Celebration recalls Irish crash of '43 Hampstead man returns to site

July 25, 1993|By Katherine Richards | Katherine Richards,Staff Writer

It happened in 1943, before airplanes had computerized instruments and autopilot systems.

The B-24 bomber was on its way from the United States to Prestwick, Scotland, to join the Allied effort in World War II.

Its gunner, Charles "Booker" Miller, 77, of Hampstead, recalled how the plane ran into thick fog, and its radio and other instruments stopped working.

For two hours, the ship flew a triangle pattern as the crew tried to send mayday calls, until the fuel ran out and the "Travelin' Trollop" was forced into the Atlantic Ocean off the west coast of Ireland.

Fifty years to the day, on July 10, 1993, Mr. Miller and his wife, Janet, were being treated like visiting royalty in Lahinch, the town on the western coast of County Clare where his crew was taken after being rescued at sea.

He was the guest of a group of Irish World War II buffs, who had invited the surviving crew members to the dedication of a plaque in their honor.

More than once during the couple's week's stay in Ireland, older residents told Mr. Miller that they had heard the plane flying low in the fog that day in 1943, fearing it would crash into the housetops.

The population of Lahinch in 1943 was about 250, he said, but it has grown to about 3,000.

"That [the rescue] was the greatest thing that ever happened there," Mr. Miller said.

The anniversary celebration featured a dinner and a lecture on the history of the "Travelin' Trollop" and the rescue of its crew.

"The head of the Irish army was there," he said. "It was quite an affair for a bunch of country guys."

L Three of five surviving members of the 10-man crew attended.

The event was sponsored by the Warplane Research Group of Ireland, which had thoroughly researched Mr. Miller's plane.

"They had the information on that ship from the day it came off the assembly line in California," he said.

In the last moments before the plane went down, he said, pilot Max E. Van Benthuysen offered the crew the choice of bailing out.

None did, Mr. Miller said, because they trusted his skills so completely.

"I'm telling you -- nobody could have made a better landing than that man made," he said.

At the last minute, Mr. Miller said, a hole opened up in the fog, allowing the pilot to see enough to bring the plane down in as gentle a ditching as possible, skimming the tops of 8-foot whitecaps in the sea.

He said, "It was almost an act of God to see an opening in that fog," Mr. Miller said. "At least we could see what we were going to hit."

During the crash, he said, there was no brave banter.

"It happens so fast," he said, that all a person can think about is getting into brace position. "Nobody's saying anything. It's all quiet."

When the plane crashed, a propeller blade broke off and hit one man, cutting his leg.

Mr. Miller said he didn't have time to brace properly, and he injured his back. To this day, he said, the injury causes him to be laid up for a week or so every few months.

The rest of the crew emerged uninjured, and all made it onto the plane's life rafts before the craft sank.

They were picked up by a 40-foot launch manned by armed men speaking a strange language and wearing green uniforms with red epaulets -- the color of German uniforms.

"I thought, 'Oh, my God, the Germans have got us,' " Mr. Miller said.

The crew was taken into custody. However, their captors were not Germans, but the Irish army.

Ireland was neutral in World War II, and the B-24 crew briefly joined Italian and German prisoners being held by the Irish.

But the Americans were treated better, Mr. Miller said. While everyone else ate oatmeal, the Americans got a platter of sausages and a fifth of Irish whiskey every day.

During the last couple of days of their weeklong detention, he said, the Irish let the Americans out to spend the evenings in the local pubs.

After the crew of the Travelin' Trollop was released, they went on, with a new plane, to fly 28 missions in North Africa and Europe.

The Trollop itself was floated by currents and ended up at a beach near Lahinch. U.S. Army engineers removed its engines to examine them, Mr. Miller said, and then blew up the rest of the plane.

However, the plane was not blown up before the locals scavenged souvenirs, many of which were proudly displayed to Mr. Miller during the anniversary celebration.

Many people he met wore rings made from cross-sections of the plane's aluminum hydraulic lines, he said.

One man salvaged the plane's clock -- and presented it, repaired, to Trollop co-pilot Albert Leighton at the anniversary dinner.

Altogether, Mr. Miller spent 4 1/2 years in the Marines and four years in the U.S. Army Air Corps.

After the war, Mr. Miller returned to Maryland and held various jobs. He said the military must have affected his thinking, because "I had a habit of putting in four years on something, then jumping on to something else."

Before the reunion, he said, his wife had never been to Lahinch, and he had not visited since the war.

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