Lone survivor of 1953 Pine Mountain plane crash recalls that night

jmustian@ledger-enquirer.comNovember 3, 2012 

WARM SPRINGS -- On a rainy night in October 1953, a twin-engine B-25 veered off course and plunged into the fogbound summit of Pine Mountain, killing three Air Force crewmen and a passenger upon impact.

The aircraft skidded through the forest, scattering wreckage and shearing a mountainside thicket before coming to a rest. A fifth man succumbed to his injuries waiting for medical help to reach Dowdell's Knob, the remote overlook that had been a favorite haunt of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The plane, though fueled for a flight from Florida to Andrews Air Force Base, Md., did not flare up when it struck the mountain at 1,340 feet, due apparently to the pilot's last-second attempt to regain altitude. This was the saving grace for Richard K. Schmidt, a 19-year-old sailor from New Jersey who survived the crash with a dislocated hip and a collection of cuts.

But Schmidt also credits a group of local men who spotted the low-flying plane and followed the smell of gasoline to the carnage.

"I often think whether God didn't want me or if he wanted me for something else -- either way I'm still here," Schmidt, now 78, said in a telephone interview last week. "It just wasn't my time."

Six decades have blunted the trauma, but Schmidt still speaks infrequently of his brush with death. His current wife didn't know the origin of the scars until many years into their marriage.

But the lone survivor of the aircraft has been revisiting his experience of late. Schmidt plans to return to the crash site Saturday for a special Veterans Day ceremony in Franklin D. Roosevelt State Park, where organizers as recently as last week recovered rusted remnants of the plane.

He'll be reunited there with 84-year-old Robert Lee Wadsworth of nearby Manchester, Ga., one of the men who rushed to Schmidt's aid as the plane went down. Also planning to attend is 88-year-old Billy Colquitt, the minister who accompanied Wadsworth up the mountain and prayed with Airman 2nd Class Benny J. Shepard as he drew his dying breaths.

"They're the heroes, really," Schmidt said. "The guys who took the time on a nasty night to tramp through the woods and climb a mountain to see if they could possibly find a plane crash, to me that's what made the whole thing possible."

Monica Clisham Coffey, who was only a year old when her father piloted the ill-fated flight, will be another guest at the event. Coffey knew little about the crash growing up, and Saturday's ceremony could offer a degree of closure for her and others affected, said Jim Hall, secretary of the Pine Mountain Trail Association.

Park officials say a plaque unveiling and memorial rock will bring new awareness to a somewhat forgotten chapter of local history and also commemorate Schmidt's unlikely survival. "Not many people survive a plane crash," Hall said.

Fateful flight

Schmidt knew a thing or two about plane crashes before he ever became a part of one. In the Navy, he served as an aircraft crash fire and rescue member at NAS Whiting Field, near Pensacola, Fla. The summer before his own crash, he responded to a crash that claimed the lives of 41 NROTC midshipmen and crewmen.

When fall came, Schmidt was looking forward to a leave and planned to hitch a ride to Washington, where he'd hop a train or bus home and propose to his girlfriend on her birthday, Oct. 1. He waited a couple of days for the flight from Eglin Air Force Base, the sprawling military reservation near Fort Walton Beach, Fla.

"Everybody was anxious to get back home," Schmidt recalled. "The guys who had the plane were reservists out of Andrews, and they had spent the weekend down there and they wanted to get back home.

"My initial intention was to get home so I could (propose) on the first," he added. "It didn't quite work out that way."

An hour before takeoff, the plane's pilot, Capt. Stephen A. Clisham, received an hour-old weather forecast and was warned about possible visibility issues due to a system moving slowly across central Georgia, according to a declassified crash report. Clisham, 33, said he preferred to make the trip with visual flight rules, requiring conditions that allowed him to see where the airplane was headed.

"He was advised that it was possible that he would encounter low ceilings and visibility on a flight from Eglin AFB direct to Andrews AFB, but that by circumnavigating to the west and then to the north that he could reach Atlanta," the report said.

The plane was in the air by 8:30 p.m. EST and soon deviated from the proposed flight plan for a course direct to Atlanta. Unbuckled in his compartment and facing the tail of the plane, Schmidt heard crackling in his headset but no cause for concern among the crew.

"I was sort of casually listening to a little bit of the conversation," he said, "but it was all just talk."

Schmidt later told investigators he had been concerned by how low the plane was flying, saying he could easily see lights on the cars below. "The air was rough and pitched us about quite a bit," he said in his statement.

It was a challenging night for area aviators. Within hours of the Pine Mountain crash, four Lawson Field airmen parachuted to safety after their T-11 training plane ran out of fuel over Russell County.

At 9:22 p.m., the B-25 crew reported its position to the Civil Aeronautics Administration Airways Station in Columbus, but the altitude of the flight was not given. Authorities later concluded that Clisham turned eastward to avoid low stratus clouds along his original flight plan.

"As luck would have it, he ended up headed right for Pine Mountain and didn't know it with the weather the way it was," Schmidt said.

Wadsworth had been visiting his father-in-law, Homer G. Swan, near Dowdell's Knob about 9:30 p.m. when the plane flew over the intersection of Trammell Mill Road and Hines Gap Road.

"I was already in the door going out and I heard him coming," Wadsworth recalled in an interview last week, his first since the crash. "I knew he was too low."

Having lost track of the plane's lights, Wadsworth feared the worst and jumped into his truck with Swan and Colquitt, his brother-in-law, who is the father of retired Muscogee County Schools Superintendent Susan C. Andrews.

"About three seconds later, I heard the crash," Wadsworth said. "I looked for it to flare up, but it didn't."

Disorientation

Time seemed to stand still inside the plane. He could have been dreaming, but Schmidt said he's sure he heard the pilot say "Mayday."

"I could feel the g-force," he said. "He yanked that yoke back and the thing started to climb."

Schmidt felt like he was flying through space.

"During the impact, I had the sensation of being hurled, and I hit the radio console," he recalled. "I had a great big gash all the way around my head from smashing into it. The next thing I remember is waking up with the rain hitting my face and body, lying on my back with the stench of gasoline all around."

Schmidt was in and out of consciousness and had no concept of time or place. The sound of spewing liquids filled his ears. The darkened forest was soaked with rain. "We could have been in Timbuktu," he said.

He felt paralyzed at first and couldn't move. "After I took a deep breath, I realized that my parachute was hooked behind me in the ground," Schmidt said. "As soon as I unbuckled that, I could sit up but my eyes and my body were completely covered with blood and gasoline and dirt -- sand in my face -- and it was pitch black. You couldn't see anything."

The next sound he heard was moaning. Shepard had been severely injured but was still alive. Despite his hip injury, Schmidt managed to crawl over to him and began opening his shirt.

Clisham had been killed in the crash, along with his co-pilot, Capt. Virgil G. Harris, Tech. Sgt. Othelier B. Hoke and Airman 3rd Class Robert W. Davidson. Carrying flashlights, Wadsworth and his in-laws arrived at the knob about 9:45 p.m. not expecting to find anyone alive.

"We knew approximately where it hit," Wadsworth said. "We went to the left side and didn't see anything. On the right side, I smelled fuel and I said, 'It's down here.'"

The plane went down just west of a barbecue pit used by Roosevelt. The president, who died in Warm Springs less than a decade before the crash, frequented the resort there and was said to have pondered many weighty issues while relaxing at Dowdell's Knob.

Schmidt heard footsteps cracking through the woods and, wary of the strewn fuel, began shouting, "Don't strike any matches!"

The men aided Schmidt and comforted Shepard. Colquitt, the minister, said he approached the airman and asked him if he had been saved.

"We prayed and God saved him and then he died," Colquitt said. "Wasn't that a miracle?"

Survival

The men tended to Schmidt and stayed with him for a length of time awaiting a doctor from Pine Mountain Valley. Joe and Wesley Castleberry and James Lipp had been hunting nearby and came to the site after hearing the crash, Wadsworth said.

"They assisted with everything we did," he said.

Harold M. Wemmer and a neighbor, Tom Baxley, reported the crash to Air Force authorities and the Sheriff's Office and also headed up the mountain. Officials at Lawson Air Force Base, now known as Lawson Army Airfield on Fort Benning, had been skeptical of the report at first because they didn't have the flight plan, Schmidt said.

The doctor finally arrived and gave Schmidt a shot of morphine, and the men loaded him onto a stretcher.

"I'm 6-foot-3, so it's not too easy to tote me around," Schmidt said. "They put me in this car straddling the front seat and the back seat with the stretcher."

An ambulance met the vehicle about halfway and took Schmidt to Fort Benning Hospital, where he was placed in intensive care for two weeks. "One of the first things they did was put my hip back in place, and it took three interns and a doctor," Schmidt said. "That was very painful. Hardly a part of my body didn't have a cut."

Schmidt recovered and eventually moved back to New Jersey after his military service, where he worked for an electronics firm for 36 years.

Wadsworth had served in World War II and says he'd seen his share of "rough-looking sights" even before the crash. Still, the B-25 wreckage was something he's tried to put out of his mind.

He's looking forward to shaking Schmidt's hand next weekend, as he hasn't seen the man since he visited him in the hospital shortly after the crash. But he shies away from recognition for his efforts, describing his response as more a common courtesy than outward goodness.

"It's just something anybody would do," Wadsworth said. "We knew what had happened. There was a situation and you attend to it. He doesn't owe us anything."

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