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Unexplained Fall Still a Mystery 60 Years Later
September 21, 1943
By Ken Freeze, PACS, USCG (ret)

“I heard a plane pass over and when I looked up I saw what I thought was a bag falling.  I went over to see what it was and found the man’s body.”  Arthur Brouse, 1943

When a plane falls out of the sky and the crew is killed, finding the cause is of paramount importance for many reasons.  Besides discovering the cause to ensure it doesn't happen again,  it can also bring some level of closure to loved ones left behind.

However, when AP1 Carroll Byrd fell from a perfectly sound Grumman Goose while flying over Pennsylvania on September 21, 1943, investigators were presented with a mystery that still exists to this day.

A Quite Afternoon Picking Tomatoes

It was a Tuesday afternoon,  as four members of the Arthur Whitmer family were in a field picking tomatoes, about one mile west of Kratzerville, Pennsylvania . Around 2:10, as they made their way through the vines, their attention was drawn to the sound of an object hurtling to the earth at a terrific speed. 

They saw it hit the ground with a great thud in a freshly ploughed field. One of them said that it hit with such force that it rebounded from the ploughed earth about eight to ten feet into the air. They were about 100 yards away and felt the vibration from the terrific impact.  They thought at first the falling body resembled a mailbag dropped from a mail plane, but when they ran over to get a better look, they discovered the crushed form of a human being.

The body had landed in a field on the farm of Arthur Brouse. "I heard the plane pass over and when I looked up I saw what I thought was a bag falling," said Brouse "I went over to see what it was and found it was a man's body.

Meanwhile the "mystery" plane continued its westward flight without slowing or showing any sign of distress.

Authorities Stumped

Authorities in nearby Selinsgrove notified naval officials with the Fourth Naval District in Philadelphia. The next day, Naval Intelligence officers arrived to try to unravel the mystery. One aspect of the mystery that was making it even more so was the fact that the plane that the mystery man had fallen from continued to fly westward after the incident.

The investigators found that two military service identification tags had been found on the body. One was bearing the name of a naval officer and the other the name of a Coast Guardsman.

By the end of the day a naval district spokesman stated, "We know no more about the man's identity than we do about the plane, which is nothing."

Case Closed - Sort Of. . .

It wasn't long before Naval Investigators were able to identify the fallen soul and the plane.  

His name was Carroll Rex Byrd, 26, a Coast Guard Aviation Pilot and Radioman, and a resident of Tecate, California, a border town east of San Diego, Calif.  He enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1934, and served two years out of San Diego, and another two years out of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, until his honorable discharged in 1938 as a radioman. Then, in 1939 he joined the Coast Guard, serving two and one-half years as an aviation radioman before heading off for flight training at NAS Pensacola where he earned his 'wings' in April 1943. 

The plane was a Coast Guard Grumman Goose, V225, which had been recently transferred from the Navy to the Coast Guard. It was being ferried from the Coast Guard Air Station at Floyd Bennett Field, New York, to the Coast Guard Air Station near San Francisco, California.

However, the cause of the fall still alluded the investigators.

Locals Have Their Own Theories

While the investigation continued, speculation among the local people in the county ran wild with theories has to how and why Byrd fell.

One theory declared it a clear case of suicide by jumping from the plane; and another ventured the assertion that it might have been a case of murder by another member of the aircrew by pushing his victim out of the plane. Still another theory asserted that the aviator might have fallen through an open bomb bay, or that he opened the safety hatch and either fell from the plane or was sucked into the slip stream; while still another theory maintained that he might have been working on the plane when it took off and kept hanging suspended in the air until he could no longer support himself. 

While rumors and theories were abundant, facts were less forthcoming. One fact that remains to this day is that the exact circumstances surrounding the aviator's death is still not known.  It was reported later by the crew of the Coast Guard Goose that he had crawled from the interior of the plane to the outside for the purpose of repairing a radio antenna, and that they did not become aware that he was missing until some twenty minutes later.  This lack of knowledge of his fall serves as a plausible explanation for the strange continuance of the plane on its course.

In a letter that his wife, Cora, sent to Mr. and Mrs. Brouse that December, she recounted the statements by crew members that Byrd had crawled from the interior of the plane to repair a radio antenna.  Upon reading the letter, Brouse recalled that he was working in his field and found a piece of thin metal about half an inch wide and a yard long, resembling whalebone. He joked with his wife about "losing part of her corset" and threw the piece of metal away. The letter reminded him of this piece of metal and he found it again. He showed it to several persons with knowledge of radio apparatus who said that it might well be such a part as is used in airplane radio sets. 

In the letter she also said, "My husband had always been daring to the point of disregarding rules and his own personal safety."

Byrd Heads Home for the Last Time

Byrd's body was taken to the Sutton Funeral Parlor in Selinsgrove, then shipped to the Navy Hospital in Philadelphia. From there it was on to San Diego, California, where burial took place October 1, 1943.  He left his wife Cora, an eight-month old daughter, his mother and two brothers in the service.

In the end, the only person who knew for certain what really happened, was Byrd himself. 

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