NEW KENT — This Thursday marks the 71st anniversary of one of the most tragic, yet mysterious plane crashes in New Kent County history.
According to the U.S. Army Air Forces War Department in Richmond, two Langley Airfield pilots were performing a local high-altitude training mission on June 12, 1943, when they crashed and landed in two fields in Lanexa during World War II.
In a 1943 statement to the War Department, Flight Leader Lt. Milton E. Soward said he had left Langley with Second Lieutenants James R. Nall and Henry J. McCaffrey that afternoon at 1:30 p.m.
“At 23,000 feet, the flight went into a dive for the southeast with Nall and McCaffrey flying good formation on my wings,” he wrote.
Soward reportedly started recovery from the dive at 15,000 feet and completed it at 11,000 feet with an air speed of 400 mph.
When he came up from the dive, Soward did not see Nall or McCaffrey.
The missing planes were believed to have crashed at a high speed 2 miles apart in a wooded area of New Kent County, according to the War Department.
Although the exact cause of the accident was never determined, the War Department reported two days after the accident that both pilots failed to recover from power dives.
The Tidewater Review reported about the incident on June 17, 1943. In the article, “Planes Crash, Killing Pilots,” the Review identified Second Lieutenants McCaffrey, of Bronx, N.Y., and Nall, of Mayfield, Ky., as the two pilots killed in the accident.
“The two planes struck about two miles apart and both exploded, blowing the machines and pilots to bits,” the Review reported. “The two planes crashed in a wooded section of New Kent, between Slatersville and Barhamsville (on Stage Road).”
According to the Review, Army officials were on scene shortly after the crash and started an investigation to determine the cause of the accident.
Some witnesses believe one of the planes landed in a field on Sweet Hall Ferry Road in Lanexa.
Now 87 years old, Lanexa resident Clifton “Boogie” Davis was just 16 when he witnessed the crash.
“I think it was in the afternoon when I heard the planes flying around,” said Davis. “All of a sudden, I heard a screeching noise as one of the planes was going into a dive.”
“I thought they had collided into the air and fell to the ground.”
Like many people at the time, Davis and his brothers were aircraft spotters and were required by law to report any plane sightings to Byrd Airfield in Richmond.
“People were aircraft spotting throughout the state because the country wanted to know whether it was friendly plane or an enemy plane,” Davis said.
When the planes hit the ground, Davis and his brother joined the crowd surrounding the wreckage.
“There was a hole in the ground where one of the planes hit and my brother and I found part of a hand where we were standing,” Davis said.
The two pilots were unrecognizable and were identified by their hair color, he added.