For reasons I do not pretend to understand I am able to share a story with the world of an event that happened over fifteen years before I was born. The circumstances of that day changed two lives forever. It ended five more and was indelibly etched in the memories of dozens of witnesses. On that day, May 18th, 1944, two Army Air Corps RB-24E, bomber planes from WWII, collided on a training mission over Uxbridge, Massachusetts. The tail-section was shorn from one and it crashed on a hillside outside of town, the other was able to return to its base at Westover Field. Of the plane that crashed two men were able to parachute from the wreckage as the plane spiraled towards the ground. One was my father, Lieutenant Joseph H. Talbot.
In the mid-nineties I took care of my father in the house we bought together as he lay dying of emphysema. He passed from this world April 10, 1995 as he slept at home in his own bed. I nor he could ask for anything more. My mother found him next morning and called me upstairs, gently breaking the news. As I went to him I saw a calm on his face that I had never seen during his life. It was as though every line of care had been erased. There was the look of peace as though a great burden had finally been lifted from him, as indeed it had. It was the burden of survivor's guilt he carried each and every day of his life after the events that occurred in the air and on the ground on that beautiful May morning 51 years before.
In those days there were no clinics, no discussion groups, no drugs to calm the anxieties, no understanding of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Men were told to be glad they were alive and to get on with their lives, and that is what my father did as best he could. Immediately following the crash he was put under intense interrogation by his superior officers as to what led up to and then what happened during and after the crash. This could only have exacerbated the shock and trauma of the event. As he lay dying years later, he was interrogated again, by me, his youngest son.
The event was carved in his memory as though it had happened that morning, not fifty years gone by. I can only tell now what I can remember of what he was willing to tell, now dimmed by sixteen years passing. He was twenty five. He had tired of trying to find decent work and it looked like the war would go on for some time. He had enough schooling that if he joined up he could go into the officers training program. He did the patriotic thing and joined. He graduated Officer Training School and was given the rank of 2nd Lieutenant, as all graduates were. His knowledge of math and science made him a candidate for flight school and he was chosen to be a navigator on a bomber headed to Europe when their training was complete.
Stationed at Westover Air Base in Chicopee, Massachusetts his crew needed to attain a certain number of flying hours before being sent overseas. It was during one of these training runs the crash occurred. The facts I am about to describe again, come from memory, and may not be completely accurate, but I add nothing of my own, only what I remember or think I remember after so many years.
They had flown down to Baltimore that day and were on the second leg of a three leg journey. They were flying north and would soon bank back to the west to return to Chicopee. It's quite possible they had already done this and were already heading west, I don't know for sure, but from descriptions I have heard and read from eye-witnesses, I believe it is true they had not yet started the third leg. From reading what I have of the Army's official report on the accident it is apparent that the pilots were under orders to switch positions in the formation so that each of the three planes would fly in each of the three positions during the exercise, lead, right wing and left wing.
According to the report before the last change in formation was made the planes descended from 20,000 feet to 10,000 feet. The lead plane requested the right wing plane to take the lead and my father's plane to move from left wing to right wing. After this change was made my father's plane was too far out. Statements indicate his plane made a sharp left bank and came into position momentarily, but then slid underneath and slightly ahead of the lead plane. Immediately after this his plane was observed to climb slightly causing the tail section to collide with the nose section of the lead plane which sheared the tail section off of my father's plane. This put his plane into a steep spiral to the right which it maintained until striking the ground.
The lead plane sustained considerable damage to the nose section and right wing but managed to return to Westover Field where it landed safely, escorted by the other bomber. Statements by the other pilots in the formation revealed that after a poor takeoff my father's plane had flown poor formation throughout the entire flight by flying too far out. Statements also indicated that Lt. Moholt, the pilot, had poor reactions and judgement on this particular flight. His previous record had been noted as average by instructor-pilots. The Army concluded that 50% of the accident could be attributed to Lt. Moholt's poor judgement in that he elected to use an improper maneuver in trying to get into proper formation and 50% to technique in that he failed to execute the maneuver properly.
The pilot was immediately aware after the collision that the plane was going down and gave the order to "Bail out!" No one on that crew had ever jumped from a plane before. Their training had consisted of jumping from the roof of a shed approximately ten feet to the ground and learning to roll. From what I have read of his account the other survivor, Pfc. Robert J. Kelly was wearing his parachute. My father was not, nor was anyone else on board. From the moment they heard the order to bail it was a frantic struggle to locate and don the chutes followed by a mad scramble to get out.
Whether there were enough hydraulics left in the plane to open them, or whether they had to be opened manually by those on board I do not know, but the bomb bay doors were opened for them to jump. Private Kelly relates being thrown to the side of the plane as it lurched and banked into a spiral, and had to fight gravity and inertia to finally reach the open doors. As he relived the harrowing episode to me on his death bed, my father spoke of reaching the open doors, but not being able to jump. He hung on a cable 10,000 feet in the air, unable to let go until the next man stomped on his hands, cutting them severely before he flew out into space.
As he fell clear of the plane he desperately reached for the rip-cord, but it wasn't there. He thought, "Oh no..." as he began to free-fall towards the earth. All that he could think was how sad his mother would be that he had died. Unconsciously his hands must have kept searching for the handle that would deploy his parachute and save his life, and through Divine Providence his hand grasped it, completely opposite of where it should have been. In the frantic moments after the mid-air collision he had put the chute on upside-down!
As the chute deployed and he began the slow drift to the ground he could only see one other chute below him. As the spiraling plane hurtled towards the ground he watched in horror as the others jumped, too late for their chutes to open. He screamed a silent scream as he watched the plane crash full speed into the hillside and explode into flames from what fuel was left on board. He knew his pilot had stayed at the controls to try to save the plane, or to at least make sure it didn't crash in a populated area if he could.
He hit the ground hard, but picked himself up and ran towards the burning wreckage. He found Kelly, and together they did their best to find the others. When firefighters from the town came upon them they had already found and covered with their parachutes two of the dead, but could not locate the third. Firefighters had to restrain them from running into the flames of the burning wreckage to find the others. Soon the third jumper was found, grotesquely impaled on a tree he had landed in. The pilot died on impact and burned beyond recognition in the flames.
My father never made it overseas. His crew was gone. A year later the war was over. He never flew a mission. He never saw a moment of combat. He was wracked with survivor's guilt until the day he died. He suffered untreated Post Traumatic Stress Disorder the rest of his life. He came back to civilian life to a wife who never fully understood or sympathized with what he had been through. He divorced and fought for custody. His two daughters came to live with him as he started a new life with the woman he would spend the rest of his days with, my mother. He had a son, my oldest brother, then another, and if he had not already been through enough, he lost this one to cancer at the tender age of eighteen months.
A year or two later I came along. He fought through all his demons to father me as best he could. I had come late for a child, when most men are looking to be done with parenting he again gave his time and patience that I might grow up and have a better life than he. He had never watched a hockey game in his life, but when I decided it was what I wanted to do he immediately learned all he could about the sport. We would watch games on TV, and more than one night a week for years he would cart me and any number of kids whose parents couldn't make it, or just didn't care, to practices and games all around the area. I can honestly say I don't ever remember him ever missing even a practice, even if he sat in the cold, damp arena alone. He was always my biggest fan.
My brother followed in his footsteps by joining the Air Force when he was of age and served in Guam and Okinawa working on B-52s and C-130s during the Vietnam War. When I was old enough, I too volunteered and served at Howard Air Force Base in Panama, Central America. Though neither of us became officers like our father, we shared in the pride of serving our country as best we could when we were afforded the opportunity. My father was a war hero who was never in the war. He suffered greatly to serve his country. He knew well the sacrifice his crew had made that fateful day. He carried with him the events of that day to his grave. He was my hero, God rest his soul.