The B-29 Superfortress lumbered down the runway at Mitchel Field, its sleek aluminum fuselage radiating in the early afternoon sun on February 15, 1945. Built by Boeing, the B-29 was a critical asset for the United States war effort as Allied forces leap-frogged, island by island, and closer and closer to mainland Japan. With a wingspan of one hundred and forty-one feet, three inches and a fuselage length of ninety-nine feet, the B-29 was powered through the air by four Wright Duplex Cyclone engines capable of reaching a top speed of three hundred and sixty-five miles an hour with a cruising speed of two hundred and twenty miles per hour. Armed with twelve .50 caliber machine guns, a 120 mm cannon and capable of carrying a twenty-thousand bomb load, the B-29 was a fierce high-level bomber that could deal a mortal blow to the enemy. Though the bomber was not introduced to combat until June of 1944, the B-29 would eventually become synonymous with victory in the Pacific for the general public. It was lesser known that its utilization in war-time operations was marred by failures and technical problems that placed aircrews in precarious and often deadly situations. Despite the fact that many of these problems had reared their ugly heads during testing, the aircraft was critically needed for the war effort and the aircraft design was mass-produced with clear drawbacks and concerns including fires stemming from grossly overheating engines. On that early February afternoon, having successfully lifted off the tarmac, the B-29 slowly gained altitude and set off on the first leg of its planned flight to Miami, Florida. A total of ten men were aboard including nine members of the United States Army Air Corps and one civilian observer. At the controls was combat veteran, Major Billy Southworth Jr.
William “Billy” Brooks Southworth was born on June 20, 1917 in Portland, Oregon. His father, William H. Southworth was a baseball player who, as young Billy grew up, played for thirteen seasons in the major leagues. Young Billy grew up in the dugouts and on the baseball diamonds across the country with his father who was both playing professional baseball and eventually managing various teams. In high school, young Billy was a standout outfielder, much like his father. Post-graduation, he played for five different minor league teams as an outfielder, with three of those seasons in the St. Louis Cardinals’ minor league system. In 1939, William Southworth Sr., took over as the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, while Billy played for the Blue Rocks in Wilmington, Delaware. With war raging in Europe, young Billy felt compelled to enlist as an aviation cadet. His father supported the idea but recommended that he wait until the end of the season. On December 12, 1940, Billy Southworth packed away his minor league baseball uniform and outfielder’s glove and donned a uniform in service to his country. Billy’s passion for aviation and his sense of service to his country had inspired him to enlist in the United States Army Air Corps.
Southworth commenced his training at Parks Air College in Illinois and then proceeded to Randolph Field in Texas. At Brooks Field, Texas, Southworth earned his pilot’s wings and his commission as a second lieutenant. After completion of additional training in Orlando, Florida, he was shifted to Pendleton Field, Oregon where he became a member of the 303rd Bomber Group. The bomber group then joined the Eighth Air Force in Molesworth, England and soon was headlong into action in war-torn Europe. On November 18, 1942, Captain Southworth was in command of the “Bad Check” on a mission against U-Boat submarine pens located at St. Nazaire, France. Missions over Europe were peppered with serious actions over U-Boat pens in Brest, France, Wilhelmshaven Naval Base, and other strategic strongholds throughout war-torn Europe. Throughout every mission, Captain Southworth donned a felt St. Louis Cardinals baseball cap given to him by his father. Though unauthorized, the bill of the baseball cap was actually more effective in shielding the sun than the brim of a standard issued officer’s combination cover and more tight-fitting which allowed for a better fit of the earphones utilized for communications.
Captain Southworth completed his twenty-fifth combat mission on July 17, 1943. During those twenty-five missions, not a single member of his crew was injured. With his combat flight rotation completed, Captain Southworth returned to the United States. For his actions and leadership in the flack-filled skies over Europe, Captain Southworth was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters. Based on his stellar career and his war-time experience he was promoted to the rank of Major and named Deputy Commanding Officer of the Second Air Force where he was responsible with training bomber crews that would be tasked with finalizing up the Second World War in the Pacific with high-level bombing missions over strategic targets on mainland Japan.
As the B-29 alighted from Mitchel Field, the crew focused in on their assigned tasking for the training flight. Shortly into the flight, Major W.L. Anken, acting as an observer, noted that one of the engines was spewing thick smoke. He activated his intercom and reported the issue. Captain Southworth Jr. replied immediately, “Keep an eye on it.” The situation did not improve. Captain Southworth radioed the aircraft control tower at La Guardia Airport and he requested an emergency landing. At 15:50 hours, the B-29 Superfortress circled the airport and began its approach for Runway 9. Captain Southworth and his co-pilot, 1st Lieutenant Carl D. Magee, with one of the four powerful engines shutdown and its propeller feathered, struggled to control the huge aircraft. As the aircraft neared the tarmac, it was clear to Captain Southworth that they would overshoot the runway. Captain Southworth decided to abort the attempt and circle back around.
As the B-29 lurched over the waters of Flushing Bay, Captain Southworth banked the aircraft to increase its altitude. Suddenly one of the wing tips sliced into the icy waters. The contact sent the Superfortress into a somersault. The forward section of the aircraft slammed into the water and the aft section of the aircraft severed off. Both sections of the aircraft immediately erupted. Thick black acrid smoke filled the sky with flames leaping into the heavens.
Within moments of the crash, a host of rescue boats raced to the scene of the horrific fires. Police Launch Corporal Flattery wove its way through the oil fueled fires and located five airmen in the water. Utilizing their boat hooks, the police officers dragged three of the injured men into their boat. Holding two of the airmen with boathooks along the gunwale, the men were picked up out of the water by crewmen of an arriving Pan-American launch. All of the men had been in the aft section of the plane. Confident that no more of the crew was in the aft section, the rescuers raced the survivors back to the pier for medical treatment. Meanwhile the tail portion of the plane continued to burn out of control for several hours, before sinking below the surface off the Rikers Island Channel. The forward section of the plane, still engulfed in flames, continued to burn for several hours. It quickly became apparent that the men in the forward section of the aircraft had not been spared during the horrific crash.
While New York Fire Department fireboats and Coast Guard personnel fought the fires and searched for the crewmen from the forward section of the B-29, the survivors from the aft section of the aircraft were transferred to Fort Totten for medical treatment. Immediately, command personnel from Mitchel Field flew to La Guardia to take stock of the situation and commence an investigation. Also ordered to the scene was the United States Navy and a host of ready divers. The main goal was to recover the personnel from the forward fuselage and cockpit and secondarily to ensure a complete salvage of the aircraft so that an investigation could be completed to determine the cause of the engine failure that lead to the deadly crash. Braving the icy waters, U.S. Navy divers from the decks of the U.S.S. Siren, plunged into the murky waters of Flushing Bay to search the wreckage. Their efforts were largely in vain. Aboard the salvage vessel and barge was William Southworth Sr. and his wife, Mabel. They had flown to New York as soon as the grim news of the crash had been passed to him by U.S. Army officials.
U.S. Navy divers were successful in the salvage of ninety-percent of the aircraft by February 24, 1945. Two of the forward section aircrew were recovered during the salvage process but three of the men remained missing. Sadly, the remaining personnel would be located in the weeks that followed. First located was 1st Lieutenant Martin Li Cursi found on May 18, 1945 in the East River off of 62nd Street. Next located was 1st Lieutenant Carl D. Magee, co-pilot, whose body was identified by a zippered flight boot with a ball-point pen, who was also found in the East River, near Pier 16. Last recovered were the remains of Major Southworth Jr. whose body was found one thousand feet off of Silver Beach, Bronx by a New York Police Department Harbor Unit on August 3, 1945. Major Southworth’s body was identified by his uniform and dog-tags. William Southworth Sr., upon learning the news, returned to New York to arrange the transportation of his son’s body for burial. On August 7th, 1945, Major William B. Southworth Jr. was buried with full military honors at Lockbourne Army Air Base in Columbus, Ohio.
The B-29 flight from Mitchel Field, Long Island to Miami, Florida ended in a horrible crash that took the lives of five of her aircrew including Major Southworth. He had survived twenty-five harrowing combat missions over Europe and then perished when one of his Superfortress’ engines failed. In an attempt to save his aircraft and his crew, he attempted a risky but necessary emergency landing. Overshooting the runway, Major Southworth attempted a second run but the aircraft’s lack of lift and the accidental dipping of the wing-tip into the waters of the bay sent the aircraft into an uncontrollable somersault that ended in a horrendous fireball. Major Southworth’s selfless contribution to his country and to his fellow airmen as an instructor was a fine example of the integral nature of one man doing his part for his country in a time of global need. Sadly, despite his prowess as an outfielder with a promising future as major league baseball player and as a decorated aviator in the air above, he would perish, along with four of his crew, in a horrible crash that took place in our waters.