November 07, 2012Last June Sue and I met my college roommate, Bruce Kefgen, and his wife, Judy, in Cincinnati for the weekend. We were there primarily to see our Detroit Tigers battle the Cincinnati Reds but we also drove north on I-75 to Dayton to see the National Museum of the United States Air Force, home to more than 360 aircraft and other exhibits from the earliest days of military aviation through World War I and World War II and continuing into the modern era. In addition, there are numerous aircraft that served the Presidents as Air Force One including SAM 26000, the Boeing 707 that flew President John F. Kennedy to Dallas and where President Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in after Kennedy's assassination in 1963.
The plane that really caught my eye, though, was a Consolidated B-24 Bomber from World War II like the one that crashed just outside of Almont on August 19, 1944. I remember my father telling me of that dreadful day and him witnessing the horror of the crash site.
The B-24 Liberator became the most produced American military aircraft of all time. More than 18,000 Liberators were built and more than half of those were made by over 30,000 Michigan men and women at the Ford Motor Company's Willow Run plant outside of Detroit.
The B-24 was used in World War II by every branch of the American armed forces attaining a distinguished war record with its operations in the Western European, Pacific, Mediterranean, African and China-Burma-India Theaters. It could fly 300 mph, reach 28,000 feet and carry 8,000 pounds of bombs.
Often compared with the better-known Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, the B-24 was a more modern design with a higher top speed, greater range, and a heavier bomb load, however, it was also more difficult to fly.
Senator George McGovern, 1972 Democratic Party presidential nominee, was a B-24 pilot, former Michigan Governor William G. Milliken was a door gunner, actor Jimmy Stewart was a pilot and actor Walter Matthau was a radioman/gunner.
Each and every B-24 was thoroughly tested before being delivered to the military. As many as 1,300 pilots and crew waited at Willow Run to test the planes which were being produced at a rate of more than 600 a month or one every 55 minutes.
Just after noon on a clear Saturday, August 19, 1944 a B-24J, serial number 44-48800, the 5,549th B-24 to come off the line at Willow Run, took off on a certification flight, its sixth test flight. At the controls was the pilot First Lieutenant John K. Howmiller, 25, of Lansing, Illinois, married, who had entered service on 1943; co-pilot Captain Thomas W. Vaughn, 27, from Elyria, Ohio, a veteran of the African campaign and a married man and Ford civilian aircraft engineers Richard Womack, 35 from Dearborn, Michigan and Harvey D. Jenkins, 26, from Ann Arbor, whose wife's name was Dorothy. The plane was still the property of Ford since it not been turned over yet to the Army Air Forces.
All that was left of the B-24 after it crashed into a field in 1944.
Lt. Howmiller steered the aircraft northeast for a simulated high altitude bomb run over Lake Huron. After the bomb run they started a series of high speed dives testing the bomb bay doors as well as other plane parts.
It is still uncertain exactly what happened next. Several eyewitnesses, including my father, said that the plane had flown over Almont fairly low. Other witnesses, including Herb Hoffman, Clinton Scully, Hugh Spencer and John Curry all stated that the plane was not on fire nor did it explode in the air. They all reported that the engines seemed to be at full throttle and very loud and that the plane then nosed over into a 90 degree dive into the ground.
The official report says that during one of the high speed dives something happened to the plane's elevators leaving Howmiller unable to pull out of the dive.
What is certain is that at 3:40 p.m. the plane hit the ground at full speed on a wooded area of the farm now owned by Gordon Spencer, then known as the Jerry King farm, two miles north and a mile and a half east of Almont. It was just north of Dryden Road and a little west of Glover Road. The aircraft exploded scattering parts over hundreds of yards. All four crewmembers died instantly. The Almont Fire Department responded, extinguished the blaze and saved the woods from being destroyed but was unable to save the crew or the plane.
Regardless of exactly how it happened, those four men died in the service of their country no less than if they had perished on a Japanese held island in the Pacific.
As I looked at the B-24 in the AF museum, I couldn't help but wonder about that crew who died so long ago in Almont, their wives and families and the thousands and thousands of other Americans, both military and civilian, and their families who sacrificed so much to defeat the Axis Powers and preserve our freedom. Everybody, even the kids, were involved in the war effort in some way, either on the front lines, building war material, buying war bonds, gathering scrap metal, etc.
Kay Hurd, Director of the Almont District Library, sent me two pages of the Almont Herald with the story of the crash. As I looked at the paper I noticed stories of other Almonters in the war.
For example, Miss Jane Hoyt, 1942 graduate of Almont High, was accepted into the U.S. Naval reserve (Women's Reserve) known as the WAVES.
Lt. Clyde W. "Bill" Laurent became a bomber pilot in the Army Air Forces.
Memorial services were held for Staff Sergeant Ralph H. Glassford who was killed in action in France while fighting in the U.S. Third Army under General George S. Patton, Jr. Ralph's brother, Cpl. Calvin Glassford was serving in the army in El Paso, Texas.
A memorial service was planned for Pfc. Edward Bechtel who had died in England of wounds he suffered in the invasion of Normandy, France on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Edward was in the Medical Corps. In addition, he had two brothers in the service. Staff Sgt. James Bechtel serving in the Hawaiian Islands and Pfc. David Bechtel who received a Purple Heart for wounds received in action.
All of that in just two pages of one paper. The same type of stories filled the Herald and other papers in Michigan every week during the war.
I knew lots of veterans of the Second World War who are gone now, many of them relatives of my classmates, and I wish I could turn back time and say "thank you"" to each of them. If you know a veteran of World War II make sure you say "thanks" before it's too late.
I live only a few miles from Arlington National Cemetery where many vets from what Tom Brokaw dubbed the "Greatest Generation" are answering the final roll call daily.
We should, in addition, thank and support veterans of every conflict and those who currently proudly serve not just on Veterans Day but every day. And let's not forget all the other people who also served, like the Ford engineers aboard that B-24, even if they weren't in uniform.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 President Kennedy told the nation that "The price of freedom is always high but Americans have always paid it."
Indeed, freedom is not free. Pass it on.
Thanks to Jeff Benya, www.mi-aviationarcheology.com, for providing photos and details on the B-24 crash.
Email Rick at