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The Last Casualty of World War II

Written by James Keir Baughman

Smashed, scattered wreckage of USAF RB-36 #51-13721 has rested for nearly 70 years now on a lonely, windy little hill near the tiny town of Burgoyen Cove. This is the story of the crash of this giant plane, of the life of one young crewman who died that day, and of how and why America’s Ellsworth Air Force Base received its honoured name.

The B-36 ‘Peacemaker’ was a mammoth flying machine, in its day the largest ever flown by the U.S. Air Force. Wingtip to wingtip, it stretched 230 feet, as wide as the height of a 23-story building. It was designed and first flown as an intercontinental bomber, but its propellers and piston engines were quickly surpassed by swift jets that could fly nearly three times its cruising speed. The squadrons already in service were relegated, for a time at least, to the mission of reconnaissance, and the plane was re-designated the RB-36.

Just after midnight on the morning of Wednesday, March 18, 1953 RB-36H #51-13721 thundered down the runway at Lajes Field in the Azores, 900 miles west of Portugal, and took off into turbulent Spring weather of the North Atlantic. It climbed a scant hairs-breadth over ocean waves and lumbered westward toward the home of its 23 man crew at Rapid City Air Force Base, South Dakota.

Behind, following its lead were eleven more of the giant planes. Someone, or some organization, had ordered that the long flight to North America be flown just 1,000 feet above stormy seas. It was an altitude that gave perilously little room for error, especially in the terrible weather conditions they would find.

Continuance of the order, in the face of severely worsening weather, the peril of dangerously low altitude, and flying blind on instruments, were key misfortunes in the loss of two multi-million dollar bombers and 33 men that day. And came within a gnat’s whisker of losing the other elven planes and 231 men following. As you’ll see in a years later report from the second plane, a bit farther on in this story.

The four outstanding officers commanding and flying the flight were not known for error. They certainly would not have been leaders of this Cold War mission had that not been so. Wing Commander, Brigadier General Richard Elmer Ellsworth’s life and excellent military resume is well recorded in several Air Force and Internet articles.

Thirty-two of lower rank who died with him, have remained faceless, unknown. They, like Custer’s 212 at the Little Bighorn, would never have chosen to die so needlessly, so young. The lives that were taken from each of them deserve remembrance. They all had a story to be told. But these words know only the moments and brief years of one, perhaps the youngest and lowest ranking of all. The account of his fleeting earthly season is a symbol for all who died with him that day, a hallmark for so many who have been lost in service to our country...too youthful, too low ranking to be remembered.

When America was dragged into WWII it was with fear and pride that we watched our young men rush to serve their country.

I don’t know which of us first voiced the fierce fascination with flying. Even before Phil and I ‘teamed up’ in the first grade, there’s a dim, early, recollection of a row of colourful fabric-covered bi-planes, of talking with a pilot, of worrying that the pilot might have been the one killed when a Richmond Times-Dispatch news story reported a plane crash.

We’d climb near the top of a pine tree and eat lunch from brown paper bags. The pine was small, with strong lower limbs for easy climbing. We were little more than twenty feet above terra firma, but two stories in the air seem high to lads of eleven or twelve. It seemed to us, like flying. For the span of lunchtime, we looked down on the world. Up there, in the air, we plotted our future lives as swashbuckling fighter pilots.

Phil and I eagerly followed the frantic development of the modern warplane. Schools across America held classes in the identification of aircraft so every citizen might recognize an air attack. We memorized the planes of every nation. We knew their photos or silhouettes at a glance. The Me 109 and Fw 190 were German fighters. Italy had the Savoia-Marchetti.

English pilots flew Supermarine Spitfires and Hawker Hurricanes that saved England in the aerial Battle of Britain in 1940. Japan’s Mitsubishi Zero was faster and trickier than most of our early fighters. Others among America’s air armada were the P-47 fighter, the C-47 cargo workhorse, and the four-engine B-17 and B-24 bombers that brought so many of our boys back from the flak-blossomed skies of Europe.

I fibbed about my age to join the Alabama Air National Guard at 16 so I could ride in some of the same warplanes Phil and I’d studied and dreamed about.

But then Phil’s letter came saying that he’d joined the Air Force. In letters he spoke of his basic training and the base itself in the same glowing terms we’d always shared when we dreamed of flying. The last letter came with two pictures of himself and a lovely young woman named Nelda. From the words of that letter I had little doubt that, for Phil, she was the one.

Twenty-one of the men aboard RB-36H #721 were designated as Crew H15 of the 718th Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron, a division of the 28th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing.

Captain Jacob H. Pruett, Jr. of Charlestown, West Virginia was a pilot and aircraft commander. The co-pilot was Captain Orien F. Clark of Rapid City, SD. Brigadier General Richard Elmer Ellsworth of Erie, PA, Wing Commander, and Major Frank C. Wright of Eagle, Idaho, his Chief of Wing Operational Planning, took over and flew long over-water portions of the 7-hour, 40 minute flight.

As weather grew worse and worse Captain Pruett took control of his plane. He knew it far better than his commanders.

They flew the last few hundred miles on instruments alone, two engines dead, completely blind, in steady sleet, freezing drizzle, and fog, leading 11 others behind them. #721's navigator, Captain Harold G. Smith of Lyndhurst, NJ had factored headwinds and tailwinds into his calculations. He was sure he’d direct the pilot, and the other planes, to climb 2,000 feet above the craggy North American coast before they reached land.

The four pilots and the navigator carefully reported their position every hour at planned points across hundreds of miles of ocean. They never knew that the awful weather had sabotaged one of their position reports and calculations. Instead of the 160 mph of speed, their instruments showed, they were actually moving at 202 mph in a much stronger tailwind. They reached the coast far sooner than anyone expected.

Burgoyne, Newfoundland, in the 1950s, was a tiny fishing village on Random Island about 60 miles east of Gander. In the morning hours of March 18, 1953, people of the village listened helplessly as the giant plane rumbled past, just 1,000 feet overhead.

Exactly 7 hours and 40 minutes after lift-off from Lajes Field, with Captain Pruett flying at cruising speed, straight and level, still on instruments and completely blind, RB-36H #721 crashed into a low mountain in the frigid wilderness near Burgoyne Cove.

A huge explosion and fireball woke villagers miles away.

Not in the cockpit, but far back in the plane, Airman Second Class Phillip T. Mancos, Jr, Gunner, rode to the end of his life that morning above the startled people of the tiny Newfoundland fishing village.

He was in that place, at that terrible moment, riding the big, beautiful, doomed silver bird ...because of the boyhood dream he and I shared during the years of World War II in the quiet countryside of Varina. Phil was only 21 years old. In Varina, his father was told not to look because the fire had partially reached him. But, like most fathers, Phillip T. Mancos, Sr. had to know that it was really his son they’d sent home.

Of the twelve giant aircraft which left Rapid City Air Force Base for the far reaches of the Atlantic, all but #721 made it home.

Pilot, Captain Deane Curry, had just settled down for a nap. Co-pilot Captain Ira Purdy was flying when Master Sergeant Harold Parsley, a gunner in the second RB-36 just fifteen minutes behind #721, yelled over the intercom to the pilots on the flight deck of his huge bomber, “Are there supposed to be trees down there....?” He was wide awake, alert. Unlike the pilots, he’d had time for sleep during the long flight, and he was positioned to look down instead of straight ahead through the cockpit windscreen. It was his glance that found a tiny hole in the fog and clouds.

The pilots, shocked by his words, leaped to full attention, full-powered their RB-36 into straining, engine-screaming climb, barely skimming the trees and rocks of Newfoundland that loomed suddenly out of the fogbank. In their saving, they were given the chance to alert those behind them.

Hours later, unbelievably, another bomber, a B-29 was sent to search for #721, crashed in the effort, killing all ten of her crewmen, too. It was the saddest of peacetime missions for the 28th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing.

Military bases are not named for soldiers of the rank and file...for young Privates or Sergeants or Airmen Second Class. That privilege is reserved for those who lead the way.

On June 13, 1953, Five-Star General and President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, along with South Dakota Governor Sigurd Anderson travelled to Rapid City Air Force Base to honour a member of the lost crew. Brigadier General Richard Elmer Ellsworth was loved and respected by the military and local people alike. On that day President Eisenhower changed the base’s name to Ellsworth Air Force Base.

I wish Phil could have been there to see that ceremony. There were echelons of wide-winged B-36s on display, massed military men in parade formation, thousands of Rapid City citizens, the Governor of South Dakota, and the President of the United States. He would have been so proud, as I know he was proud to fly in the mighty B-36.

It was on Monday, January 27, 1997, that Phil’s mother, Lydia Ellen Kovacs Mancos, passed from this life. She was laid to rest by the side of her husband and son in a place called Sunset not far from Richmond. Lydia shared the longing for a homecoming that could never be. After the terrible morning in Newfoundland.

This article has been edited for clarity and length.


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