The Flying Fortress on Mount Tom
Near Holyoke, Massachusetts
July 9, 1946
of the World”
Gander was chosen for the construction of an
airport in 1935 because of its location close to
the northeast tip of the North American
continent. Construction of the airport began in
1936 and it was opened in 1938, with its first
landing on January 11 of that year, by Captain
Douglas Fraser flying a Fox Moth of Imperial
Airways. Within a few years it had four runways
and was the largest airport in the world. Its
official name until 1941 was Newfoundland
During the Second World War, as many as 10,000
Canadian, British and American military
personnel resided in Gander. The area became a
strategic post for the Royal Air Force Air Ferry
Command, renaming the airport to RCAF Station
Gander in 1941 , with over 20,000 American and
Canadian-built fighters and bombers stopping at
Gander en route to Europe.
After the Second World War, the RCAF handed
operation of the airfield back to the dominion
government in March 1946, and the town of Gander
grew as the airport was used as a refuelling
stop for civilian transatlantic flights, earning
its name "Cross-roads of the world" as nearly
all overseas flights had to stop there before
crossing the Atlantic.
Swords to Plowshares...
On the afternoon of July 9th,
1946, a Boeing B-17G “Flying Fortress” bomber,
tail number 43-39136, that had been converted
for passenger transit, departed from Gander –
bound for Mitchell Field on New York's Mitchell
Field, making a stopover at Westover Field near
Springfield, Massachusetts. The pilot of the
plane was Flight Officer Herman J. Valdrini Jr,
a native of Prescott, Arizona. He was a week
short of being discharged from the Army.
Also members aboard the bomber that were of the
US Army Air Corps.were Captain Henry A. Lebrecht,
1Lt Wayne L. Austin, Flight Officer Samuel A.
Turrentine,., Sergeant Daniel R. Roe, PFC Howard
E. Carson, PFC Eulogio Sanchez, PFC Rex A.
Carried as passengers aboard Lieutenant Frank G.
Meriam, Lieutenant Wilfred U. Johnson,
Lieutenant (junior grade) George E. Orford, YNC
Hugh J. Worth, RM2c Lee Winnard, BM2c Russell S.
Scott, RM3c Alfred L. Warm, RM3c Arnold J.
Simons, RM3c Ernest R. Gillis, ETM3c George R.
Benfield, ETM3c George E. Fleming, S1c Arthur C.
Miller, S1c Stanley P. Warshaw, S1c Gregory S.
Davenport, and S2c David F. Archilles, all of
the U.S. Coast Guard. Also aboard were two
civilians - Lieutenant Pasquale P. Coviello, an
assistant surgeon with the United States Public
Health Service (USPHS) that was assigned to the
Coast Guard, as well as Mr. Arthur Bailey of the
American Red Cross.
Slated originally to land at 8:27
in the evening, the bomber circled the town of
Holyoke for nearly two hours – steadily losing
altitude while circling. Cleared to land at
Westover Field, the bomber descended to down to
800 feet, on approach to the field, and in the
direction of Mount Tom – a steep, rugged
mountain peak on the west bank of the
Connecticut River. According to
Massachusetts highway patrolman Frank O'Connell,
a beacon was lit up on the hill, but the flight
crew of the bomber must not have seen it, or
they did, but too late.
A Frightful Sound...
At about 10:20 at night, the plane impacted at
the southern face of Mount Tom. It first brushed
the treetops, tearing off an engine and gasoline
containers which ignited, and then struck a
bare, rocky space further up the elevation -
exploding on impact, and starting several fires.
The first men to respond to crash stated the
heat was so intense that they were only able to
get within 100 yards of the crash.
The broken bodies of the occupants were
scattered among the plane's wreckage along a
400-foot swath torn by the bomber through dense
woods 200 yards from the hill top. Also
littering the path were a gold wrist watch, that
somehow withstood the shattering crash,
glittered among the ashes - its hands stopped at
10:20, the time of the crash. Vinyl musical
records, charred & torn parachutes, unopened,
lay in piles strewn among the wreckage, amongst
naval pea jackets, burned shoes, wallets,
blankets, and several letters.
It was quickly clear that the 25 people aboard
the plane were all killed on impact – deeming
the accident at New England's worst air disaster
at that time. Luckily, a heavy rain downpour and
misty weather prevented a serious forest fire
The impact was witnessed by many
of the thousands of people attending events at
the Mountain Park Amusement Area on the
mountain's eastern side. Holyoke police stated
that it was quite fortunate that the bomber had
not struck the park, as an estimated 4,000 were
in attendance there.
Robert Hodash, a correspondent for the
Associated Press, was at Mountain Park, and was
one of the first to reach the scene - following
the bed of an abandoned cable railway up to the
crash site. He described it as "a gruesome
spectacle" with some of the bodies "horribly
mangled," trees knocked down across a wide
strip, others singed by fire, and wreckage
scattered over hundreds of yards.
The following morning, hours after the crash,
the forests still were smoking, with occasional
bursts of flame keeping the Army guards busy
with portable extinguishers. The molten engine
nacelles and mangled parts of the fuselage still
gave off an intense heat from still-unburned
fuel. Charred wreckage was spread in small
pieces over the quarter mile square area.
The crash site went unmarked until 1994 when
someone piled rocks there as a memorial. Holyoke
resident Norman Cote noticed the rock memorial
and persuaded local officials to establish a
permanent monument on the old tramway. Fifty
years after the tragedy, a monument was
constructed at the crash site – dedicated on
July 6, 1996, the Saturday before the 50th
anniversary of the mishap.
Lieutenant Wilfred Johnson, a graduate of the
Coast Guard Academy class of 1944, was enshrined
in the Academy's Chase Hall's “Hall of Heroes”on
its “Wall of Remembrance”.