By Jim Ignasher
Originally published in Your Smithfield Magazine – January, 2013
It seems fitting to begin this article with a quote by legendary newscaster Paul Harvey and say, “And now, for the rest of the story”, for this is the story before the story; two tales of tragedy with a common thread: one occurring in California, the other in Smithfield. It all began with a chance meeting in a Los Angeles bar.
It was October 22, 1942, and World War II was raging across the globe. Two friends, Louis Reppert Jr., a co-pilot for American Airlines, and Lieutenant William Wilson, a pilot in the U.S. Army Air Corps, happened to meet each other in a hotel bar and sat down for some drinks. Both were in their mid-twenties and had attended some of the same flight training schools together. At the bar they chatted, catching up on life as two friends who haven’t seen each other in awhile are prone to do.
The night wore on, and at one point the subject of the possibility of one day meeting in the air came up. It was then that each learned the other was scheduled to fly the following day, and would be in the same vicinity of the sky at about the same time. Which of the two came up with the idea is not recorded, but a plan was hatched to rendezvous in the air and exchange greetings before flying on to their respective destinations.
The following afternoon American Airlines Flight 28 took off from Burbank, California, bound for Phoenix, Arizona, with nine passengers and a crew of three aboard. The aircraft was DC-3, a twin-engine propeller type used by many airlines of the era. At the controls was Captain Charles Pedley, pilot, and Louis Reppert Jr., co-pilot. Captain Pedley was an experienced flight officer, having logged more than 17,000 hours in the air. Reppert, by contrast, only had 863 hours of air time.
At about the same time, a twin-engine bomber commanded by Lieutenant Wilson left Long Beach, California, destined for Palm Springs. Wilson had approximately 1,500 flight hours, but only about eighteen hours with the type of bomber he was flying. His co-pilot, Staff Sergeant Robert Leicht, had only flown one-hundred hours and all of them in trainer aircraft.
As Flight 28 left Burbank, Captain Pedley climbed to a cruising altitude of 9,000, feet, and at 5:02 P.M. radioed Burbank tower his position over Riverside, California. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Wilson’s aircraft arrived at March (Army Air) Field in Riverside, and circled twice before sighting the airliner and climbed to intercept it. Within a short time his military bomber was flying along side the civilian Flight 28 in direct violation of the rules and regulations of air travel.
As both planes entered San Gorgonia Pass, Wilson rocked the wings of his bomber as a greeting to Reppert, but the gesture was not acknowledged. One can only guess at the conversation that took place between Reppert and his superior. Evidently Captain Pedley saw no reason to return the greeting for doing so might indicate he condoned such reckless behavior.
Wilson then allegedly told Sergeant Leicht that he wanted to “thumb his nose” at Reppert, and proceeded to overtake the liner and cut across its flight path. He then throttled back to allow the airliner to catch up. As Flight 28 caught up to the bomber, Wilson thought the planes were still too far apart for his friend to recognize him, so he turned inwards to close the gap. What happened next could have been due to his lack of experience with his aircraft, for the bomber collided with the DC-3 and sheared off a section of the tail sending the airliner spiraling out of control towards the ground.
The control tower at Burbank Airport later reported receiving the last radio transmission from Flight 28 at exactly 5:15 p.m. stating, “Flight 28 from Burbank…correction, Burbank from Flight 28…” It was believed by investigators that Captain Pedley was attempting to report the mid-air collision before his aircraft spun out of control. Flight 28 crashed in Chino Canyon about three miles from Palm Springs instantly killing all aboard.
Although Lieutenant Wilson’s bomber was damaged, he was able to land safely at Palm Springs Army Air Field.
Three separate investigations of the crash were conducted independently of each other. The coroner’s inquest focused only on the cause(s) of death for the passengers and crew of Flight 28, not who was responsible. The investigation by the Civil Aeronautics Board (C.A.B.), and the separate military investigation, focused on culpability.
The Civil Aeronautics Board blamed Lieutenant Wilson for his “reckless and irresponsible conduct”. Unfortunately, the C.A.B. had no authority to level charges. That was the jurisdiction of the military.
The Army court-martialed Wilson for manslaughter, and subpoenaed witnesses for his trial. Two of the witnesses were volunteer civilian airplane spotters stationed near Palm Springs. Their testimony supported the C.A.B. findings. However, the defense had located a “surprise witness”; an army Private attached to a tank company that was training in the Palm Springs area at the time of the crash who claimed it was the airliner that collided with the bomber, and not the other way around.
The C.A.B. did not consider the Private’s account to be reliable and cited several reasons for their conclusion in their report. The army however, gave great weight to the Private’s testimony , and after deliberating just thirty-seven minutes, the military jury came back with a “not guilty” verdict for Wilson.
Research has been unable to uncover what became of Lieutenant Wilson after the trial. Did he resign his commission? Did he survive the war? Did he carry any guilt over the accident? One can only speculate.
Artifacts from Flight 28 can still be found today lying at the desert crash site serving as mute testimony to one man’s foolish act and twelve needless deaths.
However the story doesn’t end there. The bomber aircraft flown by Lieutenant Wilson was eventually repaired and put back into service by early 1943, but it was relegated to training status. Its new role was that of a “target tug”, – an aircraft that towed canvas targets several hundred feet behind it so that fighter pilots could take turns making practice gunnery runs at a moving target. The targets would then be brought back into the airplane and later scored. For reasons unknown at this time, the plane was sent from California to New England in the summer of 1943, and arrived at Westover Field in Chicopee, Massachusetts.
On August 5, 1943, Lieutenant Otis Portweig of Richmond, Virginia, and Sergeant Herbert Booth, of Rahway, New Jersey, were detailed to fly the aircraft from Westover to Otis Air Field in Falmouth, Massachusetts. As Fate would have it, Lieutenant Saul Winsten, of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, needed to get from Chicopee to Falmouth, and asked to ride aboard the aircraft rather than drive. Portweig granted permission, and the aircraft took off for what was to be a routine forty-minute flight. It was while passing over Rhode Island that the plane lost an engine and crashed into Wolf Hill in Smithfield killing all aboard. It’s doubtful that the men had any idea of the plane’s history, and one has to wonder if the engine failure was due in part to the previous accident.
Those lost in the Wolf Hill crash are the only servicemen to loose their lives in the line of duty, during wartime, within the boundaries of Smithfield. As such, two memorials honoring their sacrifice can be seen today; one in Deerfield Park, and one at the crash site. (For more information visit the Town of Smithfield website at www.smithfieldri.com )
The fact that the same military aircraft was involved in two tragedies was brought to the author’s attention thanks to personal friend John Glancy; pilot and fellow aviation history buff.
To borrow another quote from Paul Harvey; “And now you know, the rest of the story.”