The story about which I write today – on the 65th anniversary of its occurrence – is one which I revisit each year at this time because of the impact it had on me at the age of twelve, and because its fascination factor is only magnified by the confluence of so many ripples and eddies of history. In June of 1945, World War II in Europe was over, and the boys were coming home. The War in the Pacific was gearing up for the final push toward the Japanese home islands, and a transition in military priorities was obvious across America.
For one thing, the mighty Eighth Air Force, whose B-17s and B-24s had hammered the Axis powers from bases in England and elsewhere was being broken up, and its personnel by the thousands were slated to be reconfigured into a “New 8th Air Force” taking shape in the American West and Mid-west, at bases where many air crews were being retrained in the new and larger B-29 Superfortress.
To understand the bitter-sweet nature of this “homecoming” for the flyboys of the Mighty Eighth, one has to consider what they were leaving behind. 45,000 of their comrades would not be coming home again ever, and those who had survived the deadly skies over Germany and occupied Europe had been welded into nine-and-ten-man crews whose intimate unit cohesion knew no parallel in modern warfare. From early 1942 to the end of fighting in 1945, much of the Eighth were scattered among bases situated throughout the countryside of England’s East Anglia, adjacent to small villages with names like Rattlesden, Old Buckenham, Bury St. Edmunds, Grafton Underwood, and Polbrook. More than 40 U.S. Bomber Command fields, carved out of English farmland were home to at least one operational Group each, composed of four squadrons of twelve bombers per Group.
One of those air combat veterans coming home in June, 1945 was Lt. Col. William Franklin Smith, Jr., who during his two-year combat tour had risen from 1st Lieutenant to Lt. Colonel, having served as Commander of the 750th Squadron, and then Deputy Commander of the entire 457th Bomb Group flying out of an AAAF field at Glatton. He had accumulated more than 1000 hours of mission time, and witnessed the planning and execution of 236 missions during those 24 months. A graduate of West Point, and a popular and widely-respected leader, he had been awarded the Air Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross and the French Croix de Guerre. He was 27 years of age as he planned a routine flight through civilian air space on July 28, 1945.
Compared to destinations like Berlin, Merseburg and Schweinfurt, the flight from Boston to New Jersey probably appeared to hold no particular threat to Smith’s plan to pick up his Commanding Officer at Newark, so that together they could proceed to their new stateside assignment at Sioux Falls Army Air Base in South Dakota. This time, he would not have to wrestle with the controls of a four engine heavy bomber like the B-17, but would be flying the fast, twin-engine B-25 Mitchell, retired from tactical combat roles, but much favored for short-range transportation between bases in the states. Fittingly, this plane, with the tail number -0577, was named “Old John Feather Merchant” a vernacular terminology among the military for someone who preferred to carry a light load, or do less than their share. Traveling with him was one crew member, and a “hitch-hiker” from the Navy.
At about 9:45 AM, Colonel Smith had a conversation with the tower at New York City’s LaGuardia Airport, noting the heavy fog covering the area. LaGuardia thought he should land there rather than Newark – for reasons that have never been clear to me. The operator noted that “from where I am sitting, I can’t even see the top of the Empire State building”. Smith apparently caught sight of the East River, and believing it to be the Hudson, began to let down, looking for a view of the ground, which – if he had been over the Jersey swamps – would have made perfect sense. In fact he lowered his landing gear in anticipation of an approach to Newark. The plane was at 500 feet when he realized he was in downtown Manhattan, with skyscrapers all around him. Veering to avoid first the New York Central building, then the Chrysler tower, he would have had only a split second to see the world’s tallest building filling his windscreen. It was too late, and the plane no longer had the power and lift to respond to his attempt to turn aside.
At 9:49 AM, Saturday, July 28, 1945 the B-25 bomber plunged into the 79th floor of the Empire State Building at close to 225 miles per hour, entering from the 34th street side amidst a rolling ball of burning aviation fuel, one engine and the landing gear on a trajectory which carried them out the 33rd street side, only to tumble onto the roof of a 13-story building below, setting yet another fire. The other engine severed the cables of elevator No. 6, carrying it and its two passengers 75 floors to the building’s basement. The elevator operator, Betty Lou Oliver survived the fall (thanks to a buffer of oil designed into the shaft), despite a broken back. The passenger died later. Ten office workers employed by the Wartime Catholic Relief Agency died, along with the three men in the plane, bringing the death toll to 14.
Three miles away, on the Jersey side of the Hudson, a twelve-year old boy who anxiously followed every smidgeon of war and aviation news was shaken by this breaking bulletin. The next day, my aunt took me to see for myself the tail half of that sad B-25 protruding from the 79th floor 975 feet above where we stood on the street below.
Lt. Colonel William F. Smith, Jr. is buried in Elmwood Cemetery, Birmingham, Alabama.
Smoke pours from the 18X20 foot hole in the 79th floor of the Empire State building in which a WW II B-25 twin-engine bomber is embedded. Smoke also arises from a nearby building whose penthouse was set ablaze by one of the plane’s engines. The wreckage was disassembled and retrieved from inside in the days that followed the July 28, 1945 event.