Remembering the B-17 crash on Mount Tom 75 years on

  • The B-17 memorial on Mount Tom.  MT. TOM MEMORIAL COMMITTEE

  • The B-17 memorial on Mount Tom. MT. TOM MEMORIAL COMMITTEE

Staff Writer 
Published: 7/4/2021 8:36:49 PM

HOLYOKE — On a dark, rainy night on July 9, 1946, about two dozen servicemen aboard a B-17 “Flying Fortress” were returning home from war. They had served in World War II and were flying towards Westover Field from Greenland with their final instructions to “Report for Separation.”

The war was over and they were heading back to their families — a journey they never completed. The B-17, carrying 25 servicemen, crashed into Mount Tom in the late hours of the night. The men died upon impact on the side of the mountain, nearly 300 feet below the summit.

The plane carried 15 Coast Guardsmen, four U.S. Army Air Corps servicemen, an American Red Cross official, and a U.S. Public Health Corps doctor. The men, ranging in age from 18 to 43, came from a dozen states across the country, from Massachusetts and New Jersey to Arizona and Oregon.

Seventy-five years later, family members of the deceased, community members, current and former servicemen will make the trek up the mountain to visit the site of the crash, where a marble memorial bears each of the names of the men who lost their lives on that tragic night.

A memorial ceremony scheduled for 10 a.m. on Saturday, July 10 will also be attended by the Westover C.A.P. Color Guard, U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, state Sen. John Velis, state Rep. Patricia Duffy, acting Holyoke Mayor Terry Murphy, and members of the Mt. Tom Memorial Committee, the group responsible for building the memorial.

Al Stettner, nephew of Alfred Warm, who was a radioman in the U.S. Coast Guard aboard the plane, will be the master of ceremonies at the event.

The Mt. Tom Memorial Committee began its annual ceremonial tradition 25 years ago when members of the local community felt a proper memorial for the servicemen was lacking. Since the first ceremony, held in 1996, hundreds of people have come to the site of the crash to mourn the loss of all the servicemen, to grieve for their families, and to honor these men who had dedicated themselves to serving their country.

This year, for the first time, the daughter of one of those servicemen will visit the memorial. Helen Swahn, of Erie, Pennsylvania, is the daughter of Ernest Gillis, who was a radioman for the U.S. Coast Guard. He was 26 at the time of the crash. Her mother was still pregnant when Gillis died in the crash, and coincidently, Swahn was born on her father’s birthday.

“It was many years before my mother even told us about the crash,” Swahn said. “And then we just happened to read a letter about the Mount Tom ceremony.”

She will be joined at the ceremony by her brother Ralph, named after his father’s middle name, and her son, daughter, and granddaughter, who will be laying a rose on the memorial.

“Later on, we found out more after she passed,” Swahn said. She found letters from her father, “Ernie,” she called him, and she and her brother discovered a vinyl record made by her father when he was abroad.

“You could make these little records and send them home to loved ones,” Swahn said. “He talked to her and sang her a song. I heard his voice, and it was a strange feeling. He was just like a story, and then now all of a sudden he was a real person talking to my mother, so it was just kind of an eerie feeling.”

It’s hard to know what to expect, Swahn said, of the ceremony. Swahn and her husband visited Mount Tom one year with the intention of visiting the memorial but were deterred when they found out they needed to hike in order to reach the site.

One of the original members of the Mt. Tom Memorial Committee, Rick Lee, said that the memorial was established 25 years ago because members of the community felt there should be an official monument at the site of the crash. One person in particular, Norman Cote of Holyoke, took up the project as a personal cause and got other community members involved, including Northampton Veteran’s Agent Bob Cahillane of Northampton, who serves as the committee’s chairman.

Up until the committee created the monument, only a small rock cairn with a brief description of the event enclosed in a sandwich bag served as a memento of the tragic event. The memorial is made from Indian Marble, the same stone used for the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.

It’s important for younger generations to be aware of this memorial and its history, Lee said.

“It means the memory of the men are carried forward into the future,” he said.

Transportation from the Mount Tom access road to the monument will be available. A tent with seating, water and comfort facilities will also be available for those who attend.

Additionally, a formation of F-15C aircraft from the 104th Fighter Wing at Barnes Air National Guard Base will conduct a flyover of the Mount Tom B-17 Memorial, at approximately 10:20 a.m. during the remembrance ceremony, according to Lee.

Luis Fieldman can be reached at lfieldman@gazettenet.com


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