Miracle in Millington

Ask Vance



The Millington crash scene on the following morning. It’s hard to believe anyone walked away from this wreckage.

photograph COURTESY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, UNIVERSITY OF MEMPHIS LIBRARIES

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Dear Vance: Several years ago (June 2008), you wrote about the B-25 bomber that crashed in Midtown. When I was growing up in Millington in the 1960s, a military plane crashed down the street from me. What do you remember about that accident? — K.H., Nashville.

Dear K.H.: Just before noon on April 25, 1944, a B-25 suffering engine trouble crashed into a home on North Claybrook, barely missing Tech High School, but killing the plane’s crew and everyone in the house. It was one of our city’s worst disasters, though few people today remember it.

So when I received your query, I picked up my dog-eared copy of Tennessee Tragedies, a compilation of “Natural, Technological, and Societal Disasters in the State,” a fascinating tome published last year, and searched for the plane crash you recall. To my surprise, it wasn’t even mentioned. But how could a big airplane — and you said it was a military aircraft — come down in a residential area without great loss of life?

Well, you can give some credit to a row of pecan trees. Or maybe it was something else entirely …

Here’s what I know, based on newspaper accounts. On the evening of March 15, 1963, a storm-drenched night described as “heavy and misty,” a military transport was bringing passengers to the Naval Air Station at Millington. In addition to the crew and other military personnel, the twin-engine R4-D was also carrying a half-dozen young men who were on a recruiting trip to see the base for the first time. A total of 33 people were on board.

As the plane approached Millington, it suddenly lost power in one of its engines. Newspaper accounts reported, “The pilot had declared an emergency to the control tower. He had informed the passengers of the situation, and they had time to tighten their safety belts. He was making the approach on one engine, flying by instruments, flying blind in the rain.”

But something went wrong. Struggling to maintain control with just one engine, the pilot came in at the wrong angle, and the tower “waved him off,” so he circled the field, for another try.
He didn’t make it. In the heavy thunderstorm, the plane lost power and altitude, and at precisely 8:40 p.m. it smashed into the ground behind a row of houses on Hill Street, in a residential section of Millington. The plane struck a massive pecan tree as it skidded along the ground, shearing off one of the wings and tearing a huge hole in the fuselage, before the crippled plane came to a stop and burst into flames.

In most cases, that would have meant a horrible fate for everyone aboard. But here’s just one of the miraculous elements of this story. The rain-soaked ground actually cushioned the crash — so much so that one of the passengers later told reporters that the “whump” he felt when the plane hit the ground was simply the landing gear being lowered. So when the plane came to a stop, the crew clambered out of the cockpit door, and the passengers scrambled out of the ragged hole ripped in the fuselage. When emergency vehicles arrived on the scene to pour foam on the burning wreckage, they carried six men back to the base hospital for minor injuries — mostly cuts and bruises — but there were no serious injuries and no fatalities.

“Looking at the charred and twisted wreckage of a Navy transport plane today,” said a Memphis Press-Scimitar reporter, “it seemed a miracle that the 33 occupants could have got out alive.” The pilot, Commander William McCarson of Millington, was later credited “with both skill and luck.”

Now, what about the homeowners? They had a close call of their own that night. Neighbors along Hill Street had settled in for the evening, watching TV, finishing up late suppers, or even reading in bed. Suddenly, the whole sky erupted in a flash of light. Looking out her window, Mrs. Jack Huffman rather calmly told her husband, “Something’s going on in the backyard.” That “something” was a huge plane that had come to rest, in flames, about 50 feet from their house.

Residents at first couldn’t make any sense of it, because most never heard any sound at all of the crash. Lloyd Pitts, who worked as a carpenter at the Naval Air Station, told reporters, “The whole world had gone topsy-turvy, upside down.” He and his family rushed out into the storm, to try to help anyone trapped in the plane, but discovered no one needed rescuing. Even so, it took Pitts some time to make sense of the near-tragedy: “I keep looking out my backyard to make sure it’s still there. I still feel like I’m dreaming it all. Everything’s going around in a whirl. I can’t imagine that I will ever lead a normal life again.”

At the same time, he ruefully noticed the once-proud line of pecan trees that had bordered his backyard, most of them flattened by the plane, and told reporters, “They were such nice trees, too.”
Well, let’s give those trees a share of the credit for saving lives. Investigators later determined that the big pecan — the one that sheared off the wing — swung the skidding plane away from the houses. One of the homeowners, however, felt pretty strongly that a considerably high power was involved. Surveying the damage, she said, “It was the hand of God. The hand of God turned the plane away.”

Even though the plane burst into “a big puff of fire,” not one of the nearby homes was damaged. It was still a mighty close call for the residents, though, and one of them told the Press-Scimitar, “It was the first time I’ve come home to find an airplane in my backyard. And it had better be the last.”

And what about those fresh-faced recruits, flying to Millington to tour the base? “The hell with it,” said a young man from St. Louis, who told reporters he had absolutely decided not to join the Navy. “I’ll go back home on a Greyhound bus.”

 

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