May 22. 2013 8:00AM
Ohio writer pays tribute to memory of Kewanee’s first serviceman killed in WW II
In war, not every death is on the battlefield.
We received a letter this week from a man in Ohio sharing the story of a Kewanee man who gave his life in World War II not on the beaches of Normandy, but in a farmer’s field outside of Lima.
“As we approach Memorial Day you may wish to recall and honor the memory of a Kewanee resident who gave his life in service to our country,” wrote LaRee D. Little, of Elida, Ohio. “It was just over 71 years ago that 2nd Lt. Eugene H. Anderson gave his life in an incident that contemporary news accounts described as “the most peculiar in the annals of flying.”
According to the Kewanee Schools Foundations Alumni Directory, Gene Anderson graduated from KHS in 1936. His address, at the time, was listed as 521 McKinley Ave.
Little compiled the story from microfilmed reports in The Lima News, which blasted a full-wide, two-deck headline across the top of the front page of the Wednesday, March 18, 1942 edition: “4 Army Planes Crash, Burn East of Lima; No Survivors.”
The story’s lead read, “Four United States Army pursuit planes crashed and burned in three separate spots, about six miles east of Lima at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday during a blinding snow storm. Bodies of all four pilots were practically destroyed by the flames that also consumed the ships.”
According to Little’s research, early on the morning of Wednesday, March 18, 1942, four novice pilots left Selfridge Field in Detroit to ferry a flight of fast P-39 Aircobra pursuit aircraft to New Orleans with a refueling stop planned for Louisville, Ky.
The pilots assigned to the flight were fresh out of pilot training, the most experienced of the group having only logged 18 hours in the air. He was assigned flight leader.
Weather conditions for the day had been predicted to be marginal, but no one could have anticipated that the conditions would deteriorate to the extent that less than an hour later all four planes would crash within a one-mile radius of one another in the snow-covered fields of northwestern Ohio, victims of ice accumulation on their wings and other flying surfaces.
Little said that soon after the flight began, poor visibility forced the planes to descend to a low enough altitude that they could navigate southward by following Dixie Highway (U.S. Route 25). Eventually, however, as the flight approached Lima, it was decided that conditions were not going to improve and the only viable option would be to turn around and head back toward where the flight originated.
Too late, however. Just as the formation had completed a long, sweeping 180-degree turn and headed back northward, the planes finally reached the limits of their airworthiness and all four crashed on three adjacent farms six miles east of Lima.
Examination of the crash scenes showed that at the last moment, one of the pilots (he didn’t say who) was able to see the approaching disaster and attempted to bail out — but not soon enough for his parachute to deploy.
“On that late winter day in 1942, less than four months after America’s entry into World War II, four young airmen did what they were obligated to do — follow orders,” said Little. “None could have anticipated that it wouldn’t be in some war zone in Europe or the Pacific that they would be called upon to give the last full measure of their devotion, but in obscure farm fields in Ohio.
“They did what they were called upon to do to serve their country, and today they need to be remembered and honored for it,” Little said.
In addition to Anderson, who was 28, the three pilots, all second lieutenants, included Flight Leader Edward H. Saunders, 26, of Lake Village, Ark.; Arnel J. Kennedy, 26, of Oklahoma City; and Earl Houser, 23, of Pesotum, Ill.
Reflecting on the incident, two thoughts come to mind — why were pilots supposedly with only hours of training ferrying fighter planes cross country, and why didn’t they try to find a local airport or landing field where they could put the ice-covered planes safely down instead of heading back to Detroit?
The answer to the first question is probably availability of pilots. When the U.S. entered the war after Pearl Harbor, we spent the first few months playing catchup and all the experienced pilots were probably urgently needed on the front lines.
The answer to the second question, as to why they didn’t try to land, comes down to second guessing. Maybe they had orders not to land the Bell P-39 Aircobras in a civilian jurisdiction. Maybe they honestly didn’t know how bad off they were and thought they could make it back to Selfridge Field, an hour away.
We will never know.
We did some investigating of our own and found, with the help of City Manager Kip Spear, that Anderson was buried in Lot 1754, Space 3, in Pleasant View Cemetery on March 23, 1942. We also found his senior photo on the library’s Yearbooks Online.
Checking old Star Couriers on microfilm at the Kewanee Public Library we found that Gene was the son of Mr. and Mrs. Harry J. Anderson of the 521 McKinley Ave., address. After Harry Anderson’s death, a foundation was established to support youth activities in Kewanee.
We also were surprised to find that Lt. Anderson was the first serviceman from Kewanee to be killed in the line of duty from Kewanee in World War II. Twenty-five Legionairres were at the station on the afternoon of Friday, March 20, to meet the train carrying his body. His was the first of what would, unfortunately, be many WW II military funerals held in Kewanee over the next three years.
According to accounts carried in the Star Courier, Anderson’s body was found in the wreckage with his parachute spread behind him indicating he was apparently the one who might have tried to bail out at the last minute.
According to the Star Courier story, Anderson attended the University of Illinois for three years where he obtained a pilot’s license through Civilian Air Corps training. He also took primary, basic and advanced training in California and Arizona where he received his “wings” on Jan. 9, 1942. Since that time he had been on plane ferrying assignment out of Detroit.
It was reported that all four P-39s had less than three hours of flying time, indicating the fast” planes were not yet been broken in.
At his funeral service held Monday, March 23, 1942, at First Methodist Church, where he was a member, the pastor, Dr. C.H. Young, said, “It seems incredible that a fine, young officer should have been lost to his country in its hours of great need, lost to his family and to his community. We do not know why four accomplished flyers plunged simultaneously to their deaths. But it did happen.”