Bedford Co., VA – Saturday marks 70 years since a B-25 Mitchell bomber crashed on Sharp Top mountain. Five Army airmen were killed in the World War II training mission.
It's a landmark of the grandest scale. Many a journey to Sharp Top ends with travelers lost in the mountain's majestic beauty. Unfortunately, that's not how this story begins or ends.
"They had absolutely no idea where they were or what they were into," said Jay Maxfield, our hiking guide.
On a night navigation mission, a B-25, takes off from Columbia Army Air Base, South Carolina. Five airmen are on board. A 21-year-old from Oklahoma, with just 112 flight hours under his belt, pilots the mission. It's about 9:30, and the unfamiliar Blue Ridge is camouflaged by a midnight colored sky.
"In 1943, second day in February", said Bobby Key, who witnessed the crash.
Key was 13 years old at the time, out coon hunting with his brothers that night.
"We just stopped and that thing come right on over. It hit that mountain," said Key. "A big ball of fire run up in the sky. Then we got a boom."
Key and his brothers ran back inside their home.
"We blurted out, 'Pa, we believe the Germans have done shot down one of our planes.'" said Key.
It wasn't the enemy. The plane has on it number 129828. That was the message relayed from a Bedford police captain in a telephone call with an Army Major back at the air base.
That tail number confirms the plane that hit Sharp Top is the B-25 last reported over Raleigh, about a half hour before people in Bedford heard the loud engines overhead.
"A B25 is a huge plane," said Maxfield.
Maxfield isn't old enough to have heard the thunderous noise with his own ears or to have seen the mountain in flames with his own eyes. He's only heard the tales passed down from the mountain to the younger generations. Grainy black and whites tell Maxfield more than the colorful language of his elders.
"If you look at the pictures of the plane crash, the pictures that were taken the day after, you can see the elevators on the back of the plane are locked up," said Maxfield. "That means there was an instant when the pilot knew that he was in trouble and he tried to raise it. You just couldn't bring it up that fast."
Nor could you bring the pieces down easily. The sun has set on the slope more than 25 thousand times since that night back in 1943. The B-25 is still here. Its pieces are as jagged as the peak of the mountain they rest on.
"One of the engines is at the top," said Maxfield. "One of the engines marks the bottom of the debris field."
They're too heavy for scavengers to leave with. Curiosity seekers leave their marks instead, in what's left of Army green paint.
"Somebody's crawled inside and scratched it all to pieces," said Maxfield.
That same paint once made finding the wreckage difficult. It was a shot in the dark for search parties. Men from town wouldn't reach the site until after midnight on foot.
"They told about the terrible scene that they come up on," said Key.
"The wreckage presented a scene of horror not often witnessed", according to the February 4, 1943 edition of the Bedford Bulletin.
That was startling news for Key's mother, who had a son serving in the war. She felt a sorrow for five other mothers in hometowns far from Bedford.
"She used the term, 'Their little boys have lost their life right there on that mountain'," said Key.
"Somebody has lost their boys," said Jennifer Thomson, librarian at the Bedford Museum.
At the Bedford Museum, Thomson is sometimes asked to tell Bedford's war story. A story that includes a piece of a wing from the B-25 whose final resting place is 2000 feet above the town, and the men who died right there beside it.
"They took care of them like they were their own boys," said Thomson.
That meant decades later, in 2001, the placement of their names in bronze at this crash site memorial.
2nd Lt. George R. Beninga, Bombardier, age 23 Marietta, MN
Cpl. Peter J. Biscan, Engineer, age 29, Chicago, IL
2nd Lt. Hillary S. Blackwell, Navigator, age 22, Santa Monica, CA
2nd Lt. William D. McClure, co-pilot, age 22, Indianapolis, IN
2nd Lt. Paul M. Pitts, pilot, age 21, Poteau, OK
"These young men died up here," said Maxfield. "The way I look at it, their DNA is still in this earth."
The Army classified the cause of the crash as unknown. In witness statements, people who were outside that night said the engines sounded as if they were running perfectly.
Despite the tale told through the years that it was rainy and foggy that night, the official aircraft accident report lists the weather that night as CAVU. That stands for ceiling and visibility unlimited.
In 2001, the Virginia General Assembly declared February 2 of each year Forgotten Airmen Day, so that these five airmen will never be forgotten.
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