Potpourri: Using the Internet to Change Lives As Well As Business: Self-help
News item: Boeing will help restore a World War II-era B-29 bomber. It would become only the second flightworthy Superfortress left in the world.
Personal item: My father died in a B-29 six weeks before I was born.
Now – because of the Internet – for the first time in my life, I know what happened to him half a century ago. Before I tell how it helped, let me begin with what it revealed. It is yet another reminder of how this communications tool is transforming our lives in the most fundamental ways.
The family had only cursory knowledge of the accident. All we knew was that dad was at the controls when his plane accidentally crashed on a training mission. I always assumed the records were in some unreachable file cabinet.
Imagine my astonishment when just 20 minutes spent on the Internet with strangers lead me to the 80-page accident investigation report. Now the written fate of my father – who was half my current age when he died at 27 – was mine to study. Decades of mystery ended.
The report told me these facts:
My dad – a U.S. Army Air Corps pilot for two years – was relatively new to flying the B-29 that lifted into pre-dawn darkness for a bombing and instrument training mission near Alamogordo, New Mexico.
A few seconds after takeoff, instead of climbing, the fully-fueled four-engine bomber pancaked into the ground past the end of the runway, slid 1400 feet, struck a roadbed and burned.
My father, Captain Herbert C. Davis (my widowed mother later married an Amme) was believed to be at the controls as co-pilot, but the fire was so intense that investigators weren’t certain.
They were also not certain why he crashed. There was no sign of mechanical problem. There could have been lighting trouble. Kerosene ground lamps may have run out of fuel overnight. Flying in pitch dark at 6am, dad may have lost track of the land as the big four-engine aircraft began what should have been a long gradual climb. (After the crash, the military ordered B-29 pilots to climb more quickly on takeoff and ordered improvements in the lighting.) Pilot error was a possibility.
Ten people died with my Dad. I didn’t know it was that many. I wondered how the crash distorted the families of Capt. Earl Hammond, 2nd Lt. William Wagner, 2nd Lt. Salvidore Martinez, 1st Lt. Jack Griffith, and the rest of the victims. What life paths would not have been taken, what emotional burdens endured, but for that awful morning of October 15, 1944? My mother was certainly never the same. She died 21 years ago.
Unbelievably, the report said three crewmen survived the crash! Now I know that gunners in the plane’s tail section scrambled out just ahead of the flames. Corporals Warren Weeg and Robert Dinsmore, and PFC Gordon Mountford, suffered only minor injuries. I wonder if they are still living? What do they recall? Do they remember dad?
There was one irony in the crash investigation report. As I leafed through the pages I noticed that many of the comments were written more than five decades ago in Winston-Salem where I now live. I realized that my current hometown of 17 years was once the home of the Army Air Force Office of Flying Safety during World War Two. In other words, much of what was written about my father’s death originated in a city that I would move to some 40 years later.
These revelations all began with a simple Internet search for military records. In a moment of idle curiosity, I found organizations that investigate and visit the sites of old military plane crashes around the world. Like archaeologists poring over recent history, members locate barely recognizable sites and photograph them. They also keep track of crash records for much of the 20th century. When I asked if they could help me research one particular accident, they asked for my dad’s name and the date of death. Within a couple of weeks they located the investigation report, copied it for a modest fee of $37, mailed it to me, and filled holes in my family history.
Now I – Richard Davis Amme – know much more about the last minutes of Herbert Davis, for whom I owe part of my name and all of my life. I feel closer to a father I never knew because of a communications marvel that is altering our lives each day. The Internet gave it to me. I wonder what it will give each of us in the years to come.