Fliers fell out of the sky into Garrett County lore History: A cross sits in the woods where a plane with A-bombs aboard crashed on a snowy night. It's a symbol of loss and bravery.

May 25, 1998|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

GRANTSVILLE -- The formal stone cross stands on a moss-touched pedestal by a rushing stream -- a picture of serenity in the deep woods.

It's a picture seen more often this time of year. Spring brings out more hikers. They cross Poplar Lick Run several times on the Poplar Lick Trail, but when they see the cross, the simple beauty often stops them. It recalls Gen. Stonewall Jackson's last words: "Let us cross over the river and rest under the trees."

Close up, though, the memorial reveals the unexpected. Its simple inscription speaks not of serenity, but of terror in the sky and courage and death in the snow on a long-ago winter day.

"In memory of Robert Lee Payne, Major, USAF who died here from the crash of a B-52 Jan. 13, 1964. A good and loving husband and father."

Some who stumble upon the cross by the trail in the Savage River State Forest ask Joe Howe about it when they drop by his New Germany General Store a few miles away.

He tells them the basic story: A B-52 with two nuclear bombs aboard crashed in Garrett County during a raging blizzard in 1964. It took five days to find all five crewmen. Two survived, three died.

"It was 34 years ago," Howe tells them. "I wasn't here at the time. For a better picture, talk with Harland Upole down on Fairview Road. He knows the story. Tell him Joe sent you."

E. Harland Upole Jr., a retired state parks veteran, and his wife Nellie take a while to find their box of clippings, photographs and memories. As a parks manager for three decades in this rugged country, Harland, 67, counts the B-52 as one of many adventures -- crashes, explosions, missing people and drownings -- played out on his watch.

"I've been on too many plane crashes," he says.

But the B-52 crash, he admits, was different.

Then he tells the story.

A wintry night

In 1964, Upole was superintendent of New Germany State Park. He and Nellie lived in the park's rumpled hills, and he knew most every bump and hollow.

On the night of Jan. 13, 1964, a 250-ton B-52 Stratofortess was on an "airborne alert training mission" from Massachusetts to its home base, Turner Air Force Base, near Albany, Ga. Five Air Force men, all married with children, were aboard.

Flying at more than 30,000 feet, the eight-engine bomber was above far-western Garrett County when things started to go wrong.

Part of the story came from the B-52's pilot, Maj. Thomas W. McCormick, of Yawkey, W.Va. One of the two fliers who survived, he'd been able to walk to help.

"I encountered extreme turbulence, the aircraft became uncontrollable and I ordered the crew to bail out," he said. "I then bailed out myself after I was sure that the other crew members had bailed out."

What had happened was that the airplane's tail stabilizer was shaking and eventually broke off. The crippled aircraft spun out of control.

McCormick, then 42, and three other crewmen successfully bailed out, parachuting into a blinding snowstorm. Unknown to the pilot, though, the radar bombardier did not make it out of the plane.

Upole was in bed and heard loud noises in the distance: the plane's engines revving, then the sound of a crash. It was 1: 41 a.m.

"What was that?" asked Mrs. Upole.

"A plane just crashed," her husband answered.

"Where?"

"How do I know?" Upole told her. "We can't find it now." The park manager knew it had been snowing heavily all night, accumulating atop two or three feet of snow. It was 10 or 12 degrees below zero and the wind was blowing.

"I'll go out when they call me," Upole said. At 5 a.m., the call came. Upole, and many others, wouldn't sleep again for days.

The search begins

The plane fell several miles from the Upoles' home.

"They set up their command post in our dining room," Mrs. Upole recalls. In helicopters, vehicles and on foot, several thousand military personnel and civilians began searching for the plane and the fliers.

About 10 a.m. that morning, Upole was driving a bulldozer looking for the plane in thick woods when he found the main crash site at the base of Big Savage Mountain. Parts of the plane's tail assembly were found two miles away.

"There was no big hole," he recalls. "The plane had come down almost vertical and disintegrated. The scene was still smoking and covered with new snow. We could see no survivors or bodies.

"The biggest piece [of wreckage] was six feet long," he says. "Except for the two 11-foot nuclear bombs."

The Air Force declined to comment on reports that each was of the 24-megaton class, with explosive power equal to 24 million tons of TNT. It did announce that there was "no danger of nuclear explosion." It described the two devices as "unarmed," explaining that because of safety mechanisms, the bombs couldn't explode.

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