(Updated January, 2005)
Editor's Note: The official reports and photos used as a basis for part of this story were provided by Richard Freeman of Hamburg, a member of Aviation Archeological Research and Investigation, a group which aims at investigating and documenting military air crashes in the United States.
Over sixty years ago, as the United States was involved in the early stages of World War II, one part of the conflict came home to the Portland area when a twin engine bomber from Barksdale Field in Shreveport, LA, crashed just south of town, with two crew members dying as a result of their injuries in the crash.
Army Air Corps First Lieut. Edward L. Larner was the pilot of one of four DB-7B bombers on a low-level training mission. He told investigators that he was flying generally southerly toward the target area when he looked down to check his compass. The sun was in his eyes, he said, and when he looked down and gave his eyes time to adjust to the darker interior of the airplane, he apparently inadvertently pushed forward on the controls, which moved the airplane downward until it hit a large tree– a red oak about 80 feet tall. The force of the impact tore off part of the engine cowling and several feet of the wing. When the airplane struck the ground nose first, it cartwheeled. The right engine and bombardier's compartment were torn off during this phase of the accident. As the airplane spun, the fuselage broke into two pieces, and the rudder and parts of the tail were torn off. The airplane came to rest about 200 yards from the tree it struck.
According to the technical report of the Aircraft Accident Classification Committee, which met on February 26, 1942, the crash occurred at 3:12 p.m. on Thursday, February 12, 1942, while the DB-7B was on a low level training flight. Larner was attached to the Fifty-Third Bombardment Squadron at Barksdale. An experienced pilot, he had over 748 hours of flying time, but was new to the DB-7B, with less than ten hours of flying in that aircraft.
The plane itself was new, and it had been received from the contractor only three weeks earlier, on January 24, 1942. The airplane was one of a series which Douglas had produced for the British Royal Air Force, but the Army Air Corps took possession of the airplane for use in training missions, even though it still had the British configuration. The plane had only 10 hours of flying time before the crash which destroyed it. Weather was not a factor, with clear and dry conditions at the time of the crash.
As the bomber was flying in a generally southerly direction over Portland and the #2 Baptist Church and west of the Negro elementary school, the left engine and wing of the bomber hit the tree. Second Lt. Joseph E. Moore noted that he was flying in the number two position behind Larner. "We were on the run from our initial point, Dermott, Ark., to our target, the Airdrome at Portland, Ark., and flying at least 50 to 75 feet above all obstruction. Just ahead of us there was a wooded area of tall trees and beyond them to the target, (a distance of three or four miles) the terrain was cultivated, flat and free of obstructions."
Lt. Moore continued, "Lieut. Larner leaned forward as though to set the compass and gradually lost altitude for a matter of a few seconds, and I saw that he was going to crash into the trees. Lieut. Larner apparently saw the trees just about the time he hit them as he stared to pull up sharp just before he hit. I pulled up and to the right sharply to avoid a crash. I saw Lieut. Larner's left engine and left wing strike the tree and the plane looked as if it started to spin." After the crash, Moore circled the area until help arrived, and then returned to Barksdale.
While a crash was not in the usual scheme of things, according to Fred King of Chicago, formerly of Portland, it was common to hear airplanes over the area on training flights, adding he thought they may have been from the Greenville Naval Air Station. King, who was 13 at the time, was in the elementary school by the crash site.
On that February afternoon, he said that the school had just had recess, and he had gone back to class. While in class, King recalled, he heard the plane make a noise, and even though he did not see the crash, he heard it.
The teachers told the kids to stay in the classroom, King said, but some did not and ran out to the crash site. The principal, Charles H. King, Fred King's great-uncle, came in class, he recalled, and told the kids not to go near the wreckage. Eventually, he said, he did go out to the crash, and there he saw a man near the engine who was still living, but was moaning and groaning. Another man, he said, was still in the wreckage. Most of the wreckage was near the cemetery, King said, though part of one wing was back closer to the church.
"The white people came in a hurry with their cars," Fred King said, "because they heard the plane and knew it must have crashed." Fred King recalled that some of the wreckage was on fire, and the Portland Fire Department came to the crash site, adding that there was no explosion.
Also, according to Tom Pugh, who with other Portland boys went to the crash site after school, some of the black boys had thrown dirt on the flames in an attempt to put them out– a memory shared by Fred King. "The teachers and principal told us not to go out there, but the kids went anyway," he said.
After about two hours, King said, there were a lot of people there. The report and King's memory indicate that Air Corps personnel worked at the crash scene that night until early the next day when everything was cleaned up. He said that when the investigators arrived, they kept most of the people away from the crash site.
While Lt. Larner was seriously injured, the two crew members, Sgt. John C. Badura, 21, whose family lived in Omaha, Nebraska, and Cpl. Charles E. Moeller, 23, whose family lived in Columbus, Ohio, died of injuries they received in the crash. After the crash, Lt. Larner, who had either crawled out of the wreckage or been thrown out of it, was taken to the infirmary in Lake Village for treatment. His injuries included a fractured skull, broken ankle and chest injuries.
Sgt. Badura, thrown free of the crash, died in the ambulance while on the way to the Lake Village infirmary. The bodies of St. Badura and Cpl. Moeller were transported to funeral homes in Lake Village and Hamburg, respectively.
Dr. Chalmers S. Pool of Hamburg, who with his nurse, Mary Ellen Harris, was conducting a venereal disease clinic at the school, told investigators that he heard a loud crash and then rushed out and saw a crashed airplane in the field by the school. He said that two of the three crew members, Lt. Larner and Sgt. Badura, had been thrown out; other reports said Larner had crawled out.. They were alive but in critical condition when the doctor and his nurse administered first aid. Cpl. Moeller had been in the rear portion of the aircraft, and he was dead when first examined.
As the workers arrived at the scene, they found that in addition to the destroyed bomber, the #2 Baptist Church also suffered slight damage from flying debris. Fred King thought that the bomber had hit the steeple of the church, destroying it, but the official reports said that the damage was the result of a large limb torn off the oak tree which had hit the church. That damage included a hole through the side of the building, two broken panes of glass, and a wooden chair inside the building was crushed. The War Department estimated the damage as $10. Charles H. King, the chairman of the board of trustees of the church, accepted the War Department's damage estimate.
The investigators ruled that the accident was due to two factors. Twenty-five percent was attributed to pilot error, but the primary cause was a design flaw. The report noted, "…had Lt. Larner given more consideration to the terrain in his flight path, before checking his compass, he would have observed a clear unobstructed area for a distance of about four miles just beyond the wooded area where the airplane first struck which would have afforded an excellent opportunity for him to check his compass."
The report also noted that most of the blame in the accident was due to the unsatisfactory location of the compass. "This unsatisfactory condition was amplified due to the fact that the pilot flying generally into the sun was required to keep his head down longer than normal in order to focus his eyes on the compass dial," the report concluded. The report also noted that a War Department report from three days after the accident had listed the location of the compass as unsatisfactory and recommended immediate action to correct that problem. That report said that to accurately read the compass, a pilot "must bend forward and to the right, and in most cases, get his head below cockpit cowling." In addition, the figures on the compass dial were too small to be read easily. "It is the opinion of this command that subject installation and compass are responsible to a great degree for the serious injury of one pilot, the death of a gunner and a bombardier, the complete destruction of one airplane, and the damaging of two other airplanes, while participating in minimum altitude missions all on separate flights in one day," First Lt. Earl A. Field, wrote in the report.
The DB-7B did not have a magnetic compass mounted on the console, instead having its compass mounted on the floor of the pilot's compartment.
While the Portland crash was not a major part of the war, one source noted, "During WWII, over 15,000 USAAF personnel gave their lives in aircraft mishaps within the United States. That is more than half of all of the personnel lost in air combat over Europe during the entire war! While their deaths were not seen as being as ‘glamorous' as combat deaths, they paid the ultimate price for freedom nonetheless".
A Reader's Response and Recollections of the Portland Crash
Editor's Note: The following letter is from one of the students who were in the elementary school in Portland the day that the bomber crashed.
To the Editor:
Someone sent me a copy of your newspaper, and it really brought back a time of my life that I enjoyed. I remember a lady that sold milk that lived across the road from the #2 Church running and crying because she thought the Japanese were attacking. Will Cleamons had to calm her own.
I was also at school that day when we heard the crash. John Mayes, Aaron Price, Guy Bass, Jr., and a few more of the boys ran out and threw dirt on the gas that was leaking out of the plane. We also threw dirt on a burning engine. Someone helped one of the people out of the wreckage. We never knew or considered the danger we were in. When the sheriff or whatever came and told us, "you niggers get away from here," we left.
Later I often thought about it, but life goes on. I remember Tom Pugh. My aunt, Rose Bowden, worked for his family and I would come over to visit my cousin, Robert, Jr. I would also see him from time when time when my uncle "Pluto" Robert Easley did work on his father, Gus Pugh's, house.
From time to time, I have run into people from Portland– the postmaster's son, Hugo Gregory, on my way to Korea; the Bass family in Fort Worth and the King and Alfords in Chicago.
Thank you sincerely.
Arthur W. Simmons, 48 Churn Road, Matteson, Il 60443
Now, six decades after the crash, the elementary school is an equipment storage shed, and the field is covered with young cotton plants. The #2 Baptist Church continues its services each week, and there is no indication that the field was the scene of a wartime crash which took the lives of two soldiers.
Edward Larner's Demise
Editor's note: Information for this update, as well as the photographs, came from Doug Ensminger, who lives near Washington, D. C. His uncle was the copilot on the B-25 Mitchell bomber with Edward Larner.
Though Lt. Larner survived the crash of the bomber in Portland, he was not to survive the war. By April, 1943, he had been promoted to Major and was serving as commander of the 90th Bomber Squadron, one of four squadrons in the Third Wing of the Fifth Army Air Force. The unit was stationed at Port Moresby, New Guinea, on the south side of the island.
Larner, who was raised in San Francisco and who lived in Roswell, NM, was already a hero by that time. In the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, his low level skip-bombing attacks earned him credit for sinking a Japanese cruiser and transport. After arriving in New Guinea, he dropped 40 bombs from an attitude of only 75 feet on Japanese antiaircraft positions to earn the Silver Star for gallantry. At the time of his death, he had also been recommended for the Oak Leaf Cluster in lieu of a second Silver Star and for the Distinguished Service Cross, the highest award that General Douglas MacArthur could make, for his actions in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. General Henry H. Arnold, commander of the Army Air Forces, described Larner "as a man who didn't know the meaning of the word quit."
On the day of his death, April 29, 1943, Major Larner and his crew were returning in the B-25 Mitchell bomber, nicknamed "Spook II," from a raid on a Japanese air field at Nadzab, New Guinea, when the plane crashed and burned while they were attempting to land at the forward base of Dobodura, on the north side of the island.
Those killed in the crash, in addition to Maj. Larner, were the copilot, Second. Lt. Fred Ensminger of Ohio, who was on his first mission with the squadron; navigator Lt. John Clarke of Chicago, upper gunner Staff Sgt. Columbus Pelham of Savannah, GA, radio/gunner Staff Sgt. Vernon Moore of Alpha, GA, engineer Sgt. Berj Manuelian of Boston, assistant engineer Sgt. Robert Fecitt of Revere, MA, and a passenger, Capt. John White.
Maj. Larner originally flew an A-20 Havoc which he named "Spook" in honor of his wife. In late February, 1943, his squadron switched to the B-25, so Larner's B-25 was named "Spook II." Major Larner and the members of his crew were all buried in the Port Moresby Cemetery.
More Information on Fatal Crash
Tony White, who lives in Brisbane, Australia, the capital of the state of Queensland, contributed additional information on the crash which took the lives of Major Larner and others. He wrote, in part,
"My father was killed in the B-25 crash in New Guinea with Maj Ed Larner. He is described in your account on Maj. Larner as Capt (John) White, a passenger.
"Actually, he regularly flew operations with Major Larner & his crew, acting as rear gunner. He served throughout the Bismarck Sea battle with Major Larner & the balance of his crew.
"He was a Captain in the Australian Army, filling the role of air- liaison officer with the 90th Bombardment Group, & had been doing so for 6 months or so.
"He was a veteran infantry officer who served in North Africa, at the battles of Bardia & Tobruk against the Germans & Italians, & in the campaign in Syria against the French.
"On returning to Australia in 1942, he was selected for the air-liaison function, trained, & selected to serve with your Air Force to help make support operations with ground troops more effective. At which job, I am told, he was very good.
"As a result of his work with your people he had been recommended for a US DFC, but as he was killed before it was gazetted; he didn't receive it.
"Finally, the crash occurred when the squadron was changing airfields and was caused when the aircraft was attempting aerobatics over the new airfield, losing control, & spinning in, killing all on board.
"My understanding is that the bodies of the US members of the crew were transported in the USA after the war. That of my father is still in Bomona War Cemetery at Port Morseby, New Guinea."
"The crash report is held at the Australian War Memorial in their records. After my father's death no other air-liasion officers were allowed to fly on operations," Tony White wrote.
The 3rd Bomb or Attack wing used A-20 Havoc's and Mitchell B-25's. In the newer plane, the bombardier was eliminated and in his place they mounted up to six 50 cal. machine guns in the nose and two on each side of the cockpit of the B-25. The A-20 had either four or six 50 cal. guns in the nose and one on each side of the cockpit. All of these guns were fixed in a forward position.
When attacking, the planes would come in just above the trees or the water, depending on the target, with the guns blazing. If they were attacking a target on land, they used bombs with parachutes to allow them to escape the blast. If they were attacking shipping (as in The Battle of the Bismarck Sea), they would skip the bombs(no chutes) on the water into the ships
About the DB-7
The DB-7 was a twin-engine attack bomber built by Douglas aircraft. Most of the models were build for France and Great Britain.
In 1940, the new Douglas bomber attracted the attention of the British Purchasing Commission, which was, like its French counterpart, touring various American aircraft factories in search of combat planes. The British Purchasing Commission was impressed with the DB-7, but wanted some changes which would better suit it to British requirements.
The British version of the Douglas bomber was designated DB-7B. An initial order for 150 was placed on February 20, 1940, which was later increased to 300. As compared to the DB-7A for France, the DB-7B for Britain had revised systems and introduced a bomb-aimer nose extending six inches further forward and having 25 percent more glazed area. Instead of a stepped arrangement for the nose glass, the glass went back at a diagonal angle for improved visibility. The DB-7B was fitted with British instruments and bomb racks and was armed with 0.303-inch machine guns. Power was provided by two 1600 hp Wright R-2600-A5B radials that were equipped with two-speed superchargers. As compared to the DB-7A, the self-sealing tanks were improved and armor protection was better. Total fuel capacity was increased from 205 US gallons to 394 US gallons in order to improve the range, which had been the primary weakness of the earlier Douglas bombers.
Following the standard RAF practice of assigning popular names to their aircraft, the name Boston was assigned to the DB-7B. Roman numerals were used to designate different versions. However, by the time that deliveries of the DB-7B to Britain had started, the designations Boston Mk. I and Mk. II had previously been applied to DB-7 aircraft commandeered from French orders, and so the DB-7Bs were designated Boston Mk. III. The first DB-7B flew on January 10, 1941. 541 were built between May and December of 1941.
The DB7B had a maximum speed of 311 mph at sea level, 338 mph at 12,500 feet and a cruising speed of 273 mph. The plane's service ceiling was 27,600 feet. Its range with a 2000 pound bomb load was 525 miles or with a 1000 pound bomb load, 745 miles. The wingspan was 61 feet 4 inches, length was 47 feet 6 inches, and the height 17 feet 7 inches.
Armament included four fixed 0.303-inch Browning machine guns in the nose; two 0.303-inch Browning machine guns in flexible dorsal position and one Vickers K 0.303-inch machine gun in flexible ventral position. Maximum bomb load was 2000 pounds in split bomb bay comprising four 500-lb bombs. Normal bomb load was 1000 pounds comprising two 500-lb or four 250-lb bombs. The United States' equivalent of the DB-7B was the Douglas A-20 Havoc bomber.