By DAVID FISHER
Many Weakley Countians may not be aware that on Sunday, September 5, 1943, an Army B-17 bomber, which had taken off from Dyersburg Army Air Field near Halls, Tennessee was en route to Gulfport, Mississippi, when the 10-man crew became lost. The aircraft exploded in flight and crashed between Palmersville and Latham, Tennessee, resulting in the death of seven crew members.
The Dyersburg Army Air Field, 3rd Air Force, was a WWII B-17 training facility. The base was the home of the 346th Bomb Group that was operational from 1942-1945. It was the last, and largest, stateside training base for the B-17 crews before going overseas. The Bomber Command III Bomber’s mission was to train units, crews, and individuals for bombardment, fighter, and reconnaissance operations.
The cause of the explosion was not released to the public at the time, but declassified military documents have since shed some light on the subject. At approximately 2:45 p.m., on the day of the crash, several local citizens witnessed a plane suddenly explode in midair over the Palmersville and Latham Obion River bottoms. They later learned that three of the 10 airmen on board managed to parachute to safety, but the rest were killed in the crash. The explosion scattered pieces of the aircraft over a wide area.
According to official records, on the morning the plane left, it was raining and overcast, so visibility was very poor. Additionally, the flight indicator had stopped working and the airmen didn’t know which direction they were flying. The B-17, also known as the “Flying Fortress,” was 50 miles off course, and was headed north instead of south. They were flying along the Obion River, but thought they were following the Mississippi River.
The aircraft reached 8,000 ft., but the weather was so bad they tried to get up above the clouds, so they climbed to 17,000 ft. However, at that height, the turbulence raised and lowered the plane 3,000 ft. at a time. The crew was in for quite a ride. The plane went up to 20,000 ft., but they still weren’t above the clouds and the turbulence was terrible. The pilot chose to go up to 22,000 ft., but the air was a little too thin for the engines, and three of them started overheating. One of the cowls of the engines on the starboard side got hot and the engine blew out. This sent the plane into a hard spiral to the starboard side (right). The pilot managed to straighten out the aircraft and told everyone to put their parachutes on. But not all of them managed to do so in time.
Then, the engine on the portside (left) blew out and the plane took a hard spiral to the left. This caused the upper gun turret equipped with a .50 caliber machine gun, to break off. The plane started breaking apart and the rivets began popping out. When the top turret started breaking apart, 2nd armorer / assistant radio operator, Sgt. Clement J. Finai from Brooklyn, New York, was tossed out the side door and did not survive. He landed in a sorghum patch, still clutching a radio knob in his hand.
The bombardier’s door came open, and the bombardier, 2nd Lt. Andrew G. Kohihof of Floral Park, New York, was thrown through the glass nose of the aircraft. However, he managed to open his parachute and made it safely to the ground. A written report by 2nd Lt. Kohihof states, “I was thrown from the plane as a result of the explosion. After I pulled my ripcord, I looked around and saw two chutes below me, and pieces of the plane were falling nearby.”
The radio operator, Sgt. Clyde Mullins of Praise, Kentucky, told Army officials that he was sending a position report, when he heard a loud crash and the plane went into a nose dive. He said, “I lost consciousness and was thrown out of the ship. After I bailed out, I saw the ship falling in several pieces.” Mullins landed in the Obion River Bottom and was buried up to his waist in the soft earth. Local citizens dug him out of the mud, and he only had a few bruises.
The co-pilot, 2nd Lt. Leonard J. Morence of South Bend, Indiana, only had time to strap his parachute onto his legs, before exiting the B-17, but not across his chest. So, he parachuted from the plane hanging upside down, while hanging on to the straps. Fortunately, Morence managed to flip over on his back, just before touching down on Hwy 89, so he wasn’t badly injured. Mr. Fields picked him up and took him back to the crash site. “They told me, when they came to me that they only saw three chutes open,” Morence recalled.
The pilot, 2nd Lt. Harry N. Anderson, age 24, from West Palm Beach, Florida, was found dead in the fuselage.
Other members of the crew, who died were: 2nd Lt. John A. Stinson, Jr., a navigator from Houston, Texas; Sgt. Donald A. Gooder, assistant engineer from Wilder, Idaho; Sgt. O. Raymond French, gunner from Sayre, Oklahoma; Sgt. Garland F. Nincehelser, gunner from Peru, Nebraska; and Staff Sgt. Milton Gersfeld, an engineer from New York City, New York, whose body was not found until the next day. The body of one of those killed in the crash hit a tree with such force that the tree was uprooted.
The fuselage was found next to Gilbert Workman’s barn with three of the airmen still inside. Two more crew members were discovered between where the fuselage was located and the river bottom. Three additional crewmen were located in the river bottom itself. Two of the other crew members went through the trees, but, unfortunately, didn’t have their parachutes on.
Only the three survivors remained to tell what happened that fateful day. They were: Second Lt. Kohihof, Sgt. Clyde Mullins and 2nd Lt. Morence.
Following the crash, Gene Moody, who lived in the area, drove to the nearest phone and called authorities at Camp Tyson Army Base near Paris, Tennessee. They sent ambulances to aid the survivors and take charge of the dead. Guards were sent from Halls Air Base to secure and guard the site. Heavy equipment from the airbase removed the wreckage, which took several weeks.
Jackie Laird, director of the North West TN Eagle Riders, said he learned that the B-17 that crashed in Weakley County was going to join up with other aircraft to form a squadron that would be flying overseas in preparation for bombing runs into Germany. However, there were so many problems with the B-17s that, of the 11 planes scheduled to rendezvous in Mississippi, only eight made the trip. Two of the aircraft had mechanical problems and one crashed in Weakley County.
According to an official military report issued following an investigation into the cause of the crash: By climbing to an altitude higher than the plane is designed to fly, “the airplane exceeded the maximum safe operating conditions, which placed great strain on the airplane. It is believed, because of the statements of the co-pilot and bombardier concerning this altitude of flight and the loss of control surface, the airplane went out of control and into a spin, thereby, disintegrating and crashing.”