RANDOLPH - Historical researcher Todd Griswold of Randolph likes a good mystery. In the case of Vermont's well known June 27, 1943, crash of a B-17F Flying Fortress-nicknamed Small Arm by her crew, Bomber Crew 31-Griswold was determined to uncover the true nature of the World War II-era crash that involved the deaths of three U.S. airmen.
In recent years, the Vermont crash has received considerable attention-it been featured on several television documentaries about aviation mysteries and World War II. And in light of last week's Chicago-area crash of one of the last remaining airworthy B-17s, Griswold's findings are all the more newsworthy.
Griswold spent several months combing the Small Arm crash site for physical evidence as well as tracking down documents about the B-17F's avionics and flight crew.
"It was very exhilarating. I was able to go through 68-year-old aircraft pieces and know what they are and their importance to the crash. They are now going into the Randolph museum for everyone to share, instead of someone's mantle or eBay," Griswold said.
Last month, Griswold turned over aircraft artifacts he discovered to the Randolph Historical Society Museum in downtown Randolph.
The exhibit opened to the public last week on Father's Day.
Griswold said one of the most persistent legends of the 1943 crash was that it was caused by sabotage. Griswold said there's no evidence to support the sabotage theory.
"Well, it certainly was not an act of sabotage," Griswold said, "so I wondered what really caused the crash?"
In 1991, a memorial stone and plaque marking the crash was placed on Fish Hill Road in Randolph. Engraved words on the stone tells the story of how seven airmen who parachuted to safety; also engraved are the names of the three aviators who perished with their aircraft.
"As I began to put documents together, it became obvious to me that this plane crash was not the result of sabotage," Griswold said. "The tragedy was the result of human error, in this case, co-pilot error."
According to Griswold, the B-17F's engine intercoolers were set on "high".
"Due to the apparent inexperience of the co-pilot in the proper use of intercoolers, the oil was heated excessively until it became so thin that the oil pressure dropped and the fuel mixed was leaned to such an extent that is caused detonation," he said. "This resulted in burning through the tops of the pistons and scoring of the piston and cylinder walls of 3 of the 4 engines."
According to the accident report from the Air Corps Accident Committee, it was found through Griswold's research, that this incident forced the aircraft's engine oil to be heated and thinned too much. The tragic result was that the plane was unable to maintain enough power to keep itself in the air.
"The problem was quickly discovered by the flight engineer, but it was too late to reverse the effects and continue to fly. The engine cylinders began to explode, crippling 3 of the four engines," he said.
According to Griswold, at the time of the crash in 1943, the B-17F was a new and highly sophisticated aircraft.
The plane performed flawlessly during its pre-flight check which was conducted by Engineer Staff Sgt. Jessie Pace and Assistant Engineer Staff Sgt. Oscar Krummel before Leaving Grand Island, Neb., on the morning of June 27, 1943.
"According to statements from crash survivors, Pace noted that the engine intercoolers were put in the "hot" position by the co-pilot for 15 minutes-without the pilot 's knowledge," said Griswold. "Engineer Pace corrected the issue but the damage was too far along to fix. Pace and the investigation team of the War Department Accident Committee agreed this was the cause of this tragedy."
Griswold said Assistant Flight Engineer Krummel stated the aircraft was also overloaded, weighing 68,000 pounds on take-off; the B-17F was rated for a maximum loaded weight of 65,500 pounds.
"With four engines, the ship flew well and was set on auto-pilot for four hours without any problems at all," he noted.
"Once the two inboard engines lost oil pressure, the pilot began to 'feather' no. 2 and no. 3 to allow the engines to cool. Moments later, the oil pressure dropped to zero on outboard engine no. 4. After that, the airplane was going down. Emergency measures needed to be taken immediately," Griswold said.
After the emergency was declared, pilot Lt. Leonard Bolon put the safety of his crew first. He remained calm and collected, according to Pace's statement, while trying to work the engine problems at hand.
Bolon next told the crew to quickly prepare to bail out with parachutes despite the fact that no crew member had ever used a parachute.
"One can only imagine what was going through the minds of those men when that order came from the cockpit," Griswold said. "Seven of the men complied; they bailed out and landed safely with only one broken ankle reported. Three airmen remained onboard to take the Flying Fortress down. The idea was to land it in a field. But with two engines out of commission and the other two on fire, altitude was being lost rapidly."
Griswold discovered that Bolon wanted all of his crew to bail out, but both the co-pilot and tail gunner stayed onboard.
Apparently, all the men remaining onboard believed in the leadership skills and competence of their pilot. They must have believed he could to bring the plane in safely.
"As the plane came in, there was a giant elm tree directly in the glide path," Griswold said. "They were unable to clear it. On contact with the tree, one wing was sheered off, then things went quickly out of control."
Eyewitnesses in the Randolph area said the initial impact was followed immediately by a huge fireball and smoke.
"Everyone that witnessed this event from the ground knew exactly what happened. Small Arm had crashed," he said.
Immediately following the impact of Small Arm, Randolph area residents were en route to the crash site.
"Every automobile, bicycle, and pair of feet in Randolph were in motion," Griswold said. "Everyone from town and the surrounding area was heading toward the tower of smoke. When the news spread that only seven chutes of ten crewmen were spotted nearby, it was clear the news was bad."
Griswold said the first parachutist to make it to the crash site was Staff Sgt. Charles O'Connell, the crew's waist gunner.
"O'Connell took control of the crash scene and began collecting all the papers and maps in order to burn them". More importantly, he also searched for and located the Small Arm's most important piece of cargo-a top secret Norden bombsight," Griswold said.
Because of its advantage over German and Japanese technology at the time, all U.S. Army Air Forces personnel were ordered to destroy their Norden bombsights should they potentially end up in enemy hands.
"O'Connell took out his pistol and shot five rounds into the sight to destroy it. Precision bombing was the key to victory during World War II, so the Flying Fortress and Norden bombsight were constantly undergoing improvements," according to Griswold.
Last month, on Memorial Day, Griswold, the property owner of the crash site, and another neighbor conducted a brief the memorial service for the airmen who died in the crash of the Small Arm.
"With the permission of the landowner-and using a garden tool and a metal detector-I unearthed over 500 targets including the pilot's sterling silver I.D. bracelet, some uniform buttons and insignia, 12-carat gold finished Ray Ban-brand aviator sunglass frames, a jungle knife, a master lock and three keys. I even unearthed the lens of the Norden bombsight."
Griswold said solving the mystery of the Small Arm touched him on a personal level.
"Uncovering the personal items of the crew touched me on a very deep level," he said. "Among the artifacts were the pilot's personal items packed in his flight case. He and his crew was on their way to Europe to join the 9th Heavy Bomb Group and the war in Europe. Unfortunately, fate had other plans for these men."
Editor's note:Todd Griswold's collection of artifacts from the crash of the B-17F SmallArm are currently on display at the Randolph Historical Society Museum located on Salisbury Street in downtown Randolph. For details and hours of operation, call 802-728-6677.