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June 22, 2012

Oroville Mercury
October 7, 1954
13 Airmen Die When B50 Crashes And Burns; Four Crewmen Survive

By Floyd Tucker

An Air Force B-50 bomber on a weather reconnaissance mission from El Paso, Texas, crashed and burned five miles south of Willows last night, killing 13 of 17 crewmen aboard. One crewman rode the plane to earth in the tail gunner’s cramped turret, and miraculously survived the crash and fire that followed. Three others parachuted to safety. All four walked to ambulances. Three of the victims jumped too close to the ground for their parachutes to open. Ten bodies were found in the wreckage.

Motors Falter
Sheriff Lyle Sale of Glenn county was an eye witness to the disaster. He was investigating an auto accident on the Riz road less than one-quarter of a mile from the alfalfa field where the huge craft fell. The plane’s motors roared to a high pitch, faltered, and then quit. The ship nosed earthward , but appeared to level off slightly several hundred feet above the ground, Lyle said. Mrs. A. B. Chittenden, whose ranch home is only 100 yards from the crash, said she and her husband heard a roar that got “louder and louder.”

Run For Safety
“It wasn’t a normal sound for a big plane, but more of a screaming noise as if it were in a spin. We thought it was coming right at us and we turned and ran away as fast as we could.” she said. Sheriff Sale sounded a call on his patrol car radio for all Glenn county law enforcement officers, doctors, nurses, and fire fighting equipment.

Fuel Tanks Explode
Six volunteer fire companies from communities as far as 30 miles away fought to control fires that broke out in all parts of the scattered wreckage. The plane’s fuel tanks burst, and minor explosions continued for 25 minutes. By chance, 1400 gallons of gasoline stored in a tank near the Chittenden house did not catch fire. Sections of the plane struck two rice storage bins, knocking them off their foundations.

Security Imposed
Air Force officers heading a rescue unit from Hamilton Field rang down a curtain of security upon their arrival an hour after the crash. The wreckage was roped off, and the four survivors were placed under a security watch. The Air Force lifted the security ban briefly at 2 a.m. today to allow Bay Area newspapermen to visit the scene. The survivors were identified as T-Sgt. Natividad Vasquez, S-Sgt. Joseph E. Wittene, Airman 1-C John B. Patton, and Sgt. Frank M. Imely.

Cause Sought
Air Force investigators probed the wreckage today, seeking a clue to the cause of the crash. Similarities were noted between accounts of eyewitnesses to last night’s crash and witnesses to the crash of a B-50 west of Gridley on Jan. 12,1953. In both cases, the witnesses said the plane appeared to be flying normally until engines suddenly roared faster than usual. In both cases the witnesses said the planes appeared to level off slightly just before the impact.

Condition Satisfactory
Glenn General Hospital reported today that each of the four survivors is in “satisfactory condition.” Sheriff Sale said he saw three parachutes leave the plane as it dove earthward, and another crewman jump when the plane was only about 100 feet above the ground. The man who rode the tail section to earth crawled out of the wreckage as Sale ran up.

Wanted To Search Plane
“How he came through that I’ll never know,” the Sheriff declared. “He didn’t want to leave even after the ambulances arrived. He wanted to go back over to the wreck and help look for his buddies.” The B-50, a post-war version of the B-29 “Super fortress,” has a cruising range of 5,000 miles and normal speed of 300 miles per hour. The ship was 99 feet long with a 141 foot wingspan.

Stu’s Notes: October 7, 1954, the Korea War was over, well not really over, a truce had been signed and the killing of Americans had stopped, well not really, more Americans would die in Korea over the coming years, most by accidents but some by hostile action. I was 14 years and 3 days old, I had not yet started to read the Oroville Mercury, although by my next year my Civics teacher at Oroville High, Mr. Fylling instructed us to read a local newspaper through out your life, to be a good Citizens you need to know what is going on around you. So therefore you reading this are good citizens. I don’t remember ever hearing about any of these crashes. I did write about the above mentioned B50 crash west of Gridley. I found a way to get tiles on our wall to honor those eleven brave young men; maybe it can be done some how for these 13 Airmen that flew over our skies. Perhaps even over Oroville that day and died in an Alfalfa Field so far from their homes. Something should be done. Maybe there is a Memorial for them over in Glen County. I will try to find out. Anyone want to help? They can be put on our tile wall, but to be put on our main Cold War Stone you needed to die in Butte County or be from Butte County and in the Service of your Country when you died. All Memorials have to have some kind of guide lines or things would get out of hand. Remember our tile wall is to Honor ALL service men and women. Flag Day went very well, thanks to all especially James Lenoff and “Alberta Tracy and all that held that big flag. Good Job Jessica!