Exactly 60 years to the day, Bryan County Schools and the Black Creek community honored three Air Force crewmen credited with saving more than 100 lives when they refused to abandon their aircraft.
The crash occurred at 10:50 a.m. on Oct. 29, 1956, when a B-26 crashed near what was then Black Creek School. According to media reports at the time, school Principal J.O. Hurst and other witnesses said the disabled plane appeared to be heading for the school when the pilot “made a successful attempt to miss the brick school occupied by 110 students.”
Saturday’s ceremony began the same as that school day did, with the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by a moving rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” by Bryan County Sheriff’s Deputy Mark Crowe.
Killed in the crash were 1st Lt. Don Newnon Hodges of Lebanon, Tenn., 2nd Lt. Bertel Carlson of Flushing, N.Y., and 2nd Lt. David Joseph Paul of Cleveland, Ohio. Hodges was 24 at the time, while Carlson and Paul were both 21. Family members of Hodges and Paul attended the event, but organizers could not track down any members of Carlson’s family.
“I was 14 at the time but I don’t really think I understood what it meant and what my parents went through until I had children of my own,” said Jeanne Vargo, Paul’s younger sister. “When it mattered most, they were not thinking of themselves.”
The bomber ended up crashing into a field about 100 yards from the school between two houses. The defunct Pembroke Journal reported that the impact left a crater that witnesses said “you could put a house in” and that the explosion was heard up to five miles away.
One of those houses was owned by the parents of Charlene Miller Cannady. She was in school at the time, but said her mother and younger sister were at home.
“There was a lot of disbelief and sorrow, but the children and teachers were safe,” she said. “These three brave men did what they were trained to do.”
Theresa Callahan Herb was at the school as a third grader and Barbara Shuman DuBose was in first grade at the time. They, along with several other former students, attended.
“I can remember our parents being really disturbed,” DuBose said.
Herb said she only recalls bits and pieces of that day, but does remember when students were finally allowed to leave for the day being able to see the tail of the bomber sticking up in the air from the crater is created.
“I’m glad they are finally being recognized,” she added. “We are here today because of them.”
Michelle Seger, wife of school board member Dennis Seger, said a rough estimate shows at least 1,000 people who would not be alive today had the plane hit the school due to the descendants of the students.
“It’s not only that, but there are businesses that wouldn’t be here and homes that never would have been built,” she said.
Each family was presented with an American flag, followed by the playing of “Taps,” before a monument in front of the building — which is now the Board of Education offices — was unveiled.
The aircraft and crew were part of the Second-Tow Target Squadron based at Mitchell Field in New York and were on temporary duty at Travis Field, an Air National Guard base located at what is now Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport.
The Pembroke Journal also noted that “Some witnesses said the pilot seemed to maneuver the craft so as to miss the school. The occupants of the ill-fated plane seemed to be aware of their danger. One person in the school building said the roar of the plane was terrific and the building seemed to shake as the noise increased. It seemed to her she said, that the plane was on fire underneath and the pilot appeared to be making a definite attempt to get away from the building.”
Janet Collins, a member of the Black Creek School Museum committee, said Air Force records show that the crew had radioed that they were going to deploy their parachutes to escape the impending crash until they saw playground equipment and realized the bomber was heading toward a school.
“True heroes don’t come along very often,” Collins told the crowd. “We live in a community that would not exist but for them. These are men our children can admire for their honor and integrity.”
Joe Hodges, whose father was Don Hodges’s brother, was 7 at the time of the crash.
“I definitely remember him,” he said. “My grandmother had pictures of him all over the house.”
Hodges there ceremony was very meaningful given the history of military service in his family. His father was in the Merchant Marines, while his uncle, Lt. Hodges’s father, was also a pilot, as was his grandfather. He became a tail gunner on a helicopter during the Vietnam War.
“It was very emotional, especially with ‘Taps’ and the presentation of the flags,” he said.