B-17 Flying Fortress Explosion of 1943

On March 12, 1943, the nine-man crew of a B-17F Flying Fortress perished after one of the plane’s engines caught fire and exploded mid-air during a flight from Smoky Hill Air Field in Salina, Kansas, to Morrison Field in West Palm Beach, Florida. The plane crashed in a wooded area five miles northwest of Sheridan (Grant County). In 2015, the crash site became home to a memorial park honoring the nine airmen; it also honors Union and Confederate Civil War soldiers who fought in the Engagement at Jenkins’ Ferry, along with the soldiers from Grant County who have been killed in action since World War I.

The nine-man crew consisted of Second Lieutenant George Davis of Dubuque, Iowa (pilot); Second Lt. Robert Turchette of Newark, New Jersey (co-pilot); Second Lt. Leo E. Dolan of St. Louis, Missouri (navigator); Second Lt. Phillip Niewolak of Dunkirk, New York (bombardier); Technical Sergeant Dewitt Tyler of Porterville, California (engineer); Tech. Sgt. Peter Ivanovich of Bisbee, Arizona (radio operator); Staff Sergeant Arthur Potter of Springfield, Vermont (waist gunner); Staff Sgt. David Secorski of Detroit, Michigan (ball turret gunner); and Staff Sgt. Kenneth Cain of Hobbs, New Mexico (tail gunner). The crew members were tasked with flying their B-17 from Smoky Hill Army Air Field to Morrison Field for repairs and then to Europe for combat in World War II. The plane departed from Kansas on March 12 at 1:00 p.m. Two hours into the flight, an unknown problem (possibly a mechanical issue) caused the plane to vibrate violently. This, combined with a nearby thunderstorm, prompted Pilot Davis to circle back northwest in an attempt to either return to Kansas or make an emergency landing at Adams Field in Little Rock (Pulaski County). Around 3:35, just as the plane was nearing Sheridan, one of the plane’s four engines caught fire and then exploded. The remaining pieces of the plane crash-landed five miles northwest of Sheridan in a wooded area.

A military investigation into the crash placed a majority of the blame on Davis and the thunderstorm. However, service records of the plane indicate that it had significant mechanical issues. Engines one and three had been replaced weeks earlier, and had only seventeen hours of flight time. Engines two and four were scheduled to be replaced March 13, a day after the Flying Fortress was scheduled to land in West Palm Beach. Moreover, the plane was designated as “condemned” before its last flight by the U.S. Army because of its history of mechanical problems and the poor condition of engines two and four. It is unclear if crew members knew their plane was declared condemned, but several of the crew members had conversations with family members weeks before the crash expressing their fears that a mechanical or structural flaw in the plane would lead to their deaths.

In 1944, a year after the incident, a stone marker was erected at the crash site dedicated to the memory of the nine airmen who lost their lives. The marker and even the incident were all but forgotten until 1984 when Boy Scout Jerry Jackson and his father discovered the marker in the woods. Jackson adopted the restoration of the area as his Eagle Scout project and worked with the Grant County Museum to create a more prominent memorial to the airmen. Jackson was killed in a car accident at the age of sixteen in 1986, but his project was continued by the American Legion post of Grant County. Their efforts resulted in the opening of the Grant County Veterans Memorial Park on October 12, 2015. The Memorial Park has a replica of the B-17F Flying Fortress and includes a memorial with the airmen’s names inscribed. The park also commemorates fallen Civil War soldiers who fought on both sides at Jenkins’ Ferry in Grant County, as well as all Grant Countians who have been killed in combat since World War I. A walking trail at the site features audio recordings.

For additional information:
“American Legion B-17 Veterans Memorial Park.” American Legion. April 26, 2018. https://www.legion.org/honor/photos/241822/american-legion-b-17-veterans-memorial-park (accessed February 25, 2020).

“B-17 Memorial Park/Grant County Memorial.” American Legion. February 6, 2018. https://www.legion.org/memorials/241143/b-17-memorial-parkgrant-county-memorial (accessed February 25, 2020).

Rolf, Carol. “Sheridan Park Remembers All Veterans, Highlights 1943 B-17 Plane-Crash Site.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Tri-Lakes Edition, November 8, 2015. Online at http://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2015/nov/08/sheridan-park-remembers-all-veterans-highlights-19/?f=trilakes (accessed February 25, 2020).

Matthew Kirkpatrick
Lyon College


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