Fliers fell out of the sky into Garrett County lore History: A cross sits in the woods where a plane with A-bombs aboard crashed on a snowy night. It's a symbol of loss and bravery.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

GRANTSVILLE -- The formal stone cross stands on a moss-touched pedestal by a rushing stream -- a picture of serenity in the deep woods.

It's a picture seen more often this time of year. Spring brings out more hikers. They cross Poplar Lick Run several times on the Poplar Lick Trail, but when they see the cross, the simple beauty often stops them. It recalls Gen. Stonewall Jackson's last words: "Let us cross over the river and rest under the trees."

Close up, though, the memorial reveals the unexpected. Its simple inscription speaks not of serenity, but of terror in the sky and courage and death in the snow on a long-ago winter day.

"In memory of Robert Lee Payne, Major, USAF who died here from the crash of a B-52 Jan. 13, 1964. A good and loving husband and father."

Some who stumble upon the cross by the trail in the Savage River State Forest ask Joe Howe about it when they drop by his New Germany General Store a few miles away.

He tells them the basic story: A B-52 with two nuclear bombs aboard crashed in Garrett County during a raging blizzard in 1964. It took five days to find all five crewmen. Two survived, three died.

"It was 34 years ago," Howe tells them. "I wasn't here at the time. For a better picture, talk with Harland Upole down on Fairview Road. He knows the story. Tell him Joe sent you."

E. Harland Upole Jr., a retired state parks veteran, and his wife Nellie take a while to find their box of clippings, photographs and memories. As a parks manager for three decades in this rugged country, Harland, 67, counts the B-52 as one of many adventures -- crashes, explosions, missing people and drownings -- played out on his watch.

"I've been on too many plane crashes," he says.

But the B-52 crash, he admits, was different.

Then he tells the story.

A wintry night

In 1964, Upole was superintendent of New Germany State Park. He and Nellie lived in the park's rumpled hills, and he knew most every bump and hollow.

On the night of Jan. 13, 1964, a 250-ton B-52 Stratofortess was on an "airborne alert training mission" from Massachusetts to its home base, Turner Air Force Base, near Albany, Ga. Five Air Force men, all married with children, were aboard.

Flying at more than 30,000 feet, the eight-engine bomber was above far-western Garrett County when things started to go wrong.

Part of the story came from the B-52's pilot, Maj. Thomas W. McCormick, of Yawkey, W.Va. One of the two fliers who survived, he'd been able to walk to help.

"I encountered extreme turbulence, the aircraft became uncontrollable and I ordered the crew to bail out," he said. "I then bailed out myself after I was sure that the other crew members had bailed out."

What had happened was that the airplane's tail stabilizer was shaking and eventually broke off. The crippled aircraft spun out of control.

McCormick, then 42, and three other crewmen successfully bailed out, parachuting into a blinding snowstorm. Unknown to the pilot, though, the radar bombardier did not make it out of the plane.

Upole was in bed and heard loud noises in the distance: the plane's engines revving, then the sound of a crash. It was 1: 41 a.m.

"What was that?" asked Mrs. Upole.

"A plane just crashed," her husband answered.

"Where?"

"How do I know?" Upole told her. "We can't find it now." The park manager knew it had been snowing heavily all night, accumulating atop two or three feet of snow. It was 10 or 12 degrees below zero and the wind was blowing.

"I'll go out when they call me," Upole said. At 5 a.m., the call came. Upole, and many others, wouldn't sleep again for days.

The search begins

The plane fell several miles from the Upoles' home.

"They set up their command post in our dining room," Mrs. Upole recalls. In helicopters, vehicles and on foot, several thousand military personnel and civilians began searching for the plane and the fliers.

About 10 a.m. that morning, Upole was driving a bulldozer looking for the plane in thick woods when he found the main crash site at the base of Big Savage Mountain. Parts of the plane's tail assembly were found two miles away.

"There was no big hole," he recalls. "The plane had come down almost vertical and disintegrated. The scene was still smoking and covered with new snow. We could see no survivors or bodies.

"The biggest piece [of wreckage] was six feet long," he says. "Except for the two 11-foot nuclear bombs."

The Air Force declined to comment on reports that each was of the 24-megaton class, with explosive power equal to 24 million tons of TNT. It did announce that there was "no danger of nuclear explosion." It described the two devices as "unarmed," explaining that because of safety mechanisms, the bombs couldn't explode.

Meanwhile, Major McCormick, in his winter underwear and flying suit, had parachuted into "a real rugged" area. He set up a shelter using his parachute, built a fire and went to sleep, not knowing where he was. He set out walking at 10: 30 a.m. By 4 p.m., he arrived at a home, where he was given coffee and called the outside world. He was the first airman found.

The next day, Tuesday, two more airmen were found; one alive, one dead.

The body of the bombardier, Maj. Robert L. Townley, 42, of Gadsden, Ala., was discovered hidden in the main wreckage. The co-pilot, Capt. Parker C. Peedin, 29, of Smithfield, N.C., was found after a Civil Air Patrol plane spotted his parachute, hung up in a tree. It had been his first parachute jump.

"It was a weird sensation," he recalled from the hospital after being rescued.

After landing, "I had no idea in which direction to walk," he adds, "and I figured with my luck, I'd probably end up walking the wrong way, so I decided to stay where I was."

An Army helicopter showed up and landed about a mile from him. Some farmers were also looking. Peedin fired shots from his .22 survival rifle to get attention. Finally, his rescuers arrived, 36 hours after the crash.

As with McCormick, Peedin's first question as he was taken to the hospital in Cumberland was about his fellow crewmen.

Upole saw Peedin's campsite, complete with life raft, sleeping bag and survival kit. "He did fine," Upole said. "If he had stayed there any longer, we'd have needed an eviction notice."

Finding No. 4

Rescuers found the fourth flier the next day, Wednesday. He was Maj. Robert Lee Payne, 41, the aircraft's navigator, from Tulsa, Okla.

From his front lawn, Upole points in the direction of Horse Ridge to the east of his house. "They spotted his bright orange parachute up there late in the day," he says. "I got up a search party about 7: 30 p.m. We picked up his trail."

Instead of camping, Payne had walked about two miles down a ridge in hip-deep snow toward a hollow by Poplar Lick Run. "From his tracks, I noticed he was stumbling," Upole says.

The park manager was alone when he found Payne about 12: 30 a.m. Thursday, dead from exposure. "He had been courageous, walking through the deep snow," Upole says. "He was by the river and covered with an inch or two of snow."

It wasn't until Friday that a teen-ager in Pennsylvania found the body of the fifth man, the tail gunner, Tech. Sgt. Melvin Wooten, 27, of Tohatchi, N.M. Wooten's body turned up near Springs, north of Grantsville. He apparently had been seriously injured while ejecting.

By that time, the Air Force had recovered the two bombs. As Upole tells it, the damaged bombs, their insulation torn off, were loaded onto a flatbed truck and driven through Cumberland to the airport at 2: 30 in the morning.

"No time was wasted," he says. "The plane's propellers began turning when we hit the airport. As soon as the bombs were loaded, the plane was off."

After the five-day rescue operation was over, state officials said the Upoles "contributed materially to the success of the operation." Federal officials as exalted as Air Force chief of staff Gen. Curtis LeMay praised the Upoles' "yeoman service."

The resulting probe of the crash, Peedin says, never determined why Major Townley did not fire his ejection seat. This and other crashes did lead, however, to the modification of tail assemblies on a number of B-52Ds.

The wreckage of the crash was buried by bulldozer or taken away. On July 4, 1964, Peedin and McCormick went to the dedication of an American Legion memorial to the downed fliers and their rescuers off Alternate Route 40 just east of downtown Grantsville. Relatives of the three dead men and many townspeople were there. A B-52 bomber flew low overhead.

The memorial still attracts visitors.

Vandalism

Today on the Poplar Lick Trail in Maryland, between New Germany Road and Savage River Road, hikers examining Major Payne's cross may notice that it has been vandalized.

Used for target practice, a few pieces of the cross have been chipped away. The cruelest piece of random editing is in the second sentence, "A good and loving husband and father." A bullet has gouged out most of the word "good."

That especially pains co-pilot Peedin, known as Mack, who today at 63 runs a small engine repair shop for lawn mowers, weed-eaters and boats in Smithfield, N.C.

After the crash, Peedin served two tours of duty as a B-52 pilot in Vietnam. He resigned from the military after 10 years, becoming a commercial pilot flying for Pan American, Olympic Airlines and Middle East Airlines before retiring.

Informed of the cross' desecration, Peedin is silent for a moment, then offers his own testimonial.

"Major Payne was a good man," he says. "All three were good men."

He continues: "The whole story of Major Payne was just awful. Our crew was asked to ferry the plane back to Turner [AFB]. Five of us flew together continually. But on this trip, our regular navigator was not available. They grabbed Major Payne. He was qualified, but he was the staff navigation officer and often worked in an office."

Peedin's 84-year-old mother, Velma, says the loss of his three colleagues was "a terribly sad thing" for her son. "He was very, very, very upset." Peedin's wife, Mary Jo, said her husband doesn't bring up the crash unless he's asked.

Peedin says he communicated with McCormick, who served one tour in Vietnam and later retired as a lieutenant colonel. He tried unsuccessfully to reach McCormick a year or so ago in California.

He says he hasn't been in touch with the searchers from around Grantsville for years. But nearly 35 years later, he hasn't forgotten them.

"The people in Maryland deserve so much credit," he says. "I was surprised and impressed how many came out to help in that terrible blizzard. I still remember three people who looked so cold and hungry.

"I'll call Mr. Upole," Peedin promises.

Harland and Nellie Upole say they'll be happy to hear from him.

Pub Date: 5/25/98

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