Columnist Jim Cahillane: Echoes of Mount Tom B-17 crash

By JIM CAHILLANE

Published: 07-13-2023 6:30 AM

I was 13 when a local plane crash was news. World War II was over. America’s youth, destined to save democracy, headed home following years of boredom, hell, and travel.

Poetry makes for easy summer reading. Pithy passages don’t tire the mind. Like aircrew chatter, excess is frowned upon.

Years ago, a Florence poet imagined moments aboard a converted B-17, on its way from Greenland to Westover Field. Position: Circling Mount Tom on July 9, 1946. Weather awful. His flight of fancy homage landed in this published prose poem:

Almost Home, 1946

Newfoundland disappeared beneath our wings.

The fuselage vibrated so as four engines roared

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Their musical power notes. Just before we flew,

Valdrini played them one by one, listening for odd

Noises that only he would hear: our old B-17 pilot.

In poetry’s timeless grace, home computers do not exist. Typewriters rule the day. Teletype printers sped up transmission, retaining clack-clack of the 19th century. Our aircraft is a bomber built to destroy. Today’s mission is one-way to the breaker’s yard, carrying hitchhiking passengers on a “space available” basis.

Flight Officer “Herm” Valdrini is far from old at 24. The poet envisions him war weary, worn, tired, asked to perform beyond his years. Also, beyond 1940s instrument technology in rain, in gloom, over unfamiliar, unforgiving terrain — was the altimeter out?

I wrote these few words after attending the ceremony on a blazing July day. An old Northampton friend fainted in the heat. I recall thinking that Dan Ruddy should have been home, not up Mount Tom. To be honoring people you never met is the essence of duty. I was moved, and this remembrance made its way to magazines and into the B-17 Memorial Program. I’ve added subheadings for today, because poems are never quite finished.

A passenger muses:

Inside the plane, inside myself, the future clamored

For attention. War over. Home, food, Susie waiting.

What will I do now? School’s a possibility. My mom

Would like that. I’m eligible for the G.I. Bill you know.

Orders folded in my pocket instruct me to “Report for

Hope reigns supreme:

Separation.” Discharge! My favorite word of all time. I

Didn’t even know that until I saw it typewritten in black

And white. Severed from the service. Say it any way

You care to. They don’t need me nor do they want me.

A Reduction in Force is in force. I’m happy to comply.

In common prayer:

A short hop to Westover Field; I can hitchhike from there.

Maybe I’ll catch a bus? Trains are too slow for me now.

I can’t get there fast enough. They’re hardly any windows

In this thing. I talk over the noise, but no one understands

Me. Hell, I don’t know what’s going on. Time passes. It’s

To resolve doubt:

Dark outside, cloudy dark. What’s that? A flash of sun

In a turret. Over my house that sun is. Over my lovely

House! And I’m suspended up here. Unsuited to wander

Far from the earth; blue. I hear a change in the engines.

Home!

We’re well past our E.T.A. Sweet Jesus speed us home.

Circling Mt. Tom low; I hear rain; seconds to go now! I see lights ...

What may appear to be the end of this is in Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s wartime phrase, “the end of the beginning.” World War II veteran Norman Cote had a bee in his bonnet about this mostly forgotten Mount Tom plane crash. He knew its exact site and the stone cairn that hikers had decorated with bits and pieces of a B-17 converted bomber whose flight ended there in 1946.

It was 1995, 50 years had passed. Cote said, “I think those young men deserve some honor,” and his words led to a committee of like-minded folk and the first dedication ceremony on July 9, 1996.

Fittingly, distant family members of the passengers and crew were located and invited to attend. Army Air Corps, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Public Health Service and the American Red Cross comprised the lost. A 77th reunion and remembrance took place again this year. Twenty-seven years of loving care is evident in the planting of a birch tree for each man lost.

A fine Indian marble monument utilizes identical stone to that of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.

July 2023: American democracy is under assault. Women and men stepped up to defeat fascism in the 1940s. When you’re hiking up Mount Tom, stop at its B-17 Memorial. Consider this place made for unsung heroes, wars and worries over — able to rest.

Where angel’s wings or soft winds ruffle living birches.

Poet, columnist and USAF veteran Jim Cahillane lives in Williamsburg. His brother Bob is an original member of the B-17 Memorial Committee. The 77th B-17 commemoration was on July 8, 2023. www.mttommemorial.org.

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