Monday, July 9, 2007

The Freckelton Disaster--One British Town Devastated by B-24 Crash

One of my British contacts sent me a heart-rending story today that I'd never heard before and bears re-telling here. My contact, Moofy, reports that one of her veteran friends, George Gosney, was stationed at the Base Air Depot at the time of the crash, and was one of the first on scene. He also carried the coffin of one of the children at the mass funeral.

The tragedy began with a simple test flight of a B-24 on August 23, 1944. In the account that follows, I am paraphrasing the excellent story on the website of the Lancashire Aircraft Investigation Team, found at this web address:

The airplane, which had belonged to the 490th Bomb Group, was named "CLASSY CHASSIS II", had been brought to the U.S.A.A.F.'s huge Base Air Depot 2 for refurbishment prior to being allocated to the 2nd Combat Division. "On this day, she was being test-flown before resuming service and this task fell to 1st Lieutenant John Bloemendal, one of BAD 2's regular test pilots, with T/Sgt Jimmie Parr as co-pilot and Sgt Gordon Kinney as flight engineer. The take-off was uneventful and the B-24 headed out over the Lancashire countryside."

A second B-24, flown by 1st Lt Pete Manassero, took off at about the same time and the two planned to fly together. "Over the radio, Bloemendal called Manassero's attention to the cloud formation towards the South-South- East. It was a very impressive sight and looked like a "thunderhead" according to Manassero."

By the time the two B-24s had reached Warton, a terrible storm had blown in, so strong it was ripping up trees and smashing hen houses on a nearby farm. The sky turned black as night, and the people had to turn on their lights to be able to see.

The two planes turned to avoid the storm, and aborted attempts to land. Shortly thereafter, Manassero called Bloemandal, but there was no answer. In the low visibility, attempting to fly on instruments at low altitude, Bloemendal had gone down.

The B-24 clipped the tree below the arrrow before plowing across this village street.

"Flying low to the ground with it's wings now near vertical, the B-24 ripped the top off a tree, shed its right wingtip as it chopped off the corner of a building, leaving the rest of the wing ploughing along the ground through a hedge. The 25-ton bomber carried on, partly demolishing three houses and the "The Sad Sack" Snack Bar, it's momentum continuing, taking it across Lytham Road and finally ending as it disintegrated in the crash. Part of the plane destroyed the infants wing of Freckleton Holy Trinity School and the whole area erupted into a sea of flames as the fuel from the ruptured tanks ignited. The clock in one classroom stopped at 10.47 a.m."

The devastation was horrific on the ground. When the fires were put out, the casualties stood at 61 dead. All three of the crew of the B-24 were killed. Eighteen persons in the Sad Sack Snack Bar also perished, including 4 RAF personnel, 7 US Air Corps personnel, and 7 civilians. But the most terrible aspect of the tragedy was the number of children who had died. In all, 38 children and two teachers at Holy Trinity School were killed. In the infants's wing, only three children escaped. Most of the children who died were between four and six years old.

The community was in shock. Understandably, there was also anger at the tremendous loss of life. And inquest was conducted. The findings were sent back to training command in the States, with a strong warning that US pilots take English thunderstorms more seriously. American authorities paid for all the funeral costs, and most of the victims were buried in a mass grave near the site. The servicemen from the BAD immediately tried set about finding a place for a fitting memorial in the town, causing much civic debate. Finally, land was appropriated and a memorial garden and children's playground was built near the site of the old school. The servicemen from the BAD donated the playground equipment and a plaque was dedicated in August 1945. The plaque reads:

The grave for students and teachers at Freckleton.

The playground

"This playground presented to the children of Freckleton by their neighbours of Base Air Depot No. 2 USAAF in recognition and remembrance of their common loss in the disaster of August 23rd 1944".

This terrible day in Freckleton, England, brought home the horrors of war to the civilian population, and a tragedy of this magnitude will never be forgotten in this small town.

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