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U.S. Air Force C-124A Globemaster II crashes near McChord Air Force Base on May 24, 1961.
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On May 24, 1961, a U.S. Air Force C-124A Globemaster II, carrying 22 servicemen, loses power immediately after taking off from McChord Air Force Base in Pierce County. The plane crashes into a remote stand of trees, two miles south of the runway, and bursts into flame, killing 18 persons and critically injuring four others. One of the survivors is Master Sergeant Llewellyn M. Chilson, U.S. Army, one of the most decorated soldiers of World War II.
The Douglas C-124A Globemaster II, nicknamed “Old Shakey,” was specifically designed for the military as a large, all-purpose transport aircraft. Introduced in 1949, it replaced the World War II era Douglas C-74 Globemaster. Although the C-124 used the C-74’s wing and tail configurations, it had a completely different body with “clamshell” loading doors and double hydraulic ramps in the nose, an elevator under the aft fuselage, and two built-in overhead cranes able to move the entire length of the 77-foot cargo compartment. It could carry a maximum payload of 66,348 pounds and load such bulky items as trucks, tanks and artillery. When configured for passengers, the C-124A’s double decked cabin could accommodate 200 fully equipped troops. The aircraft normally carried a seven-person crew of consisting of two pilots, two flight engineers, a navigator, a radio operator and a loadmaster in charge of cargo operations.
The size of the Globemaster II accounted for its involvement in several major crashes in the 1950s and 1960s.
At 2:30 a.m. on Wednesday, May 24, 1961, Air Force C-124A, No. 51-0174, assigned to the Military Air Transport Service (MATS), 63rd Troop Carrier Wing at Donaldson Air Force Base (AFB), Grenville, South Carolina, departed McChord AFB in Pierce County. The transport was en route to Lawton Municipal Airport, Lawton, Oklahoma, with 12 soldiers from Fort Sill, who had been taking part in Exercise Lava Plains at the Yakima Firing Center. In addition to the personnel, the Globemaster carried a truck, several jeeps and two trailers, but it was far from being overloaded.
One minute after takeoff, the Globemaster, at an altitude of about 500 feet, suddenly burst into flames, veered to the left and dropped into a stand of trees in the north end of Fort Lewis, two miles south of the end of the runway. The air traffic controller witnessed the crash and immediately notified the McChord Fire and Rescue Unit. Specialist Fourth Class Jack Machuca, a Fort Lewis military policeman on guard duty, was the only other eyewitness. He saw the burning aircraft fall from the sky, crash into the trees, and explode.
Four McChord Air Policemen, William Burnett, Thomas Jackson, Ray Gordon, and C. O. Lane, rushed to the scene of the accident and, at great personal risk, managed to rescue two survivors. “When we got there, the flames were 10 to 20 feet high. We heard a man calling for help. He was out of the wreckage, but a tree had fallen on him and broken one of his legs. Two of us lifted the tree off of him and the third pulled him out from under the tree,” Burnett recounted (Seattle Post-Intelligencer). They found a second victim sitting on a log, dazed and crying for help.
Meanwhile McChord Fire and Rescue Teams arrived at the crash site and brought out three more survivors to waiting helicopters. The five critically injured victims were airlifted to Madigan Army Hospital, but one died en route. Firefighters had the flames extinguished within 20 minutes, but the wreckage continued smoldering for hours as rescue workers dug through the debris searching for bodies. McChord’s chaplain, First Lieutenant Serran Braun, accompanied the rescuers, pausing to pray over each of the found victims.
By 10:00 a.m. Thursday morning, May 25, all of the passengers and crew aboard the Globemaster had been accounted for. The bodies were removed from the wreckage and transported by ambulance to the morgue at Madigan Army Hospital for identification. Meanwhile, an Air Force crash probe team arrived at the site to begin the preliminary investigation. The wreckage was contained within a relatively small area, approximately 75 by 250 feet. But the trees had shredded the aircraft into pieces, the largest recognizable piece being the broken tail section.
A voice recording of the crew’s communications with the control tower during takeoff failed to give investigators any clues as to the cause of the accident. The pilots were apparently unaware the aircraft was on fire before crashing. The pilot’s communications were normal until he reported loosing power in number two engine, then, seconds later, the copilot shouted “Look out for the trees” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer). The Air Force Board of Investigation, relying heavily on two eyewitness accounts of the aircraft’s final moments, determined the accident was probably caused by a ruptured fuel line resulting in engine failure during takeoff, the plane's most vulnerable period.
The One-Man Army Survives
One of the four men who survived the crash of the Air Force C-124A Globemaster II was Master Sergeant Llewellyn Morris Chilson (1920-1981), who President Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) referred to as a “one-man army.” On December 6, 1946, in a ceremony at the White House, President Truman had bestowed seven combat decorations on Sergeant Chilson for killing 56 German soldiers and helping to capture 243 others during five months of combat during World War II (1941-1945). His exploits were so incredible, it took the Army 18 months to verify they had actually happened.
Sergeant Chilson received three Distinguished Service Crosses, two Silver Stars, the Bronze Star and the Legion of Merit. He had previously received two Purple Hearts, a Distinguished Unit Citation, the Combat Infantryman’s Badge and the French Army’s Croix de Guerre with palms. Chilson, described as one of the nation’s greatest soldiers, died on October 2, 1981, while visiting friends in Florida.
Aldrich, James, 24, Private, US Army, Fort Sill, Lawton, Oklahoma
Chilson, Llewellyn Morris, 41, Master Sergeant, US Army, Fort Sill, Lawton, Oklahoma
Hunter, Jimmie R., 23, Private First Class, US Army, Fort Sill, Lawton, Oklahoma
Landrum, Ernest T., 37, Staff Sergeant, US Air Force, Shreveport, Louisiana (crew)
U.S. Air Force Casualties
Cummins, Robert Wayne, 28, Staff Sergeant, Louisville, Mississippi (crew)
Fair, Warren J., 43, Captain, Evans City, Pennsylvania (pilot)
Hill, Alvin W., 40, Captain, Passaic, New Jersey (copilot)
Neldens, Arnold R., 42, Master Sergeant, Gruber, Texas (crew)
Overby, Raymond E., 39 Master Sergeant, Dillard, Oklahoma (crew)
Smallwood, James M., 23, Airman Second Class, Rockford, Illinois (crew)
US Army Casualties
Buchanan, C. L., 24, Private First Class, Wichita, Kansas
Gordon, W. M., 33, Specialist Fourth Class, Fort Sill, Lawton, Oklahoma
Harrison, Lawrence, 37, Sergeant, Fort Sill, Lawton, Oklahoma
Hoskins, David, 25, Private First Class, Plano, Texas
Kelly, W. T., 25, Specialist Fourth Class, Pembroke, Virginia
Kubik, R. R., 24, Private First Class, Waterloo, Iowa
Lee, Joseph, 40, Specialist Fifth Class, Fort Sill, Lawton, Oklahoma
Neria,. A. G., 38, Sergeant, Fort Sill, Lawton, Oklahoma
Pulliam, T. E., 25, Private First Class, Saint Joseph, Missouri
Radcliff, D. F., 23, Private First Class, Pisa, Italy
Smith, D. J., 24, Private First Class, North Hickory, North Carolina
Wellings, O. M., 20, Private First Class, Chicago, Illinois
William Schultze, “Four Survive Tragedy,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 25, 1961, p. 1; “The Ground Shook After Big ‘Boom,’” Ibid., May 25, 1961, p. 6; “Survivors and Victims of Air Crash Are Listed,” Ibid., May 25, 1961, p. 6; Stanton H. Patty, “Oklahoma-Bound Plane Falters After Take-Off,” The Seattle Times, May 24, 1961, p. 1; “Survivors, Victims of Crash Listed,” The Seattle Times, May 24, 1961, p. 9; “People in the News: Crash Survivor Second World War Hero,” Ibid., May 25, 1961, p. 2; “18 Killed When Big Transport Plane Crashes; Four Others Seriously Injured,” Tacoma News Tribune, May 24, 1961, p. A-1; “Crash Survivor One of Greatest Soldiers,” Ibid., May 25, 1961, p. A-1; “Army Lists Dead in Plane Crash,” Ibid., May 25, 1961, p. A-6; “Practice Made Possible Saving of 4 Off C-124,” Ibid., May 25, 1961, p. A-6; “4 Air Crash Victims Listed as Critical,” Ibid., May 26, 1961, p. A; “4 Survivors of Air Crash Improving,” Ibid., May 27, 1961, p. A-1; “3 in Crash Out of Danger,” Ibid., May 30, 1961, p. A-1; “Nations Second-Most Decorated Veteran of World War II Died While Visiting Florida,” Ibid., October 3, 1981, p. A-3; “‘One-Man Army’ Chilson Laid to Rest,” Ibid., October 11, 1981, p. A-2; “ASN Aircraft Accident Description Douglas C-124A-DL Globemaster II 51-0174 -- Tacoma-McChord AFB, WA,” Aviation Safety Network website accessed November 2007 (http://aviation-safety.net/database).
Note: This essay was emended on February 22, 2012, to correct the spelling of Robert Wayne Cummins' last name and to change his place of origin.
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C-124 Globemaster (front), C-130 Hercules (center) and C141 Starlifter (back) formation over Mount Saint Helens, n.d.
Courtesy McChord Air Museum
Front page of The Seattle Times, May 24, 1961
Courtesy The Seattle Times
Douglas C-124A Globemaster II, n.d.
Courtesy U. S. Air Force National Museum, Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio