3 airmen sacrificed lives when their plane dodged a school 60 years ago
A 4-foot-high granite monument recently went up in Ellabell, Georgia. It stands at attention near the site of the former Black Creek Elementary School.
Sixty years ago, at 10:50 a.m. Oct. 29, 1956, more than 100 Black Creek students and teachers narrowly escaped being entombed in a fireball that likely would have claimed some of their lives.
Many of those children, now senior citizens, held a rendezvous 60 years to the day of the event to honor the three young Air Force officers who died when their B-26 crashed and exploded about 100 yards west of the school. Eyewitnesses testified that in the last few seconds before the accident, the pilot took action so that the plane missed the schoolhouse.
Lebanon native first lieutenant Donald Hodges was one of the three pilots who sacrificed his life.
His closest living relative, Joe Hodges, and his wife, Anita, of Lebanon gathered at the recent memorial service that numbered approximately 150.
Joe said, "A lot of the people there were kids in the school at the time of the accident. They had their stories. They called them heroes because they said if not for what they did, a lot of their families, their children and grandchildren wouldn't be alive."
Mabel Ansley, a seventh-grader at the school when the plane crashed in 1956, told Savannah's WTGS-Fox 28 TV, "Any time I come by, it just comes into my mind that this is where it all happened, and this family that came here today, we've got all of our lives to thank for this."
Monument stands where school once did
The monument reads: In memory of three Air Force pilots who sacrificed their lives during a training mission Monday, October 29, 1956, to save the lives of more than 100 students of Black Creek Elementary School.
The granite block lists the name, rank and hometown of the three men: Don Hodges of Lebanon; and second lieutenants David J. Paul of Cleveland, Ohio, and Berel Carlson of Flushing, New York.
The Black Creek Museum was the driving force behind the monument. It is located inside the Bryan County Board of Education Building, which occupies the former Black Creek School building.
Museum secretary Janet Collins and other staffers tracked down former schoolchildren and relatives of the servicemen to invite them to the ceremony. Collins said to WGTS, "These heroes need to be recognized."
Don Hodges, who was 24, left behind parents George and Jenny Hodges and siblings Wayne, Virginia and George Jr.
His nephew, Joe, 67, was 7 years old when the bad news arrived via Ma Bell.
"My grandparents got a phone call from the Air Force informing them that he'd crashed and died. My uncle went down to Savannah and bought his body back up here," said Joe of his uncle's remains which were interred in Cedar Grove Cemetery.
He shared what he has learned about the accident, saying, "They were out of Mitchel Field [in Long Island, New York] and had gone down to Savannah at Hunter Air Force Base on a training mission. They had taken off, and my uncle realized something was wrong with the plane and about 30 miles out he was gonna turn around and bring back it. I think one of the engines caught fire, and he knew he wasn't gonna make it.
"He saw a field and a school. Just as he got to the school, according to eyewitness accounts, he raised it up just enough to come up over the school and then went down across the field. The plane missed the school and nosed dived about a hundred yards from the school. They said the hole was so deep you could have put a house in it, and you could hear the crash from five miles away."
The Pembroke Journal reported on the crash of the light bomber that was making a towing run. Black Creek School principal J.O. Hurst told the newspaper that the pilot appeared to realize that the plane would hit the school and pulled up enough to miss the building. It crashed about 100 yards beyond the grade school and exploded, and all three young pilots were killed immediately.
Service brings tears
The Oct. 29 memorial service featured the National Anthem, a prayer, a presentation of the flag, a wreath placement, the playing of "Taps" and comments from several speakers, including Joe Hodges.
"I told them how much I appreciated what they had done, and that all of my family were pilots: my grandfather, my daddy and Uncle Wayne; and how I was in the Air Force myself," said Joe, who served two 12-month terms as a gunner on a helicopter in Vietnam from 1969-1971.
"Ninety percent of the people there [at the ceremony] had been children in the school when this happened. Some of them were crying and very emotional."
Anita said, "Words cannot describe how touching this ceremony was. The residents in the community were so kind, and many who were there were children at the school 60 years ago."
Reflected Joe, "I found out so much about my uncle that I didn't know. I knew about the crash but didn't know all the facts, like where they crashed. It was happy and sad too and brought back a lot of memories."
Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.