2/Lt Leander M. Sherman P 577th KIA 2/Lt John E. Hennessy CP 577th KIA 2/Lt Leonard A. Sundahl N 577th KIA 2/Lt Warren L. Krausse B 577th KIA T/Sgt Franklin C. Houseman E 577th KIA S/Sgt Jimmie V. Staffiera Asst E 577th Sgt James H. Supinsky RO 577th KIA Sgt Wilbur H. Zimmerman Asst RO 577th KIA Sgt John L. Peterson G 577th KIA Sgt Roy J.E. Payne G 577th KIA Cpl Fred D. Matthews Passenger 577th KIA
On June 29, 1943, four crews in the 577th Squadron were taking up brand-new Liberators on routine instrument calibration and A-5 familiarization flights. At the time, the 392nd Bomb Group was in Alamogordo, New Mexico, nearing the end of its stateside training.
At about 1547 hours, pilot 2/Lt Leander M. Sherman in B-24E #41-28423 radioed the control tower for clearance to land. At the field, ceiling and visibility were unlimited except for a highly localized storm cell about 15 miles to the south.
With permission granted, Sherman approached Runway 3 but overshot the landing and had to go around again. As he did, the storm neared the field and the winds increased from 7 knots to 35 knots with a cross wind on Runway 3. The tower radioed #423 to advise of the wind shift and to divert to Runway 7, but couldn't make contact. (Sgt Christe G. Latsos, Jr., the Airdrome Traffic Controller on Duty, later testified that Sherman's "signals were very weak and he couldn't hear the tower very well like all the other ships could."
Sherman circled the field twice. Some witnesses thought these were actually attempts to land that were given the red flag. (S/Sgt Staffiera, the only survivor, testified that "I knew we were circling the field the first time for a landing, but I didn't know we circled the field the second time. It was hard to tell what we were doing, the ship was rocking so much.")
At 1558 hours, the entire base, including the control tower, lost electrical power. Soon after, Sherman tried to land on Runway 3. As he lined up, a powerful rain squall moved in and the tower lost visual contact with the ship as well. 2/Lt David B. Spalding, the Weather Officer on duty at the time, later testified that the weather changed from "high overcast, low broken to a visibility of 100 feet, ceiling zero in a very few minutes. At 1605 the heavy rain and hail started and the visibility went down to 100 feet or less almost immediately."
With his plane rocked by extreme turbulence, 2/Lt Sherman lost control and #423 crashed at 1618 hours about a quarter mile northwest of Runway 25. Everyone onboard was killed except S/Sgt Staffiera. He later said that just before the final approach, he had been sent back to the waist to make sure the landing gear was down. When the plane impacted, he was apparently thrown out the waist window. In a coma for three days, he was not expected to live and his family was summoned from New Jersey. He held on, though. After several operations and over five months in various hospitals, he was offered a medical discharge. He declined, wanting to complete his military service. He spent the rest of the war at Alamogordo in charge of the Ground Gunnery Range. He was discharged in 1946.
Out in the field chasing jackrabbits, ground crew chiefs Ernie Barber and Cleon Barber were heading in because of the rain when they heard the crash. At the site, they saw one of the pilots walking around, still strapped to his seat. As a medic approached, the man collapsed and died. Tom Perry was at the skeet range with other 576th Squadron ordnance men when the storm approached. After taking refuge in a nearby equipment shed, he heard what he thought was a tremendous clap of thunder. After the rain let up and he came out of the shed, he saw the burning pieces of a B-24 strewn about 50 or 60 yards away, at right angles to the skeet range. He and his friends tried to drive their bomb service truck to the crash, but the water was too deep. As Perry ran toward the wreck, the water was above his ankles.
An ambulance had arrived but it couldn't get close to the site because of the flood. A doctor grabbed Perry's arm and told him to help load one of the bodies on a stretcher and bring it to the ambulance. When he finally got back to the line shack, one of the armorers was crying uncontrollably because he had convinced his close friend, Cpl. Fred Matthews, to go up for a ride that day and he had been killed.
S/Sgt Richard H. Hoffman was a ball turret gunner In the 576th Squadron. His journal entry for July 12, 1943, says, "One group plane crashed in a thunderstorm trying to land and scattered all over the field killing the crew. This was very unnerving because it happened just before we landed, and we'd almost lost Perry [S/Sgt Raymond A. Perry] out of the right waist window when we hit the same turbulence. He'd gone aft to check the lock-down tabs on the landing gear and just managed to grab the sides of the waist window frame in time to keep from flying out. His body was suspended in mid-air about three feet above and parallel to the deck. He looked extremely startled when that happened."
Hoffman also recalled that his plane was lined up to land right after Sherman's, and he saw Sherman's plane get caught in a downdraft that just slammed it right to the ground. The tail broke off near the end of the runway and then the plane slid almost the whole length of the runway but off to one side in the dirt. As his own plane landed, Hoffman saw debris scattered along the side of the runway, but none on the runway itself. He confirmed that if Perry hadn't been able to grab the frame on the right waist window, there probably would have been another casualty due to turbulence that day in June 1943.