Memorial dedication Sunday for ’63 B-47 crash near Comfrey
COMFREY – The weather will be much different Sunday than it was a half century ago when a U.S. Air Force B-47 crashed in a Bashaw Township farm meadow about three miles northwest of Comfrey, on a frigid and windy February afternoon.
The mishap took the lives of all four aircraft crew-members. Relatives of at least two of the Air Force officers on the airplane have confirmed they will attend Sunday’s memorial dedication, according to Marianne Schotzko of Comfrey.
Sunday’s dedication ceremony will include more than 100 Patriot Guard and American Legion and American Legion Auxiliary members, a Civil Air Patrol (CAP) color guard, a 21-gun salute, the play of “Taps” and a dove release.
Donations have been sought for the memorial. Last fall, the Brown County Veterans Council appropriated $1,000 for the crash memorial. Other organizations and individuals also contributed to the memorial.
Retired CAP Col. Gerald Quilling, Incident Commander of the crash investigation, has agreed to speak and may share aerial slide photos of the crash site at the Comfrey Community Center, after the ceremony in the park.
A flyover featuring a BT-13 trainer aircraft will occur during the dedication. It will be conducted by the Commemorative Air Force based at Flemming Field in South St. Paul, weather permitting.
Schotzko, a Comfrey student when the crash occurred, remembers the incident vividly.
“It rattled the school windows. There was a big, black cloud of smoke in the air,” she said. “The Brown County Sheriff’s Office and Air Force personnel tried to protect the wreckage from souvenir-seekers.”
The jet, which was based at a Lincoln, Neb. Air Force-base, was on a high-speed, low-level, simulated bombing mission that day when the plane crashed and burned early in the afternoon near Carl Renberg’s farm house, according to the Minnesota Wing of the CAP.
Aircraft pilots Capt. Donald L. Livingston and First Lt. Michael R. Rebmann ejected from the plane. Navigator First Lt. Thomas J. Hallgarth was out of his ejection seat, replacing computer amplifiers for the next navigation leg when the crash happened. Instructor Navigator Lt. Col Lamar Ledbetter did not have an ejection seat. Neither navigator could escape the aircraft due to extreme g-forces, according to the CAP.
The crash created a 50×25-foot deep crater, according to the CAP.
The late Douglas Wall of Comfrey, a retired mail carrier and World War II Army veteran who served in Germany, was driving his father from his farm to Comfrey to buy groceries on that frigid day in 1963.
“It was 20-below (zero degrees F.) with a much lower wind chill,” Wall recalled last November. “After dropping my dad off at his farm, I was driving east. I looked up and saw a big airplane in front of me, flying north at about 500 feet, with black smoke trailing it.”
A licensed pilot himself, Wall said he knew the plane was in trouble.
“The plane was vibrating badly. An engine fell off in a nearby field. The left wing drooped, went up, and the plane nose-dived into the ground,” Wall said. “A mushroom cloud of smoke and fire rose like an atomic bomb. I turned and parked on the side of the road. I ran towards the plane, but the heat was unbearable. Pieces of burning ash were in the air. A small piece got in my eye.”
Near the crash site, Wall saw an open parachute lying on the ground with some human remains in the harness. He stayed at the scene for a while before getting back into his car and driving towards Comfrey.
Wall saw fire trucks from Comfrey heading towards the crash site so he turned around and returned to the crash site.
“(Firefighter) Ted Nelson saw I had something in my eye and opened a First Aid kit to help me,” Wall said. “A couple guys told me they saw a parachute low in the air over Comfrey, so they drove out of town, hoping to find the person in the parachute when they landed. John Evers was one of the men that jumped on a parachute they found. He tried to keep it from blowing away.”
Another parachute was found tangled in a fence on the Clarence Zender farm, about six miles west of St. James, according to the Feb. 21, 1963 edition of the New Ulm Daily Journal.
Wall said he, Evers, and L. P. Schaegerl stayed near the airplane wreckage until U.S. Air Force personnel arrived that evening.
Comfrey was abuzz with activity after the mishap for weeks. Gas stations and restaurants increased their hours of business.
According to an England-based account of aircraft crashes, the mishap was caused by engine mount failure.
(Fritz Busch can be e-mailed at email@example.com).