Q: I was trying to tell my sister, Patricia Lanaghan, about what I remember about a P-51 exploding in Belleville as it buzzed the pilot’s family. My memory isn’t as good as it was when I was a News-Democrat paper boy. Anyway, I was going by the window at Signal Hill School on my way to sharpen my pencil when I saw the plane making loops and dives. During what was his last dive, the plane exploded. I told my teacher what I had seen, and she called me from the window and led the class in prayer for the pilot. I believe it was between 10:30 and 11:15 when it happened. At noon, I jumped on my bike and claimed I was going home for lunch even though I always brought a sack lunch to school. I lived in Sherwood Forest off North 82nd Street. I saw all the cops at about 8100 W. Main, and I went down the alley parallel to Main toward the incident. I saw people covering a bush where the pilot was. Part of the plane was near Carolyn Thompson’s garage to my left. I believe part of the wing was on Main Street, and the motor landed on the golf course. The year may have been around 1953 to 1955. My sister still lives in Belleville and reads your column.
The Rev. Dale Marshall, of Washburn, Tenn.
A: Your sister has no need to worry. After reading accounts of the tragedy in the News-Democrat and Daily Advocate, I find the experience obviously seared a highly accurate picture into your brain. Judge for yourself:
Just before noon on Friday, Oct. 17, 1952, Bill Shive was toiling away at Sterling Steel Casting in Sauget when he received a frantic phone call from his mother. A plane had exploded over her house at 8012 W. Main St., showering debris —including live ammunition — over a three-mile stretch of West Main Street.
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“As I recall, my mother was hanging up clothes and this airplane comes down right over her head, so to speak, “ the late former president of the St. Clair County Historical Society once told me. “She was scared and yelled and ran in the house.”
Wondering if the old homestead were still in one piece, Shive forgot about lunch at the plant he owned and raced to Belleville. He found the house had a very close call — one of the plane's engines had fallen into what was essentially their backyard on West Washington Street. Elsewhere, Shive watched as hundreds abandoned cars on West Main to survey a horrific scene.
According to newspaper reports the next day, 2nd Lt. Carlos V. Del Mercado was piloting his F-51 Mustang along with several other planes on routine patrol from Scott Air Force Base. At about 11:40 a.m., he passed over his own house at 2215 W. Main St., perhaps waggling his wings at wife Joan, whom he had married just three weeks before.
Moments later, as he cruised along at 1,500 feet over Juanita Place, the plane inexplicably blew up, leaving a trail of wreckage from St. Henry Preparatory Seminary at 5901 W. Main to Mount Carmel Cemetery on the city's western outskirts.
“It looked like there were pieces from a half dozen planes, there were so many of them,” Mrs. James Fickel, of 8100 W. Main, who also was hanging wash that morning, told reporters.
The bulk of the plane — the fuselage and tail — was found in a slightly wooded area at 80th and West A. One wing fell at 82nd and B while the other landed a half-block from the fuselage.
When Mrs. John Grogan, of 7928 W. A St., heard the explosion, she thought an awning had fallen from a second-story window. Instead, she walked outside and found the dead pilot’s body in her front yard. Mrs. Robert Kurrus, of 16 N. 78th, reported one of the pilot’s shoes falling in her yard as she sat on her porch.
On the ground, only a handful of homes sustained minor damage from the falling debris. Even more miraculous, no one was injured from the several hundred rounds of ammunition the plane carried, although several bullets did explode, striking vehicles in the area. The plane had been armed with six .50-caliber machine guns.
Q: Sometimes when talking about the old days (before the police became outraged by young people drinking beer), a few of us reminisce about all the places in St Clair, Clinton, and Randolph counties that were great spots to go — the Whirlaway, the MileAway, the Chatterbox, the American Legion in St Libory, etc. But of all of them, the one that stood out was Sparwasser's Brown Derby, which was a supper club/nightclub on South Belt West behind Belleville Township High School and next to Poelker’s Garage. It had Peanuts Walum's Jazz Band and a singer. Great music — modern jazz — and we fit in with no problem. It just seemed we went off to college and when we came back, it was gone. Any clues as to what happened?
The Belleville Nostalgia Committee
A: Unfortunately for you and your fellow young revelers, the Sparwassers may have let the liquor flow a little too freely, forcing city officials to put a lid on the Brown Derby.
According to city directories, Millard and Bonnie Spasswasser were running a hardware store in Millstadt in the early 1950s when they decided they wanted to change the type of screwdrivers they were offering, so to speak. Sometime in the mid ’50s, they opened their Brown Derby at 2209 South Belt West.
But in early 1964, two 18-year-olds — Zenik Petryk and William Schrempp — accused the bar of serving alcohol to minors, and Mayor Charles Nichols revoked the bar’s liquor license. According to the Dec. 1, 1964, News-Democrat, the Sparwassers denied the two teens’ accusations before the Illinois Liquor Control Commission, but Nichols’ decision apparently was upheld because the next city directory listed the address as vacant. Today it would be found somewhere in the Poelker’s-Liese Lumber complex on that stretch of South Belt.
Do you remember how Ted Kaczynski came to be called the Unabomber?
Answer to Sunday’s trivia: During its first decade on TV, “Death Valley Days” was hosted by a character called The Old Ranger as played by actor Stanley Andrews. But when he left, the show’s producers decided to use celebrity hosts. So who was the first? None other than Ronald Reagan, who also acted in 21 of the show’s 452 episodes. He was followed by Rosemary DeCamp, Robert Taylor and Dale Robertson. Bonus fact: The show featured ads for 20-Mule Team Borax, Boareem and Boraxo because the Pacific Coast Borax Co. mined much of its borax in Death Valley.