Remembering the worst peacetime accident at Andersen
Editors Note: The following contains research and photos from Lee Corbin for the book he wrote for the survivors and families of the victims of this accident called: “The Crash of 44-87741”.
December 17, 1953, was a typical beautiful Thursday morning on Guam. Typhoon Doris had just passed north of the island two days earlier and took most of the weather with it. The sun was rising with a few patches of clouds dropping the usual rain showers.
At Jennings Manor Officer’s Housing, Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, some Airmen and their families were just getting up and motivated for their day, while others wanted to catch a few more winks of sleep. Maybe some awoke at 5 a.m. by the constant sound of 20 B-29 Superfortress bombers of the 9th Bomb Wing departing in ten minute intervals after a 90-day deployment. While others may have been getting ready to orientate the new rotational 97th Bomb Wing, from Briggs AFB, El Paso, Texas, equipped with the newer B-50 Superfortress bombers. Whatever those folks were doing in Jennings Manor that morning; their lives would soon be shattered by the worst peacetime accident at Andersen AFB.
The recently departed 9th BW was on their way home to Mountain Home AFB, Idaho via a short fueling and crew rest stop at Kwajalein Island. Their bombers were full of extra passengers who wanted to be home in the U.S. for the holidays. One of those B-29s, tail number 44-87741, just took off at 6:05 a.m., but encountered an engine failure in the inboard port engine. The pilot successfully feathered the propeller while returning to Andersen. However, during the pilot’s first attempt to land, he came out of the clouds too high and went around for another try. While struggling to land the second time he turned the B-29 into the feathered propeller at too steep of an angle, with the landing gear down, and flaps retracted which caused the bomber to lose lift and control. This resulted in the big bomber crashing into peaceful Jennings Manor housing at a near vertical angle.
At 6:48 a.m., the B-29 bomber’s crash at Andersen would become a memory that many witnesses and survivors would like to forget. Sadly, nine crewmen and passengers on the aircraft would perish in the crash. Many of those killed were in the forward part of the aircraft they included: 1st Lt. Henry G. Oetgen, age 40, pilot; 1st Lt. Sophus E. “Eddie” Larsen, age 30, co-pilot; 1st Lt. Howard L. DeBoer, age 31, bombardier; 1st Lt. Dominick J. Christopher, age 29, navigator; Tech. Sgt John M. Reilly, age 30, flight engineer; Staff Sgt. Homer A. Pickrell, age 23, left gunner/scanner; Tech. Sgt. Fred Leard, age 30, passenger; Airman 3rd Class Donald J. Wagner, age 22, passenger; and Airman 2nd Class Francis L. Murray, age 20, passenger.
Remarkably, seven Airmen would survive the crash all were positioned in the tail section of the aircraft which included: 1st Lt. Jack Patton, radar officer; Airman 2nd Class Robert L. Jensen, electronic counter-measure operator; Airman 1st Class Donald C. Van Doren, waist gunner/scanner; Airman 1st Class William J. Backman, tail gunner; Airman 2nd Class Nelson H. “Nub” Graham, passenger; Airman 2nd Class Roberto Duran, passenger; and Airman 2nd Class Walter R. Newby, passenger. One of the crewmen, Bob Jensen was very grateful for Staff Sgt. Homer A. Pickrell, who risked his life to save him. Heartbreakingly, Pickrell would die the following day because of his injuries. His father accepted the Soldier’s Medal that was posthumously awarded for his heroism in 1958. Other Airmen and their families at Andersen certainly hoped those were the only casualties that morning.
In Jennings Manor Officer’s Housing the destruction was horrific. Many World War II and Korean War veterans that responded to the carnage said that it reminded them of a war zone. In those days most military housing on Guam was made out of wood and metal, not very robust. More compelling was that there were more casualties on the ground than on the aircraft. Two complete families and another family’s daughter’s lives were taken by the accident. These families included: Lt. Col. Benjamin L. Mills, 3rd Aviation Field Depot Squadron commander, his wife Agnes, and three daughters Margaret 9, Helen 5, and Martha 2; Maj. Gerald A. Orken, 31, medical officer and commander 6319th Dispensary, his wife Shirely, daughter, Vivian, age 5, and son, Steven age 3; and lastly Bonnie “Bunnie” Kimball, 11, daughter of Capt. Stanley J. Kimball, the base weather officer with the 54th Weather Squadron.
The fire and emergency crews responded very quickly to the crash site, since they were ready to respond because of the B-29’s in-flight emergency. After arriving the aircraft’s nose gear strut assembly exploded. This sent the nose wheel assembly airborne 30 feet, hitting and detonating the fuel tank of a pumper truck. The burning magnesium of the aircraft’s wheel assembly scattered, causing injuries to four firefighters, including the fire chief and assistant fire chief. There were a total of 14 injuries that day and many grateful survivors who had narrowly escaped death or serious injury.
In the aftermath of the crash, it’s not too surprising that less than a year, a bill for the $20 million Capehart Housing area was passed through Congress and the design contract was awarded in September 1956. This built 1,050 concrete homes away from the flight pattern; building began in 1958. By 1957, Jennings Manor had become enlisted family housing. In 1962, those families had to move out because it was completely destroyed by Super Typhoon Karen. The daughter of Capt Kimball was memorialized for many years by the Bonnie Kimball Memorial Field. Back when there weren’t fences surrounding the base, Little Leaguers from around the island used to play there. Today, that ball field’s location is near the chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, energy weapon training site. The ex-Jennings Manor area today is still a vibrant part of Andersen mission as it contains the 36th Security Forces Squadron’s (36 SFS) K-9 Unit, the recycling complex, and contractors involved with construction on the base have their workplaces there.
Though the crash and the lost life sounded terrible, that wasn’t the only aircraft or lives lost from Guam that week. On Dec. 16, 1953, VJ-1 Squadron, Naval Air Station Agana sent out one of their six PB4Y-2Ss (single tail version of the B-24 Liberator) to track Typhoon Doris and it disappeared without a trace while penetrating the eye wall with its crew of nine. Then on Dec. 20 1953, a Navy R-4D Skytrain (Navy’s version of C-47/DC-3) brought in to help search for the lost PB4Y also disappeared with 10 crewmen onboard. Its wreckage was later discovered inside Agrihan Island’s volcano crater. These unfortunate aircraft accidents caused three aircraft lost, 38 people dead in less than five days. That ranks as the fourth worst week in Guam history’s peacetime aviation history, preceded by the Aug. 6, 1997, Korean Air flight 801, Boeing 747 crash on Nimitz Hill that killed 228; the Sept 19 1960, World Airways flight 830, Douglas DC-6AB crash in Barrigada Heights that killed 80 out of 94 military, dependents, and crew; and lastly the Air Manila flight 702, Lockheed L-188 Electra in Barrigada Heights that killed 46.
Let us remember the 19 victims, the 14 who were injured, the survivors, and the families.