“Thank you for your request. Attached is a copy of the accident report covering the loss of B-17F, s/n 42-5719, at Mineral Wells TX on 11 March 1943…We hope this information is of value to you.”
I’m staring at a faded copy of a “War Department – U.S. Army Air Forces Report of Aircraft Accident.” The men flying that plane are no longer around to interview. This sheaf of papers will have to tell their story.
First Lieutenant Jack A. Nilsson; 2nd Lieutenant William F. Pitts of March Field, California; 2nd Lieutenant Morgan A. Regan; Staff Sergeant James F. Deaver of Bluff Dale, Texas; Sergeant Jamieson P. Ware of Dallas; William R. Thaman of Ohio; Corporal Olen G. Diggs of Lubbock and Private Joseph F. Yonack of Dallas are recorded on the Personnel Listing.
Nilsson was Pilot Instructor for the training mission, with Pitts and Regan on board as student pilots. Five enlisted men rounded out their crew. All were stationed at the Army Air Forces Advanced Flying School, members of the 955th School Squadron, Hobbs Field, New Mexico.
There is an extensive listing of damage, of what investigators found smoldering on the ground. By the time you read this, this plane crash’s anniversary will be two weeks away.
The men’s B-17F is known as a “flying fortress” four-engine heavy bomber, developed in the 1930s, a high-flying aircraft able to suffer massive combat damage and still stay in the air. The B-17 dropped more bombs than any other aircraft type during WWII.
This fated plane took off from Hobbs Army Air base on a navigational training flight March 11, 1943 at about 1500 hours. The crew received clearance to fly at 8,500 feet to Amarillo, then Tulsa, Shreveport, turning east to Dallas and then on to Fort Worth, where they were to RON (remain over night), returning to Hobbs the following day.
Nilsson writes, “I knew the weather was bad at Fort Worth…We had approximately 2,500 gallons of gasoline aboard and only a 6 ½ hour flight to make.” They pushed along at 180 mph for the first two hours, hoping to beat worsening weather developing around Cowtown.
Nilsson recalculated fuel consumption. “I discovered we were consuming it at an extravagant rate”. They throttled back to 1,850 RPMs. Speed dropped to 160 mph.
As they approached Amarillo around 1615 hours, transmitter trouble prevented them from making radio contact until they were 40 miles east. They were told to proceed to Tulsa. About 60 miles southeast of Tulsa, electrical storms prevented them from keeping radio contact with Shreveport. Nilsson relates “the static was so severe that we couldn’t hear the S. P. Range. We climbed to 14,000 feet in order to get on top of the overcast.” They finally reestablished radio contact.
The report states that except for “excessive fuel consumption and increasingly bad weather,” the flight was normal until the plane left Shreveport. It began to pick up ice. The pilot tube froze (used to measure air speed), but pilot heat was turned on and the instrument came back online. The pilot lifted the plane to escape icing and to maintain radio contact. Student Pilot Pitts said, “My radio would go out when I got into the clouds. We got over Shreveport so we could follow the beam and this side of Shreveport we ran into an electrical storm…When I got into the overcast, the radio wouldn’t work at all.” Rounding Shreveport, the plane turned east toward Dallas.
Cruising at 14,000 feet on the way to Dallas, they ran into large build ups of clouds and again started to pick up ice. They had to climb to 18,000 feet to get above the icing and retain radio contact.
As they approached Dallas, they dropped down into the overcast at 14,000 feet. They maintained radio contact this time. When they were over Dallas Radio Station at 2030 CWT, the ceiling in Fort Worth was reported at 800 feet.
“Contact Fort Worth for further instructions.”
Fort Worth told them to descend to 3,000 feet. The crew began going through their landing checklist while waiting clearance to make a procedure let down into Tarrant Field (later Carswell AFB).
Fort Worth reported a ceiling of 300 feet. “No go on your landing.” Climb to 8,000 feet and head for Abilene. The ceiling there was supposed to be 1,000 feet.
Pilot Pitts remembered, “As we came into Fort Worth and went on out the north leg for procedure let down, the ceiling dropped to 300 feet and in a very little while it was down to 100 feet and he told us to go to Abilene. As I was going around to make a 180 degree turn to come back onto the beam, my No. 1 engine went out….we were at 3,000 feet then.” The three-bladed prop fell silent.
Nilsson reached down between his student pilot and copilot and pushed the feathering button to reduce drag. The oil pressure slowly dropped to 30 lbs. They were advised there was an airliner coming in underneath them somewhere.
The crippled plane managed to climb to 8,000 feet on their three remaining engines. They only had 600 gallons remaining, enough for two more hours of flight. Nilsson transferred the gas from their silent No. 1 engine to the remaining three engines. He believed he could make it all the way back to Hobbs if he had to.
“The co-pilot and I trimmed ship as fast as possible, with full right rudder,” Pitts said. “Both of us were standing on the rudder. At the same time we were trying to maintain altitude.”
The weather outside continued to worsen.
About that time the No. 2 engine went out. It would not feather. Pitts called for full power on the remaining two engines. He called out that he needed help controlling the aircraft. Co-pilot Lt. Regan “gave all the help he could to the pilot by helping him hold full right rudder and setting the trim tabs in an effort to keep the airplane flying straight and level.” It made two complete turns to the left.
The left side of the plane was silent.
The right side rumbled and screamed aloud under full power.
Pitts wrote, “I was watching the flying instruments at the time but I knew No. 2 was out when I felt the plane lurch.” The left wing lowered. They were fighting to keep their aircraft level.
Pitts lets us look over his shoulder. “We asked (Fort Worth) for emergency landing fields and they wanted to know where we were. We couldn’t give our exact location because we were going around in circles with little fuel left and a 100 foot ceiling all around.”
They only had 500 gallons of fuel left.
Nilsson attempted to contact Abilene by radio, but couldn’t. Regan tells us, “We continued to try to get the Abilene beam. Lt. Nilsson had tried several times to set the radio but we could only get “jumble”. We reported this fact to the Fort Worth radio and asked for instructions but didn’t get any.”
The men were alone.
The pilot and copilot were unable to control the plane. They were going down. Air speed fell to 115 mph. They couldn’t keep a compass heading. Nilsson estimated they were 50 miles from Fort Worth with a ceiling no more than 600 – 800 feet.
“I decided to abandon the airplane,” Nilsson said. He told the engineer to get the crew into their parachutes and to stand by for his command to jump.
“I pulled the emergency release and opened the bomb bay doors and dropped the bomb bay tanks.” The plane had fallen to 6,000 feet.
Nilsson signaled Lt. Regan to “tell pilot Lt. Pitts to cut the switch and then jump through the bomb bay. Lt. Pitts forgot to cut the switch before jumping.” Nilsson was the last to leave the doomed aircraft.
He floated down, finally getting below the overcast. He could see the lights of Mineral Wells off to the north. He hit the ground hard, spraining his ankle and left foot. “I hobbled to a highway and a car stopped who had already picked up Lt. Pitts. By this time the Fire Department and the Highway Patrol had arrived. I gave them the names of the crew so they could be found and picked up. The airplane crashed three or four hundred yards from where I landed.”
Four miles south of Mineral Wells their downed B-17F warbird lay aflame in a scrub oak pasture. The Engineering Section at Patterson Field, Ohio later examined the power plants and diagnosed the cause of the crash as “dust”.
I’m still reading the report, my fingers gripping the 68-year-old report a little too hard. “First Lt. Jack A. Nilsson is to be highly commended for the coolness displayed in this emergency, and for evacuating his crew in sufficient time to prevent loss of life.”
Regan later tells that this plane had made a previous trip to Santa Ana where their No 4 engine went out. They were able to feather it and land at Williams Field. I was thankful this crew survived their trial in the skies above Mineral Wells.
Researching this story I began to find that mechanical failures and a “just make it work” mindset was SOP back then. We were at war. Get in the air. Get in the fight.
2nd Lt. Pitts later became Lt. General William F. Pitts. He retired in 1975 with a staggering list of accomplishments including Commander of the Fifteenth Air Force, Strategic Air Command headquartered at March Air Force Base, CA. Their mixed force of recon aircraft and bombers, along with missiles, conducted operations across the Western U.S. and Alaska.
General Pitts was born at March Field, now March Air Force Base, CA in 1919. He was chief of the Senate Liaison Office for Secretary of Air Force. He commanded the 327th Air Division in Taiwan, was chief of the Air Force Section of the Military Advisory Group to the Republic of China, was Commander of Third Air Force, U.S. Air Forces in Europe, stationed in England. He led the Sixth Allied Tactical Air Force Commander in Turkey. General Pitts received many decorations and awards.
Back in the final months of WWII, Pitts went to Tinian Island in the Marianas with his squadron where he flew 25 missions against Japan as lead crew commander in B-29s. Pitts’ training commander from that Mineral Wells crash landing Capt. Jack A. Nilsson also flew B-29 missions from the Marianas. Surely the two men saw each other there.
Mission 181 was destined to scramble the largest number of B-29s into the air that ever participated together on a single mission during WWII. During the night of May 23-24, 1945, 562 B-29s were sent to bomb urban-industrial targets in Tokyo, south of the Imperial Palace, along the west side of the Tokyo Harbor.
Nilsson’s crew number 41 plane that night was tagged T46. Its roster included, Capt. Jack A. Nilsson, Pilot 1st Lt. Adolph C Zastara, Navigator 1st Lt. Eric Schlecht, Bombardier Capt. Loyd R Turk, Flight Engineer 2nd Lt. Daniel J Murphy, Radio Operator S/Sgt Eugene P Florio, CFC Gunner T/Sgt Faud J. Smith, Left Gunner T/Sgt. Robert Starevich, Right Gunner Sgt. Joe McQuade, Radar Operator S/Sgt. Norbert H Springman, and Tail Gunner S/Sgt. John C. DeVaney.
“All aircraft bombed the primary target visually with good results.”
Nilsson’s plane came under heavy fire, crashing during their bombing run against the City of Toukyou on May 24, 1945, one kilometer off the east coast district of Oomori, Tokyo Haneda. Nilsson was thought to be the pilot at the time. His plane was one of 17 B-29s lost that day on Mission 181. His body was never recovered.
Germany had surrendered 17 days earlier. B-29s dropped atomic bombs on Japan August 6th and again on August 9th. Japan surrendered August 14, 1945.
One man who walked out of that 1943 Mineral Wells pasture went on to lead thousands in the defense of this nation for over four decades, all over the world. Another gave his life over the skies of Tokyo 6,410 miles west of Palo Pinto County. Heroes walked among us.
Special thanks to O. B. “Butter” Bridier, to the Department of the Air Force, Air Force Historical Research Agency, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, to Richard “Doc” Warner, Civ, USAF 7th Bomb Wing Curator/Historian (Dyess AFB), Rae Wooten, Michael Manelis, and to Paul G. Ross, whose father James S. Ross was shot down the same night as Capt. Nilsson.