LAUREL — What L.J. “Ole” Mallatt saw over the skies of Laurel on Aug. 5, 1944, left a life-long impression on him and everyone else who witnessed it.
For the soon-to-be 17-year-old enlisted teenager, it evoked a sense of pride, duty and American patriotism that would change his life forever.
In an interview last week, it took a moment or two for Mallatt to get to the details of this horrific event.
His life has been filled with stories that still captivate new and old audiences alike. As he began to recall the Aug. 5, 1944, crash of two B-17 bombers that killed 17 servicemen west of Laurel, it felt like it happened days ago and far from its 75th anniversary.
“I worked for a trucking company, and I had just come out of the office,” Mallatt began.
“Here were these airplanes going over so I stopped to look up and watch them for a minute and I saw what apparently was a collision. Some pieces off of the airplane kind of came fluttering down. They looked like pieces of paper if you had dropped them off the counter, they don’t just (go) but they just flutter down,” Mallatt said, imitating the familiar visual with his hand.
He immediately jumped into his car, and headed out east down to the end of Main Street, to the dump and over toward the site of the crash.
For Regg Ward, the story of the 1944 crash came second-hand from his father. And according to Ward, it’s a story that’s rarely told.
“He didn’t share this all that often. It just wasn’t something he talked about,” he said.
Ward’s father, Harold “Tiny’’ Ward, was one of the first to arrive at the crash scene.
“He was standing out on the field and saw it happen,” he recalled. “Him, and a hired man, just ran to the house and jumped in the car and drove up there. A man was just coming out of the ditch, the survivor, when they got there.”
At 0715 and nearly 400 miles away, the crews, a part of the scheduled 18-aircraft training mission, departed from Rapid City Army Air Base in Rapid City, S.D.
Pilot Aurthur E. Dippel had signed off of the five-hour direct flight to the Sioux City Army Base.
According to a 1989 released summary of the crash, crews were to accomplish “a high-altitude, simulated interception-attack formation, practice mission.”
Just 35 miles from the home base, all 18 planes in formation executed a normal 180-degree turn to the left.
After the formation’s turn, the report said, “the number two aircraft of the first element of the high squadron dropped back, and in doing so, dropped back and over behind his lead ship.”
“In that position, he encountered the “prop wash” of his, lead ship, and as a result, his left wing dropped.”
Holding on to a copy of the rehearsed formation, Mallatt traced his finger over the document, highlighting the path the planes took before their collision and described their maneuvers.
“They were flying at three levels, and they were separated by about 1,000 feet (from top to bottom). When you switch over you have to be doggone careful that you maintain your position,” he said. As this plane goes this way, you go right with it. You have to maintain your position, and that’s hard to do. It’s unbelievable how hard that is.”
The 1989 summary indicated as such.
“In spite of the pilots (sic) efforts to lift the left wing and leave the formation, the aircraft continued a descent hitting the left wing of the number two aircraft of the lead element of the lead squadron. Both aircraft went out of control and crashed.”
At 11:50 a.m., two and a half miles east of town, the two aircraft collided, landing in farms owned by Charles Ebmeier and Alfred Carlson.
Gene Twiford, who was just a boy at the time, remembers getting ready for lunch and looking up.
“We were just going in for dinner when they came over. We heard them coming and had to stand out and watch them. The next thing I see, is, straight to the ground,” drawing a spiral in the air. “That ball of fire that came over the hill … my God.”
Ward recalls his father’s description. “Dad said it looked just like, you know how they’d fly over county fairs, and throw leaflets out of the plane, just like that.”
Overhead, the formation broke, and “scattered like a bunch of birds.”
“Everyone went a different direction, very carefully. All planes, except maybe one, headed back to Sioux City,” Mallatt said.
On the ground, several trucks, the Laurel Fire Department, the American Legion, CAPS and neighboring towns’ emergency crews made their way to the scene, helping until troops from Sioux City could arrive.
Just ahead of them, Mallatt had approached the wreckage.
What Mallatt described was a tragedy left behind by a violent plane crash. As he spoke, he was sensitive to the families, accurate to his best abilities, and genuine in nature.
Same as the editors of the Advocate at the time, the staff today has chosen to allow those scenes to remain the memories of witnesses.
“We will not attempt to relate the gruesome and tragic sights that greeted the eye on every side. We will spare you the horrors of them even though we can never forget.”
The Aug. 9, 1944 Laurel Advocate story continued.
“Suffice to say that army personnels (sic) began arriving on the scene shortly after one o’clock and at once started the work of looking for possible survivors and searching out the bodies that were not buried in the wreckage. And there were some that had been thrown clear as the plane hit the earth.”
The collision of the B17s numbered 107144 and 107157 caused the death of 17 servicemen from across the nation. They were: 2nd Lt. Kenneth M. Dewey of Grosse Pointe, Mich.; 2nd Lt. Joseph E. Meade of Danburry Conn.; 2nd Lt. George M. Nelson of Goldfield, Iowa; 2nd Lt. Archie E. Moran of Chicago, Ill.; Sgt. Chester A JurKowshi of New Boston, Mich.; Cpl. Bernard D. Ryder of Haskin, Ohio; Cpl. Nevin B. Matthews, of Jeannette, PA.; Cpl. George Brada of Cleveland, Ohio; Cpl. Ben E. Wall of Madison, N.C.; Cpl. Walter Jacques of Pawtucket, R.I.; Cpl. Richard L. Davis of Oakland Calif.; Pfc. Paul J. Berumin of Tucson, Ariz.; Pfc. Dean W. Still of San Diego, Calif.; Pfc. Jack L. McCullough of Coolidge, Ariz.; Pfc.Jack C. Ince of Salt Lake City, Utah; Flight Officer William Kavner of Brooklyn, N.Y. and Pfc. Wilber J. Utter of Prescott, Wash.
Much more about the bomber crash itself, and about local folks' memories of that crash can be found in our E Edition:
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