Saturday, August 9, 2014

The Navy's worst aircraft accident

On today's date in 1944, one of the U.S. Navy's worst aircraft disasters occurred on the forward operating base at Eniwetok Atoll. And it occurred not far from where my dad's repair ship, USS Hector, was anchored in the lagoon.

Almost immediately after Eniwetok was taken from the Japanese in February 1944, Navy Seabees began construction of a bomber airstrip on the main southern island. Completed on March 11, the field, had 2 taxiways, facilities for major engine overhaul, and housing for aviation personnel in Quonset huts.  They also created coral-filled piers had been constructed for mooring tankers. Two beaches were developed for Tank Landing Craft. They built small boat repair shops and a floating dock for small ships. In addition to an airport, the airbase also was used for holding reserve carrier aircraft and for receiving and storing aviation fuel.

Named in honor of Navy pilot Lt. John H. Stickell, who was killed in the Marshall Islands, the field was often used by B-24s and B-25s on missions to bomb Truk and Ponape Islands and other targets. From Eniwetok, the Marshall Islands were dominated by air. B-24s were also able to make 13-hour flights to provide photo reconnaissance of Saipan.

Stickell Field, Eniwetok Island

At this point in the war resources and aircraft were being pushed to their limits. It was considered normal for advanced naval airfields, like Stickell, to stockpile necessary materiel toward defeating Japan. So it was expected that Eniwetok Island—only 2 miles long and a quarter-mile wide—would be crammed with aircraft and everything it took to support them. It was also common practice for planes to exceed the maximum gross weight at takeoff. These factors led to the inevitable disaster that occurred on this date.

U.S. Navy PB4Y-1 Liberator bomber at Kwajalein, Jan-Feb 1944
Source: WWII Database
The tragic accident happened in the evening of August 9. As an overloaded Navy patrol aircraft, PB4Y-1 (a Navy version of the B-24 "Liberator"), was lifting off, it drifted and crashed into parked carrier planes that crowded the edges of the runway. Crashing through the row of parked planes, the PB4Y-1 finally came to rest at the end of the strip. There it burst into flames. The fire quickly spread to the parked aircraft, and then its nine 500-pound bombs began to explode. The explosions ignited the aircraft's fuel and detonated its .50 caliber ammunition. The raging fire continued for 2 hours before brave firefighters brought it under control. 106 planes were damaged or destroyed. Amazingly only 9 men were killed in the inferno, all members of the 11-man crew of the PB4Y-1.

The accident on Eniwetok was the greatest loss of aircraft due to a single plane crash in naval history. Many factors contributed to the accident. But, unquestionably, the necessary demands of war and wartime conditions were significant factors. The build-up on Eniwetok was essential for the final assault on the Japanese homeland. While recommendations were made to preclude another disaster of this magnitude, war operations on Eniwetok continued. Stickell airfield and the entire Eniwetok Atoll continued serve as an enormous and strategic base for operations against Japanese-held territory.

No comments:

Post a Comment