From The Charlotte Observer By David Perlmutt, February 2, 2014
One had flown on 90 bombing missions in B-17s over Germany. The other was hitching a ride.
Army Air Forces Master Sgt. Wagner Farnum Crane and Tech Cpl. Walker “Joe” Wallace, both from Charlotte, had been at war for two years when they boarded B-17 bomber No. 44-8198 with nine others at RAF (Royal Air Force) Kimbolton, 50 miles north of London.
Some say the plane was part of a formation of Flying Fortresses on a “sightseeing” mission. Others believe the bomber was headed home – where Crane and Wallace would be reunited with their families.
Whatever its instructions, the plane never made it.
After taking off from Kimbolton and flying south over Braintree, the bomber was clipped by another Flying Fortress and fell in a heap of rubble, scattering debris across the town and adjacent Bocking in northern Essex. The tail had been sheared completely off with the gunner inside.
All 11 on board were instantly killed.
The date: May 10, 1945 – two days after World War II ended in Europe.
All these years later, the people of Braintree/Bocking never forgot the crash and the men who died. Now a group of residents wants to memorialize the Americans with a monument and plans to hold a ceremony on the 70th anniversary next year.
They are working to piece together what happened that day – recording interviews of eye-witnesses – and dredging up once-classified accident records. They are also searching for relatives of the dead to invite them to the May 10, 2015, observance.
“We’re putting the record straight and giving closure for the families and the men,” said Tony Lynch, leader of the Braintree District WW2 Research Group that is creating the memorial and searching for relatives. “It’s also to remind the people of Braintree and those who come to visit, that 11 brave men didn’t make it home, lest we forget.”
Karen Brown, a researcher for the group, said all the town had to remember the crash was a brief next-day story in The Essex Weekly News headlined: “Fortress Down At Bocking/American Crew Killed.”
“These men are part of my town’s history … a part of my country’s history,” Brown said in an email. “We hope to commemorate their lives in a way that will honour their memories and help others realize how much we owe to those working alongside us during WW2.”
A Discrepancy Persists
Nearly 70 years later, debate remains about what mission bomber 44-8198 was on that day.
A history book of the Eighth Air Force’s 379th Bombardment Group, based at Kimbolton, said the planes were flying ground support crews and journalists over Germany to witness the damage their bombs had done, which was dubbed a sightseeing trip.
Lynch acknowledged his group was initially told by the Eighth Air Force Historical Society in England that the plane was on a sightseeing tour. The group, he said, was also told that it could have been on a spying mission because it was equipped with ground scanning equipment.
But then the society’s Gordon Richards told Lynch that he had evidence that led him to believe the plane was to break free from the formation and fly home to the United States.
Jack Messina of Rockland County, N.Y., is a nephew of 2nd Lt. Paul Messina who also died in the crash. Searching for information about his uncle and the crash that devastated his family, the nephew in 2008 emailed Elliott Porter, the lieutenant who piloted the B-17 that collided with plane 44-8198.
Porter told Messina that he was still haunted by the crash, but emailed back that the mission was to be “a tour of the bombing results in Germany for the ground support personnel.”
Porter’s plane was positioned on the right wing of bomber 44-8198, the lead plane piloted by First Lt. Tom Piers. The planes took off in intervals and formed up as a group “as we had done on all combat missions,” wrote Porter, who died in 2010. The formation followed “closely behind and under” another formation of bombers.
His plane began to encounter “heavy prop wash,” backwash from propellers, from the formation above. The plane suddenly grew “unresponsive and uncontrollable” as he and his copilot feverishly worked the controls.” It dropped on top of Piers’ plane and “our propellers literally cut it in two.”
After the crash, Porter said he was able to get his plane under control and safely fly back to Kimbolton.
Porter, who died in 2010 at 85, wrote that he attended the funeral for the 11 dead, and returned in 2004 to pay his respects.
Ready to Serve
Crane and Wallace were 25 when the crash took their lives.
Records and stories in The Observer show Crane was born and lived his early life in LaGrange, Ga., but his family moved to Charlotte in the mid-1930s.
His father, L. Otto Crane, was a salesman and mother, Florence Strawhorn Crane, was a store clerk. Otto died after a brief illness on Dec, 2, 1941, five days before Pearl Harbor was attacked and America was drawn into the war.
Five months later, their older son, Wagner, joined the Army Air Corps. Soon their other son, Charles, would be fighting the Japanese in the Pacific.
Crane had finished high school at now-closed Central High, where he was on the boxing team. He was married to a woman named Catherine and worked at an A&P grocery store on Providence Road when he joined the Army. It is not known what happened to his widow.
He flew on 90 bombing missions over Germany, a story about his death said. Little else is known about him, or the family.
Wallace grew up in a large family in the Mallard Creek area. He graduated from Huntersville High and lived with his sister and brother-in-law, Rebecca “Miss Beck” and Smiley McLaughlin. He was unmarried and an assistant manager of a laundry on Church Street in uptown Charlotte until he joined the Army.
He’d ultimately be assigned to the 379th’s 881st Chemical Company, loading incendiary bombs.
Dale McLaughlin has a “faint memory” of his uncle.
“He lived in a room at the front of the house (on Mallard Creek Road); everybody called it ‘Joe’s room,’ ” McLaughlin said last week. “He’d eat breakfast with us, go to work, and then eat dinner with us as a family.”