to warm up to operating pressure (c. 1893). Finally, in 1902, the Ransomes in England produced the first gasoline-powered mower, but it would take another 12 years before the Ideal Power Mower Co. of Lansing, Mich., followed suit in the United States. Now, it is the irreplaceable answer to the weekly drudgery of keeping lawns manicured.