Q: I read with great interest your article on June 14 about the crash of the AT-18 near Hecker in 1944. It sparked a memory from my childhood of seeing the aftermath of a crash in Lebanon. I think it was a military aircraft, and the location was near the intersection of routes 50 and 4. I think I was very young so it likely was in the very late ’40s or early ’50s. Any help would be greatly appreciated. Keep up the good work.
John J. Lampe, of Cahokia
A: April 30, 1950, was shaping up to be another lazy, peaceful Sunday afternoon in this picturesque town when a B-25 bomber, having just taken off from Scott Air Force Base, nose-dived into a residential neighborhood and exploded.
The plane’s six crewmen were all killed, four Lebanon residents were injured and a fifth went into shock, and 10 homes were damaged, one massively. Debris was scattered over a 400-yard-long swath, and several human limbs were found in trees as far as a block away from the crash site, according to a report in the May 1 Belleville News-Democrat.
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The twin-engine bomber had arrived at Scott the previous night from Perrin Air Force Base in Waco, Texas, its home base. Its mission was to pick up Col. Richmond Livingstone, who had returned to the area to attend a conference. Well-known in the area, he had been stationed at Scott for two years before being sent to Perrin that January.
But shortly after taking off at 12:30 p.m., the plane developed serious engine trouble. The pilot tried to ditch in an open field about 200 yards away, but wound up slamming into the 400 block of West Dee Street.
The resulting explosion set fire to the home of Frank Wolf at 426 W. Dee St. One wing of the plane tore through a corner of the living room before the bomber hit and uprooted a maple tree in the yard. A nose of one engine carved out a deep crater in the yard, where a tire and wheel also were found. Fortunately, Wolf, his wife and three children were on a weekend trip, but their home suffered an estimated $8,000 in damage.
Another piece of debris was found imbedded in the west wall of Walter Bridges’ new home at 418 W. Dee St., which also suffered fire damage. Bridges himself later was treated for burns and shock sustained while trying to battle the flames. His wife escaped potential death by inches when a metal fragment went whizzing by her head as she stood in the kitchen. A 3-foot slab of tree root landed in their bathtub.
Eight other houses on West Schuetz and West Dee sustained minor damage from flying debris, and three other civilians suffered burns.
“When I saw the plane the first time, I don’t believe it was more than 200 feet high,” said Wilbert Beck, of 420 W. Schuetz St, whose horse suffered minor injuries when struck by debris. “It skimmed the buildings on the north side of Dee Street as it came in from the northwest. Then it banked to the east and a tip of one wing cut a path through Wolf’s living room. It hit the tree. Then came the explosion. Sheets of blue flames shot out in all directions. I ran behind my summer kitchen to escape injury from the wreckage. Once I looked up and saw a body sailing over my head.”
No wonder you still have memories. It wasn’t the only fatal crash in that area during that approximate time period, though, my good friend Brian Keller, president of the O’Fallon Historical Society, pointed out. On Dec. 14, 1947, Robert E. Lee Willard, the O’Fallon owner of Willard Aero Repair Service, was killed when his single-engine Fairchild crashed at Cyril Lebert Airport south of Lebanon. And on Sept. 16, 1971, three crew members were killed when a C-9 Nightingale “flying hospital” crashed near Illinois 158, about a mile north of Wherry Road, while practicing touch-and-go landings. The plane destroyed the farm home of William Klotz before it slammed into a nearby grove of pine trees.
▪ Historic wreckage: Speaking of that AT-18 crash near Hecker, Charlotte Main, of the New Athens Historical Society, tells me that the town’s history museum has on display a piece of the plane signed by a group of Boy Scouts who witnessed the accident 73 years ago.
One of those Scouts was Loren Kolditz, now a historical society member who still has vivid memories of the day that he was enjoying a weekend at Camp Tamarawa, about a mile from the crash site.
“We were there eating lunch and camping,” he recalled. “I was about 12 years old, and there was this big explosion in the air. At the time we thought two airplanes had collided. They didn’t. It was the trainer plane that blew up. There were two pilots in it. That’s the first time I ever saw anyone who was deceased.
“We ran next door to the farmhouse of Mrs. Koch to have someone call Scott Air Force Base. Then we went up to Route 156, so we were on the highway when they came. We took them down to where the airplane debris had finally come down. That was kind of exciting.
“They told us, ‘Don’t pick up anything, don’t touch anything! Not one thing!’ But when we got back to camp, what happens? This one guy pulls out a piece from under his jacket. It was a big piece of airplane. And on that piece of metal are the names of all the Scouts who were there at that time.”
The museum, at 101 N. Johnson St. is open from 2-4 p.m. the third Sunday of every month. For more information, call 475-3289.
Where would you find the oldest airport in the world that is still in use?
Answer to Friday’s trivia: If you’re up early on Sundays, you can still hear the oldest show on network radio at 6 a.m. on KMOX. It’s “Music and the Spoken Word,” a show that has spotlighted the Mormon Tabernacle Choir since July 15, 1929. It is not, however, the oldest continuous show on radio. That honor belongs to the WSM Barn Dance in Nashville, Tenn., which started Nov. 28, 1925. Of course, you may know it better now as the Grand Ole Opry.