60th Anniversary of C-47 crash that killed 21 W.Va. guardsmen memorialized
By Senior Airman Jameel S. Moses, 130th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
/ Published June 05, 2011
Charleston, W.Va. -- A Douglas C-47B Skytrain carrying 21 Airmen of the West Virginia Air National Guard's 167th Fighter Squadron, left Godman Air Force Base, Ky., April 8, 1951, to return to Charleston, W.Va., for the funeral of a fellow unit member who died in a plane crash -- they never made it.
Four minutes away from their destination at Yeager Airport, formerly Kanawha Airport, the aircraft sent a transmission to the airport control tower at 11:56 a.m. advising them they were on their way in to land. Before the plane made it, however, it clipped the top of a hill and was vaulted over the top landing 50 feet on the other side. The right wing and part of the left wing were torn off at the second point of impact. According to witnesses, the entire hillside was streaked with fire after the plane skipped more than 400 feet, shearing off trees before bursting into flames and stopping.
The crash, which left wreckage scattered over an area of 25,000 square feet, killed seven officers and 12 enlisted Airmen immediately and delivered fatal injuries to two more officers, according to an article in "The Charleston Gazette" published the day after the accident. The accident, which occurred a little more than 60 years ago, remains the worst in the history of the West Virginia Air National Guard.
Nearby resident Jack Copen described the crash to Gazette reporter Robert D. Horan shortly after the accident.
"I was eating dinner about noon when I heard a sound like a big artillery shell going off," said Copen, who lived only a few hundred yards from the site of the crash. "I looked out the window and saw a string of fire across the top of the hill and motors rolling."
Copen then dispatched his wife, Eleanor, two and one-half miles to the foot of Polly Hill on Sandy where a call was placed to the airport notifying them of the crash.
Copen and a neighbor, Goldie Seabolt, who was visiting for dinner, went to the crash site.
"We heard two men near the wreckage calling for help," Copen said. "Flames were within 100 feet of them. They said they were blind and couldn't see, but they could walk. The first thing they said was asking which was the airport was."
The two Airmen, the only to survive the initial crash, were then taken back to the Copens' house to have their injuries treated until ambulances arrived. Copen treated Capt. Harry K. Blackhurst and Maj. Isaac E. Bonfas for third-degree burns on their heads and much of their bodies.
Both men were transported to Staats Hospital where they succumbed to their injuries, according to the Gazette article. Blackhurst died within 24 hours of the crash and Bonifas nine days later. The 19 others remained in the plane until after the flames were extinguished and the hot metal had cooled enough to safely enter. The bodies were charred from the flames leaving eight Airmen's bodies unidentifiable.
The Airmen were returning here to pay their respects and attend the funeral of Maj. Woodford W. "Jock" Sutherland, of St. Albans, who died when his F-51 Mustang collided with another fighter at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.
More than 5,000 people attended a mass rite held at the Charleston Municipal Auditorium for the then 20 dead, whose average age was 25.
The tragedy is still remembered and the Airmen who lost their lives are still honored here.
A ceremony was held on April 8 marking the 60th anniversary of the crash. The 130th Airlift Wing's fire department sounded its sirens at the exact time of the radio call from the plane, and a wreath was laid on a memorial dedicated in the victims' honor at the time of the crash. A short video was also shown with photographs of the Airmen who lost their lives.
"I am glad to know the men and women of the 130th Airlift Wing continue to remember the men who lost their lives that gray, April morning six decades ago," said Syd Edwards, a resident of Pt. Pleasant writing a book on the crash and the men's brief lives titled, "Native Sons - 21 Lives Left Unfinished." Edwards attended the memorial ceremony.
"It is great to see they have not been forgotten by those who have inherited their legacy."