Saturday, November 21, 2015

Tragedy In South Carolina - The Death of Thirty Five Tennessee Air National Guardsman- July 23, 1950

 On Sunday July 23, 1950 a C-46 transport plane flying airmen of the Tennessee Air National Guard crashed shortly after take off from Myrtle Beach AFB South Carolina. The crash killed 35 Guardsmen and 4 crewmen from an Air Force Reserve unit in West Palm Beach Florida. Most Nashvillian's my age or younger have probably never heard of this story. A buddy in my Guard unit told me about it on a drill weekend. It was the worst air disaster in the history of the Air National Guard. Nashville has had it's share of disasters. During the Civil War hundreds of free blacks and slaves were rounded up off of the streets of Nashville to build fortifications just after the Union army captured the city. It is estimated that over 800 black men died of exposure while building Ft. Negley. An atrocity committed by the Union army that is not highly publicized in the history books. There were many cholera epidemics in Nashville during the 1800's. The epidemic of 1849 took the life of President James K. Polk. In 1866 over 800 Nashvillian's died as the result of a cholera epidemic. The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-19 killed over 1300 Nashvillian's. Most of these were at the Dupont plant in Old Hickory. These disasters took place over a period of weeks and months however.The sudden death of so many young men shook Nashville to it's core.

   In July 1950 I was four months old and the Korean war was about three weeks old when men of the Tennessee Air National Guard arrived in Myrtle Beach South Carolina to pull their two week summer camp. I know very few details of this tragedy other than what I have read in several newspaper articles. Today I was in Nashville with a little time on my hands and I dropped by the Nashville room of the main public library. Information about this crash is not available on the internet. The librarians brought out a stuffed yellow envelope crammed full of very fragile 65 year old articles clipped from the Tennessean. Myrtle Beach Air Force Base was opened in 1940 just before World War Two and was closed in 1993. There was at least one other plane taking men home to Nashville. One man decided not to board the doomed airplane and his mother, Mrs. H.R. Hayes, was relieved to find out that her son Sgt. Wallace Hayes was alive. A farmer in Conway South Carolina, only 14 miles from Myrtle Beach, saw the plane fly over his farm. He said "I was standing in the yard of the farm I own about six miles from the crash when the plane came over. While I looked at it, a piece of the tail suddenly flew off and the plane started spinning toward the ground. It made about three revolutions before it hit. Then it exploded, shooting flames a great distance into the air". Air Force officers said that the plane was carrying over 1000 gallons of fuel. This description reminds me of the F-104 fighter that crashed while I was working an air show in Germany in 1983. I saw the fighter go into a flat spin and it exploded into a giant fireball when it hit the ground. Five people died in a car on the autobahn and several people were severely burned in a parking lot.

Myrtle AFB from the air

A woman is comforted after finding out that her brother is dead
Families waiting for news of their loved ones

  The wreckage of the C-46 was piled 6 feet high and buried more than 10 feet deep. The bodies were trapped in the twisted wreckage. About half  of the men were 17 years old and a few were still in high school. One boy joined the Guard by lying about his age when he was fifteen years old. Most of the remaining men were in their early 20's. The oldest was a 27 year old sergeant. Some were married, leaving behind young wives and children. At first it was thought that 30 Guardsmen had died but 5 more bodies were later found in the wreckage. I attended the military funeral of my wife's Uncle Jessie. He was a twenty year veteran of WW2. The funeral was at Nashville's National Cemetery on Gallatin road. I just happened to look down at my feet and I was standing next to several mass graves holding the remains of some of the men killed in the crash. Apparently many of the men were unable to be identified. This crash illustrates the fact that it makes no difference how you die. When a person joins the military they hand the government a blank check. They swear an oath to serve their country in whatever way the government sees fit. Whether they die face down on the Sands of Iwo Jima, a training accident, a terrorist attack, or in a plane crash, they are all equally dead. 
Grave of Billy Shearon

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