By: Capt. Darrell Lou-Hing (Ret.)
It was a dark and stormy night in 1943 when a B-24 bomber slammed into the mountains above Trinidad.
The impact sheared a swath of forest 150 feet wide and 345 feet long on the steep hillside. Explosions set surrounding trees on fire. The crew died on impact.
In 1943, after taking off from a military field in Waller Field a B24 Bomber crashed into the Northern Range. On board were 9 American Soldiers who were killed in the crash.
The crash site is located between Aripo and Cumaca overlooking the Valencia Dam.
Before the days of radar and computer navigation, crews had to find their way through clouds by dead reckoning. If calculations were slightly wrong, or a wind blew them off course, they could (and often did) slam into the mountains. “There’s an old saying among pilots, The clouds have rocks in them.”
In 1993 a team of soldiers headed by commander Gaylord Kelshall climbed the strenuous mountains to discover the wreckage. What remains after a pilot finds those rocks is little more than mattress-size shreds of aluminum and engine parts strewn over a hillside. That’s what Gaylord and the Crash Chasers were looking for above Trinidad: a glint of metal in the woods. A 55,000-pound bomber shouldn’t be hard to find. But time had hidden much.
“Wait, what’s that?” he yelled to a group spread out in the trees. “I see metal ahead.”
To the untrained eye there was nothing, but then, a few steps on, there it was: torn aluminum skin from the flank of the plane. Then a few steps farther: a huge Boeing engine with its bent propeller still attached. Beyond it, more pieces glinted in the woods. Time and growing trees had tried to hide them, but for the wreck chasers, even after the last witnesses have died, the history will live on. He had been a pilot, and particularly interested in planes, then he spotted a hunk of engine. ‘How did that get way up here?” some of the soldiers wondered. Then he found more pieces. It seemed to be a plane. As a Military historian he realised it was, in fact, a massive, four-engine B-24 bomber that hit the hill in 1943.
Speaking with Commander Kelshall, a historian, pilot and head of Special Forces at that time. He commented, “The aircraft had 12 guns only 3 discovered in the bushes the others may be buried in the forest. A lot of the engine parts are still there. He remembered on that day a snake bit a soldier and an officer had to run to Valencia to get the Helicopter. The soldier was made to lie down and wait until help arrived. As a commander he remembered it was one of his most challenging explorations.
Finding the plane crash site, there are 2 mountain ridges to descend and 3 ridges to ascend and all rated strenuous and with no clear footpath. As one move forward each ridge gets steeper and steeper to climb. Someone on the scout said, “Why did the pilot choose such a high and steep mountain to crash the plane? However, the trail is well marked and the general idea is to stay on the ridge until one gets to the crest. The mountains are v-shaped and one is either going straight up or straight down.
Posted by Darrell Lou-Hing on Friday, December 23, 2016
The trek starts just after the Cumaca Quarry where there is a landmark cross. The narrow and bushy trails lead down to the river. This is the source of the Turure River where water from the mountains deposited limestone into the stream. In the valley, there is no recognizable trail but the direction is to head east climbing and descending the three never-ending ridges. Each Ridge gets steeper and steeper testing once determination, patience, and overall fitness. It can take as long as 3-4 hours to reach the plane crash site to discover only the engine and mechanical parts of the 1940’s plane crash. The rest of debris either scattered in the ants fill bushes or removed from the mountain by an opportunist. One should ask if the effort is worth it but as a true Fitness Walker it’s all about the essence of adventure.
THE B-24 FROM STEPHAN AMBROSE’S BOOK “THE WILD BLUE”
The B-24 was built like a 1930 Mack Truck, except that it had an aluminum skin that could be cut with a knife. It could carry a heavy load far and fast but it had no refinements. Steering the four-engine airplane was difficult and exhausting, as there was no power except the pilot’s muscles. It had no windshield wipers, so the pilot had to stick his head out the side window to see during a rain. Breathing was possible only by wearing an oxygen mask, it was cold and clammy, smelling of rubber and sweat and had to be worn above 10,000 feet. There was no heat, despite temperatures that at 20,000 feet and higher got as low as 40 or even 50 degrees below zero. The wind blew through the plane like a fury, especially from the waist gunner’s windows and whenever the bomb bay doors were open. The oxygen mask often froze to the wearer’s face. If the men at the waist guns touched their machine guns with bare hands, the skin froze to the metal.
The crews found that just entering their B-24s was difficult. The bombardier, navigator, and nose turret gunner were forced to squat down, almost on their hands and knees then they would slide up their stations through the nose wheel well of the ship. Inside, the three men had to squeeze them-selves into a cramped compartment.
The bombardier squatted on a small seat right behind the nose gunner, where he hunched over the bombsight or simply sat on the floor. The navigator sat at a tiny retractable stool, really too small to sit on, with the navigator’s table and holding his charts in front of him. It was little more than a thin shelf on the bulkhead that separated the nose from the flight deck. At eye level, he could see the feet of the pilot and co-pilot.
The other crew members entered the plane by crawling up through the open bomb bay doors about three feet off the ground. There was a switch on the fuselage to open the bomb bay doors. Once inside they would stand upright, step onto the narrow catwalk, and then move forward onto the flight deck or into the waist gun area. The radioman sat at a small desk facing his radio sets, just behind and below the co-pilot. The engineer stood between the pilot and co-pilot at takeoff, helping to monitor the engines and fuel gauges. In the air he took his position behind the pilot and just across from the radioman. When required, he climbed into the top turret, where he stood, his feet on a metal bar inches above the radioman’s head.
The waist gunners and the ball turret gunner, and the tail gunner used the catwalk to get to their positions. The tail gunner, standing on a tiny platform, slipped his legs into the turret. There was not enough room for him to wear his parachute. The waist gunner – two before mid- 1944, one thereafter as the danger from enemy fighter planes diminished, stood. At altitude the bitterly cold wind howled through the open windows of the waist area making this position and that of the ball and tail turret gunners miserable, covering them and their guns with a thin veil of frost. The ball turret was the most physically uncomfortable, isolated, and terrifying position on the plane. The gunner climbed in the ball, pulled the hatch closed, and was then lowered into position. They were suspended beneath the plane, staring down between their knees at the earth below. If a bailout was necessary, they relied on the waist gunner if he was alive to engage the hydraulic system to raise the turret and help him out and into the parachutes.
There were no bathrooms. To urinate there were two small relief tubes, one forward and one aft, which were almost impossible to use without spilling because of the heavy layer of clothing the men wore. Plus the tubes were often clogged with frozen urine. Defecating could be done only in a receptacle lined with a wax paper bag. A man had to be desperate to use it because of the difficulty of removing enough clothing and exposing bare skin to the arctic cold. The bags were dropped out of the waist gun windows or through the open bomb bay doors.
There were no kitchen facilities, no way to warm up food or coffee, but anyway there was no food unless a crew member had packed in a C ration or a sandwich.
With no pressurization, pockets of gas in a man’s intestinal tract could swell like balloons and cause him to double over in pain.
There was no aisle to walk down, only the eight-inch wide catwalk running beside the bombs and over the bomb bay doors used to move forward and aft. It had to be done with care, as the aluminum doors, rolled up into the fuselage instead of opening outward on a hinge like a B-17. If you fell off the catwalk on to the bomb bay doors you may go through the 100-pound capacity doors. So if a man slipped he would go through.
The seats were not padded, could not be reclined and were cramped into so small a space that a man had almost no chance to stretch and none whatsoever to relax. Absolutely nothing was done to make it comfortable for the pilot, the co-pilot, or the other eight men in the crew, even though most flights lasted for eight hours, sometimes ten or more, seldom less than six hours.
It was called a Liberator. That was a perhaps unusual name for a plane designed to drop high explosives on the enemy well behind the front lines, but it nevertheless was the perfect name. The planes existed and were flown for one purpose only, to carry 500 or 1,000-pound bombs and drop them accurately over enemy targets.
Consolidated Aircraft Corporation first made it, with the initial flight in 1939. Consolidated, along with the Ford Motor Company, Douglas Aircraft Company and North American Aviation together called the Liberator Production Pool. Together they produced more than 18,300 Liberators and about 5,000 more than the total numbers of B-17s. The Liberator was not operational before World War II and was not operational after the war. Nearly every B-24 was cut up into pieces of scrap in 1945 and 1946, or left to rot on Pacific islands. The number of people involved in the making it, servicing it, ground crews and in flying the B-24s outnumbered those involved with any other airplane, in any country, in any time. There were more B-24s than any other American airplane ever built.
It would be an exaggeration to say that the B-24 won the war for the Allies. But don’t ask how they could have won the war without it. The Army Air Forces needed thousands of pilot, and tens of thousands of air and ground crew members to keep them flying. It needed to gather them and train them and supply them and service the planes from a country in which only a relatively small number of men knew anything at all about how to fly even a single-engines airplane or fix it. There are many stories how a B-24 had brought home it’s crew with only 3, sometimes 2 or even just one engine running.
THE CREW’S EQUIPMENT AND PROTECTIVE PARAPHERNALIA
We flew most of our missions at an altitude of more than 21,000 feet, some of then lasting eight to ten hours, as in the case of our missions to Berlin and Munich. In an open unpressurized B-24 at this altitude there was not enough oxygen for you to function efficiently and it was also very cold, with temperatures in the range of 50 to 60 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, exposing any uncovered skin to numbing frostbite.
Above 10,000 feet you had to breathe oxygen through a mask connected by a tube to a large oxygen tank near your battle position. If you had to leave your position for any reason, you had to strap a portable oxygen tank around your neck. This tank held enough oxygen for about seven minutes.
On the crew’s first mission Becchetti became trapped in the nose turret when the airstream loosened and jammed the turret door during a spin. This exposed Becchetti to a strong flow of air into the turret. He returned to base with his left cheek frostbitten by the few minutes of cold air.
At 50 or 60 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, it didn’t take long for exposed skin to freeze. To combat this, each crew member was clothed in a fur-lined flying suit and boots and a heated flying suit, with heated gloves and heavy heated boots plugged into the suit, which in turn was plugged to the B-24’s electrical system. This equipment was somewhat delicately wired, so it was not unusual for a part of it to malfunction and turn out no heat. When it failed, you simply endured the cold with whatever clothing you had and cursed the equipment.
The crew was held together by an intercom system, in which every crew member could hear every message. To speak to a specific person, you used such a phrase as this, “Pilot to bombardier, begin your bomb run.” All other members of the crew would hear this message. You wore a leather helmet with a built-in headset and a snap-on throat microphone, both with a separate cord plugged in at your position. If you had to leave your position, as in the case of McHenry’s going out into the bomb bay to release a hung bomb, you would be out of communication, so you made sure that somebody was watching you whenever something pulled you away from your intercom connection.
FLAK AND BODY PROTECTION
Flak or the shrapnel from anti-aircraft shells exploding near your plane was the principal danger, especially over the target. A direct hit could bring down an airplane, of course, but the explosions also projected jagged pieces of metal of varying sizes that could penetrate the thin aluminum skin of the B-24. Depending on the nearness of the explosion, these pieces of metal could enter the plane and merely fall to the floor without doing any damage except for the hole in the fuselage or they could come through the fuselage at bullet-like speed and cause serious damage to the plane’s equipment or serious and sometimes fatal injury to a crew member. Occasionally, a piece of metal would enter the plane and ricochet noisily and frighteningly off the inner walls and structure two or three times before falling to the floor. On one of our missions a piece of flak ricocheted in this manner until it struck our waist gunner, lodging itself in his temple just below the skin. Fortunately, the flak had spent itself, or it would have killed the gunner.
A flak vest and a metal helmet were our protection against flak. The vest had two panels held together by snaps at the shoulders, so that the chest and back were protected. Each panel was constructed of cloth-covered squares of metal attached so that the suit would be flexible.
The myth among bomber crews was that flak bursts usually occurred below the airplane, sending flying metal upward into the plane, thus endangering their masculine virility. Because of this and because of the weight of the flak suit, many airmen chose to sit on at least one of the protective panels, if not both of them. Needless to say, flak suits were always in demand, because airmen hoarded them and hid them. The ideal was to wear one flak suit over your chest and back and to line your seat with another flak suit for double protection.
It was easy to put on a metal helmet, so you wore one in flak barrages over the target, if the helmet was available and if you remembered to put it on. Often, these helmets were never returned to base. They were often used for toilet emergencies and thrown out of the plane before landing, which may explain why helmets were not always available.
EMERGENCY OVER WATER
Crossing the North Sea at the beginning of a mission and the possibility of having to ditch on the return was reason enough for you to wear a “Mae West” life preserver on missions out of England. However, the waters of the North Sea were so cold that life expectancy was about five minutes in a ditching situation, but all of us wore the “Mae West.”
EMERGENCY OVER AIR
As we discovered on our 32nd mission, parachuting or bailing out of an airplane is sometimes necessary. For this reason, with the exception of the pilot and the co-pilot, who had back parachutes which formed part of their seats, all of us wore a parachute harness over our flying clothes and kept a chest parachute near at all times to hook onto the harness for a bail-out.
The chest parachutes were “right handed,” that is, the ripcord was on the right when the chute was correctly hooked on the harness. To bail out, you first checked that all parts of the harness were hooked together properly and that the harness was snug on your body, especially around your legs, where a loose harness could injure you seriously in the groin area when the parachute opened and stopped your free fall.
In a controlled bail-out, you left the plane by the camera hatch, at the rear between the waist section and the tail gun. In an emergency, you left the plane through any opening available, trusting that you would fall clear of the tail section.
In our bail-out on July 31, 1944, we used the camera hatch. Six of us bailed out first, so we were able to check one another’s harness before hooking our chest pack on the harness. With arms crossed over the parachute, each of us in turn faced the front of the plane, squatted on the front edge of the camera hatch, and then fell backwards down through the hatch and out of the plane. McHenry bailed out alone a few minutes later without the advantage of having others check his equipment.
THE COMPLETELY EQUIPPED BOMBER CREWMAN
Thus when fully equipped and protected, you were thoroughly bundled against the sub-zero cold. You had a fur-lined flying suit over a heated suit with electrical connection to your gloves and to your heavy fur lined boots. You had your yellow “Mae West” life preserver draped around your neck and strapped at your sides.
Over this you wore the flak suit, covering your chest and back. In case of a bail-out or a ditching at sea you could quickly unsnap the two panels of the flak suit and let them drop to the floor. Finally, you clipped on your parachute harness, making sure that it was properly hooked together and snug on your body and legs. On your head you wore a light leather helmet with intercom earphones sewn into the helmet, and around your neck you snapped on a throat microphone. Over the leather helmet, you wore a steel helmet through flak barrages. You wore goggles to prevent frostbite around the eyes and, of course, an oxygen mask covering the mouth and nose connected by a tube to an oxygen tank.. At high altitudes it was necessary every few minutes to swing aside the oxygen mask to shake off the frost and to dry off your face. And you always had your chest parachute within easy reach in case you had to hook it on the harness in a hurry to bail out.
Unfortunately I have not been able so far to locate the names of that unfortunate crew or the reason for the crash.
Darrell Lou-Hing is a retired pilot and avid aviation history buff
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