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Witnesses tell the story of the WWII B-17 crash

This WWII B-17 aircraft known as the Flying Fortress, is like the one that crashed and exploded in northern Weakley County during a flight from the Dyersburg Army-Air Base near Halls, TN to Gulfport, MS, in 1943.


According to an article in the Dresden Enterprise published shortly after the disaster, several local residents from the Latham and Palmersville communities reported they witnessed a WWII B-17 plane catch fire and explode, which scattered wreckage over a large area between the two towns, including what was at that time, the Wilkinson, Stowe and Bondurant farms. To this day, people hunting or logging in the bottoms, report finding parts of the plane scattered throughout the woods of the Palmersville and Latham in the North Fork of the Obion River bottoms.

Palmersville Fire Chief Joe David Laws recalls what his father, Joe Thomas Laws, (1926-1996), and his uncle, Dairel Wade Laws (1933-2000), told him about witnessing the crash. “I believe they were the closest to the crash, being only about half-a-mile away from where it came down. They told me they heard something that sounded like popcorn popping, which turned out to be the plane’s rivets popping out under stress, as it came apart.” 

Another eyewitness to the plane crash was Weakley Countian Joe Means, who was 12 years old when the incident occurred. Means said, “I’ve never forgotten what it was like to hear and see something like that.” 

Means stated the crash occurred close to his grandparents’ home, located near Brundige School. “I saw it when it fell, as it came through the clouds. I ran in the house and told my mother, ‘It’s raining bullets.’ Mom was sewing, and dad was leaning across the bed. I said, ‘A plane fell on Pa’s house.’ And dad told me to get out, there weren’t any planes falling. Then, my mother said, ‘I heard a noise.’ 

“Dad had an old A-Model truck and we finally talked him into going down to Pa’s. When we got there, there was no plane. So, we went down the road a bit farther. We went across the bridge, and when we came around the corner, that’s where the main part of the plane was located, and it was smoking. So we stopped, and there were seven or eight people already there. It was scattered across Enis Wilkerson’s field, and beside his barn was another good-sized piece.”

Means recalls taking several unfired ammo shells home. But, when his mother caught him hitting one with a rock, she made him turn them over to the military authorities. He states there was a .50 caliber machine gun that was still missing for several days after the crash. One of the military personnel told those in the neighborhood, “If that machine gun is not found by in the morning, we’ll start going through houses.” Means said. “I think that got somebody’s attention, because it was found leaning up against a tree the next morning.”

Another eyewitness, Hugh Brann, who was only twelve years old at the time, said he witnessed the plane falling while riding his bicycle with friends west of Palmersville. He said, “The plane just seemed to come apart as it flew over us.” Brann stated he could hear it as it fell from the sky, and estimated the crash occurred approximately five miles northwest of Palmersville.

“It was quite cloudy,” Brann said. “I lived in Palmersville. And three or four of my friends and I would ride our bicycles on Sunday afternoon. I don’t know why, but we decided to ride to the lake. We got about half-a-mile out of Palmersville headed this way, and we heard a noise. It was an explosion. It sounded like something awful, and we knew something had happened to an airplane. 

“We decided to go to it and rode as fast as we could toward Latham,” Brann said. “After we got about three miles, cars started passing us, one right after the other, headed toward the crash site. One guy stopped and asked if I wanted a ride, so I dumped by bike in the ditch and rode out to the crash site. 

“It was very bad and it was hard for a 12-year-old to think about. All of them were young men and had not been in the service too long. 

“It makes me think about what they did for our country, and for us. 

“Of course, they weren’t in Germany fighting the Nazis, but they were getting ready to go,” Brann said. “Most of them were volunteers. So, they were heroes. They were getting ready to bomb places in Germany to stop their war production.” He noted, during WWII, the U.S. flew bombing raids at night, at first. But, when they started flying during the daytime, there was a 50 percent loss of life in most of the raids. 

When he grew up, Brann served in the U.S. Air Force for four years, and was in England for two-and-a-half years during the Korean War. He was a member of the American Legion for 61 years. Brann worked as a rural mail carrier for 26 years, and served as post master for another 10 years after that. 

Brann stated he has traveled down East New Hope Church Road for many years while running his mail route. And as he passed by the crash site, he would think to himself that these were true heroes. But he never expected that a monument to these men would be erected. 

Jackie Laird said it was hearing the stories about the crash that prompted him to try to do something to recognize the airmen who perished in the B-17 accident. This led to placing a monument at the crash site in honor of their service. 


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