Crash in Crosstown  1944

by Vance Lauderdale
Memphis Magazine - June 2008

Dear Vance:  Is it true that a bomber actually crashed in the middle of Memphis during World War II?   - G. F. Memphis                                                                                       

Dear G.F.

     I knew that a B-24 crashed in a field near Millington during the War, but I had never heard of such a disaster taking place in Memphis and assumed people had confused two incidents.  But then I discovered that April 29, 1944 was a dark day in our city's history.

     Just before 11 o'clock that morning, people in the vicinity of Poplar and Cleveland looked up when they noticed a U.S. Army B-25 bomber in distress.  Some witnesses said the twin-engine plane actually flipped over and was flying upside down; others said the engines were sputtering or had quit completely.
    
     W.D. Parr was standing outside a gas station on North Cleveland when he saw the plane falling from the sky.  "I thought it was going to hit me."  he told reporters.  "I was running one way, then the other, trying to dodge it.  The plane was zigzagging.  Seemed to straighten out for a second, then nosed almost straight down into a house."
    
     The Commercial Appeal conveyed the horror of what happened next:  "The brief staccato bark of a dry8ing motor, a plane plummeting earthward, the terrible sound of impact, a dense cloud of black oil-smoke billowing skyward."
   
     Piloted by a Memphian, Capt. Ralph Quale, the B-25 was on a training flight with just two other men aboard - Flight Officer Glenn Trickel of Memphis and Lt. Leon Kleinman of Dallas - when the engine failed minutes away from landing at Memphis Municipal Airport.  The plane plunged within a hundred feet of Tech High School, and the pilot desperately tried to land in the parking lot behind Southern Bowling Lanes on Cleveland.  By all accounts, Quale heroically steered the doomed aircraft away from residential areas, but it smashed into a two-story home at 222 North Claybrook behind the bowling alley.
    
     As you can imagine, the scene was utter chaos.  The newspaper described the scene was utter chaos.  The newspaper described "a maelstrom of shouting, running people, of siren-screeming fire apparatus and ambulances: of semi-hystrical women; of grim-faced men who wanted to do something but couldn't.
    
     The women had good reason to be "semi-hysterical."  That house was occupied that morning, and everyone in it was killed instantly.  The victims included 23 year old Norman Cobb, his 22 year old wife Naomi, their 2 year old daughter Garlene, and another resident, 55 year old Beatrice Withers.  In an ironic twist, Cobb worked as an air traffic controller for the airport; he was home that morning because his shift didn't begin until 4 p.m.
    
     Brave citizens managed to pull two bodies from the plane wreckage before it exploded in a fireball of gasoline flames and smoke.  The first firemen on the scene showed up within minutes in unusual gear - baseball jerseys and cleates, because they had been playing a game at nearby Hodges Field against the Navy's Shore Patrol when they saw the crash.
    
     Everyone that day talked about near-misses.  Victim Beatrice Withers' sister, Mary, had just left the house to go to the bank.  She was walking two blocks away when she heard the explosion.  R.D. Pillow lived at 318 N. Claybrook.  "I heard a tremendous crash and the ground shook," he told reporters.  "I ran to the window and saw the bomber crashed into the backyard of the house next door."  Pillow's own home was scorched by fire.  Two doors away, some young boys were climbing in a tree when the plane clipped the branches and crashed.  "A piece of the plane hit me," said Francis Shepperd, showing reporters a gash on his leg, "and oil splashed on us.  The plane fell all around us."
    
     It took the fire department, aided by special chemical units from the airport, hours to quench the flames.  No one ever determined the cause of the accident.  The pilot never reported any problem with the airplane, and the B-25 had just been inspected and overhauled six days before.  An officer with the Army's Accident Investigation Committee admitted, "I am as much at a loss as to the cause of the crash as the general public."
    
     In the days that followed, more than 20,000 Memphians visited the crash site, and the Army brought in MPs to control the crowds.  Although seven lives were lost, everyone breathed a sign of relief that the plane somehow missed Tech High, the Southern Bowling Lanes, Sears Crosstown, and dozens of nearby businesses that would have made the death toll much higher.
    
     Today, there is no trace of the tragedy.  The wrecked homes on Claybrook were rebuilt.  Southern Bowling Lanes closed in the 1960s, though the building and parking lot remain.  The seven victims were buried - Beatrice Withers in Forest Hill Cemetery here, the others in New York, Indiana, and Washington D.C.  And most people, it seems, have no memory of the worst aviation disaster in Memphis history.

Note:  The crash occurred on a Saturday and school was not in session.

- Vance Lauderdale
 



If there are folks who remember this crash, we'd like to hear from you so we can add your memories below.  < gene.gill@verizon.net >

Bob Mann, did not live in Memphis when the crash occurred, so he sent the article to two of his friends, Jack Mann Williams and Jim Hammers.  They remembered the crash.  Below are their comments:

Jim and I remember it well.  I was playing outside and I heard the aircraft sputter and then plummet to earth.  We all knew it went down and that the pilot was trying to bring it down on the ROTC drill field at Tech High.

I wanted to go to the site immediately.  We lived on Court Street and I believe Jim Hammers was on Waldren an adjacent street to Court.  My folks wouldn't let me go.  I got over there several, maybe 2 days later.  It was still a mess.  I think the plane was a B-25.

I got a couple of souvenirs from the site.  Seems like some "plexiglass" and some kind of aluminum piece.  The plane had been removed.  Jim got the most interesting things, including one "gross item", but I'll let him tell you about it.  I don't want to spoil his story.

There had been a big fire and the mess was everywhere...I thought everyone knew the story.  It was surely a BAD thing but being boys, we just wanted to plow thru the things that were there.  I sorta liked gore.  I used to go over to Weller Brothers place on Madison, around the corner from my grandmother's home to look at the wrecked cars that had been towed in from the weekend.  My friends and I would say "GAUD, look at the brains on that seat".  We were BAD.

Jim was worse but we were not close friends then.  I regret that, because we would have been the great friends then as we are now.  I always admired Jim.  He was different and smart.

- Jack Mann Williams


On the morning of April 29, 1944 at about 11 o'clock, I was doing one of my regular Saturday morning chores, vacuuming the rugs in the living room.  Over the noise of the vacuum, I heard a very loud roar.  I immediately turned the vacuum off just in time to hear and feel the horrendous impact of the B-25 crashing into the house on Claybrook.  As I ran out of the house, I called to my Mom "I'm going to see what that was."

From our home at 232 N. Waldren, it took only minutes running to the site of the rising black smoke.  The immense heat of the fire kept spectators from getting within a half block of the raging sight.  It became clear that the plane impacted the middle house in a row of three and the specially dressed firemen were trying to prevent the other two houses from burning.  They were partially successful. 

I stood near the Bowling Alley on Cleveland for the time it took to cool things down for a closer look.  Apparently, the plane was inverted when it struck the house.  As I think about it I am quite sure, the bomber's flight path was directly over our house making the flying direction north easterly striking the front of the house on Claybrook.

Like most 13 yr. old boys I was very inquisitive and wanted to take something home to show my parents as a keepsake.  What could be more exciting than a buckle-over shoe, so popular among pilots at that time - still in good condition - a very appropriate item !  At least that was my little boy thinking . . . a little piece of history.

I waited for my Dad to come home to show my prize.  That was a wrong move.  When it became apparent that there were remains of the deceased wearer still in the shoe, they demanded that I return it to the site.  Well, that was not so easy.  Now, guards had been assigned to protect what remained of the plane.  They told me they were there to protect the highly secretive Norton Bomb Sight still onboard.  When they weren't looking I unhappily put the shoe back.

- Jim Hammers 


Wilma Chumney Vanlandingham, sent the article to Dan Bowden, husband of Jean Meredith Bowden.  His response is below:

I remember it well.  I was working for the OPA in the Sterick Building downtown and I looked out the window and saw the smoke rising.  Another guy and I went to the scene but we couldn't get close because it was cordoned off.  I remember that the plane crashed into a house, but I didn't remember the people in the house being killed.

-Dan Bowden


Another response:

My uncle was a fireman who made that call.  He told us how gruesome the scene was, and that one of the victims was decapitated.  That's all I remember and more than I care to remember.

- Roberta Mooney Lockhart


 

I remember this event vividly.  I lived at 233 North Belleview in the attic apartment of a three story building.  We had a small walk out porch and I was on it when I heard the Mitchell B-25 sounding like it had engine trouble.  I looked to the SE and saw it just above the treetops, the wings yawing back and forth like the pilot was having control problems and the engines were revving loudly.  The plane passed along Claybrook as it moved northward and appeared to be trying to gain altitude with it's nose up.  It then stalled and fell back on its left wing.  After seeing this, I ran about four blocks to the crash site and arrived about the same time as the police and firemen.  The B-25 had fallen directly on top of the house next to the house on the SE corner of Claybrook and Peach Street.  I don't remember any explosion but the house and plane were engulfed in flames.  The police and firefighters quickly moved all spectators back away from the scene.  I recall that you could smell the odor of burning flesh along with the gasoline.

At the time, Jack Sanders and his brother Gordon lived in a duplex at 1325 Peach, around the corner and about 100 feet from the crash site.  None of the houses on Peach were damaged.  It was a miracle that the damage was mostly confined to the plane and the house that it fell on.  I was concerned about Jack and his family since, Jack, Gordon and I were classmates at Maury Elementary School.  I can't remember seeing them at the scene.  Also, at this time, I believe Candy Holt lived in an apartment on the NE corner of Claybrook and Peach, which was 75 to 100 feet from the crash site.  But again, I don't remember seeing her there either.  I also remember that my mother knew one of the ladies killed that day.  It was a terrible thing!

Note from Candy Holt:  She didn't move to Memphis until 1947, and lived on Malvern - a block over from Claybrook.

- Roy Johnson


Photo of a B-25 Mitchell and specifications:
   
 

 

 

 

 

 

Wingspan:  67 feet 6.7 inches.  Length:       52 feet 5.75 inches.  Height:        16 feet 4.2 inches.  Wing Area:  610 Square feet.

21,100 pounds empty, 33,000 pounds normal loaded, 35,000 pounds gross, 41,800 pounds maximum overload.  The fuel capacity consisted of four tanks in the inner wing panels, with a total capacity of 670 US gallons.  In addition, 304 US gallons of fuel could be carried in auxiliary tanks in the outboard wing panels, for a normal total fuel load of 974 US gallons.  A 515 gallon tank could be installed in the bomb bay for ferrying purposes, 125 gallons of fuel could be carried in side waist positions, a 215 gallon self sealing fuel tank could be installed in the top of the bomb bay, and provisions could be made for a droppable 335 gallon metal bomb baby fuel tank.

- Dave French




I remember that day quite well. I lived at 326 N. Claybrook, a duplex, next door to the house where the plane crashed, I was only 5 and a half years old but I remember it like it was yesterday. I was playing in my sandbox in back of my house and my Mother got this urge to go to Sears Roebuck to shop. It was only a few blocks away, walking distance, so, despite my protest of wanting to stay home and play, off we went. I saw Mary, Beatrice's sister, leave for the bank before we took off for Sears. As we came out of Sears, we saw this huge plume of black smoke coming from the area of our home. Mother asked passersby what happened and was told a plane crashed on Claybook. We hurried home and everything was in chaos. There was smoke, fire and debris everywhere and firemen were trying to put out the fires. The smell was awful and the heat intense and I have never forgotten it. I saw firemen escorting the lady and little boy who lived in the other side of our duplex, out of the house. However, there was damage to a house on Peach St., as the plane dipped before crashing and took out the ceiling and roof in the bathroom of a duplex on Peach St. behind our house on the corner of Claybrook and Peach St.  I was in that bathroom and saw the damage, as well as listened to the lady who lived there describing how she saw what happened. Our garage was totally destroyed as well as clothes Mother had hanging on the wash line. All the wood trim on our brick duplex was destroyed but the house survived. It took forever to get rid of the stench of the crash and the water damage in our house but at least we were alive.

We knew all the people who were killed in the house next door. My Mother was friendly with the Mother of the little girl and I remember had sold her a dress coat, hat, and leggings outfit that I had outgrown. My memory of it was it camel colored wool and was trimmed in velvet and the little girl's Mother changed the color of the velvet trim and I recall seeing her wear the outfit when she went out with her Mom. Remember, this was war time and clothing was hard to get as everything was rationed including the underwear that was burnt off our wash line. The sisters, especially Mary, would visit with Mother over the backyard fence. My Dad was called at work and told about the crash and where it was but he wasn't told if we had survived so he didn't know until he saw us at the site that we were ok. We were barricaded off from our house but after everything was under control, we were allowed to go in and get some belongings. My big concern was a bit stuffed panda bear. Remember, I am only 5 and 1/2. I do recall standing on the front porch of our house and seeing hoards of people watching and staring and I recall being told that one of the plane's crew was decapitated.

It took quite awhile to clear all the debris from the crash site. It was especially difficult to remove a huge stump from a tree that was destroyed. After everything was cleaned up, another house was built on the spot. Thank goodness, Mother wanted to go to Sears or I wouldn't have enjoyed these many years of life. All of this is from the memory of when I was so very young, but some things stick in your mind and are never erased, some being little details and some being horrible details. We spent the night at my Grandmother's and I remember wondering if we would ever be able to go home again.

- Bobbie Waddell Stachowiak


I remember this tragedy quite well. I was 14 years old and was helping my dad on his bread route. He worked for the Home Baking Company which was known for Sonny Boy Bead and other bakery items. We had just made a delivery in the vicinity of Poplar and Waldran and as we returned to the truck we saw this immense cloud of smoke in the east. We drove to see what had happened and got as close as we could and then walked up closer. The crowd of people was large and we found out what had happened. I noticed one of the ambulances at the scene was from J. T. Hinton and Sons. My next door neighbor was the Jones family, and the father, Frank Jones, worked for J. T. Hinton. Later on Mr. Jones related how he helped in the removal of the bodies from the wreckage. I would guess that my dad and I were at the scene less than an hour. When we left we drove south on Cleveland Street. When we got to Cleveland and Madison (Crosstown), newspaper personnel were on the street selling "EXTRAS". I don't know if it was The Press Scimitar or The Commercial Appeal who had the scoop but since they both operated out of the same building and equipment, then I guess we could call it a tie. One further note. I don't know if he was hawking the "EXTRAS" but I feel sure Elvis (They got em!) Anderton was there at Crosstown.

- Chuck Johnson


 

The crash occurred two months before my third birthday, and I had nightmares about it for years.

My mother and I had been making the beds in the upstairs  back bedroom of our house on the corner of Poplar and Montgomery, when we heard a roar outside.  My mother said, "Get under the bed!" - presumably on the theory that if whatever it was hit the house, the ceiling would cave in on the mattress and bounce off.  I was too terrified to move.  Looking through the open doors to the balcony, I saw a plane with an engine on fire coming down not far above the roof of the garage.  It cleared the trees and disappeared from view, and then I remember a deafening crash.  My mother, grandmother and I ran outside, but all we could see was a huge plume of smoke and fire coming from the other side of Tech High.  I was later told that the plane had crashed into a house at Peach and Claybrook, and that everyone in the plane and in the house had been killed.

The images remain as vivid to me now as they were sixty-seven years ago.

- Adrienne Adler Downs

Note:  Adrienne and her sister have written a memoir about growing up in that house on Poplar and Montgomery, in which is included a vignette about the crash. The book, entitled "Poplar Street", is in the process of being published and will be available in the fall of 2011.


 

My family and I lived in Highland Heights on Given at Holmes and I remember my Dad getting our family of 5 at the time, in the car and driving to the crash scene.  From my memory it seems like it was close to Sears Crosstown, which was our main place to shop.  I remember seeing the plane at the crash scene.

Neil Simpson, 12/2011


 

Experience of the Carimi family:

The following story is second hand - I heard about it growing up and, through this website, this is the first time I actually read about the crash and saw a picture. I had tried, unsuccessfully, to find this story in the past. I had always assumed the plane was a B17 bomber, but now I find out that it was actually a B25. I also remember being told that it crashed into a house and people were killed.

My dad’s family lived at 289 Malvern. His oldest brother, Sam, had joined the Navy in 1939 and became a Navy Hospital corpsman. When the war broke out, he was attached to the Fleet Marines and served in that capacity in the many battles throughout the Pacific. Because of his actions, he was later awarded the Silver Star. Upon his return home and for many years, he was not the same man and he NEVER spoke of his experiences during the war. The family only learned about them through a few newspaper articles and other veterans who had served with him.

On that day, he and his wife were upstairs when a plane was heard coming in real low and loud over the house. He grabbed his wife and came running down the stairs yelling, “Air Raid! - Take cover! Take cover! They’re coming in! They’re coming in!” He grabbed his parents and his wife and herded them down into the basement of the house.

Needless to say, my dad’s family was upset by the events of that sad, sad day – both inside and outside of their home.

Ruth Carimi Irace  - October 24, 2014


 

I was four at the time and our house was at 1767 Union Avenue, where the Kroger store now stands.  I remember my father and my uncle driving to that area to look at the crash site several days later.  I recall the area was roped off but you could definitely see the devastation.  At that age, the rest is a vague memory.

Frank Cianciolo - June 16, 2015

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