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Local pilot's heroics before crash saved more than 100 students

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Clipping from The Lebanon Democrat and Wilson County News, 1956 Photo courtesy Wayne Hodges
A display of Hodges' items. Photo courtesy Wayne Hodges
MTSU history professor Derek Frisby, who’s a veteran US Marine himself, describes the heroism of 1st Lt. Donald N. Hodges, LHS Class of 1950, the Air Force pilot who lost his own young life but saved those of over 100 others by swerving his crashing B-26 away from a grade school. JOHN BUTWELL / Special to The Wilson Post
Taking a moment to reflect in the dappled sunlight and shade of the MTSU Memorial Monument where Lebanon’s 1st Lt. Donald N. Hodges is honored – among other fallen Middle Tennessee alumni heroes – is history professor Derek Frisby. Hodges is memorialized at MTSU, but he was laid to rest in 1956 in Lebanon’s Cedar Grove Cemetery. JOHN BUTWELL / Special to The Wilson Post
Don Hodges once lived, went to school, and worked in Lebanon, but now his name is memorialized among other fallen MTSU alumni heroes who gave their lives serving their country, with the special distinction of also having saved the lives of over 100 schoolchildren in the bomber crash that killed the young Wilson County pilot. JOHN BUTWELL / Special to The Wilson Post
It’s not exactly like the Vietnam Wall in Washington, DC, partly because it honors fallen MTSU alumni heroes from World War I through Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the Vietnam War. But the MTSU Memorial Monument has a similar emotion-tugging feel, and the name of 1st Lt. Donald N. Hodges, LHS Class of 1950, can be seen at the top of the list, on the upper left-hand corner of the granite marker.
Hodges with his plane, 1950s Photo courtesy Wayne Hodges
Don Hodges, left, with Joe Wilkerson worked together at the Lebanon Airport, 1950-51 Photo courtesy Wayne Hodges
Hodges Lebanon High Football picture, 1949-50. Photo courtesy Wayne Hodges
Don Hodges' mother pins his wings on his lapel Nov. 15, 1954, at Reece Air Force Base. Photo courtesy Wayne Hodges
Don Hodges Photo courtesy Wayne Hodges
“Support and defend the constitution,” the granite of the MTSU Memorial Monument, located directly in front of the Tom Jackson Building on campus, declares in memory of fallen Middle Tennessee alumni heroes – including Lebanon’s 1st Lt. Donald N. Hodges. JOHN BUTWELL / Special to The Wilson Post
“Support and defend the constitution,” the granite of the MTSU Memorial Monument, located directly in front of the Tom Jackson Building on campus, declares in memory of fallen Middle Tennessee alumni heroes – including Lebanon’s 1st Lt. Donald N. Hodges. JOHN BUTWELL / Special to The Wilson Post

Cedar Grove Cemetery in Lebanon is the final resting place of many heroes. One of those is a young man named 1st Lt. Donald N. Hodges, a 1950 Lebanon High School graduate, whose last act in life saved the lives of more than 100 elementary schoolchildren.

Hodges died when the B-26 light bomber he was flying in a practice run crashed to earth a short distance from Hunter Air Force Base near Savannah, Georgia, where he and two other young U.S. Air Force pilots were training.

They were flying what was called a towing run, towing a target, according to Dr. Derek Frisby, a history professor at Middle Tennessee State University. Frisby chairs the committee responsible for a special memorial on the MTSU campus honoring Middle Tennessee graduates who have died in service of the United States.

Frisby became involved when the Hodges family asked to have the heroic young pilot's name placed on the memorial. For the name to be engraved on the low stone wall of heroes, Frisby needed to verify what had happened that morning in 1956.

'Tracing a hero's story'

The professor contacted the Richmond Hill Historical Society in Bryan County, Georgia, where the crash occurred.

Jay Volker, the communications officer for the society, was able to find a news story from the Pembroke Journal in Georgia concerning the crash.

The story said witnesses saw the plane descending toward the school where 110 children from first through seventh grade were attending classes. Principal J. O. Hurst said the pilot appeared to realize that the plane would hit the school and pulled up enough to miss the building.

The plane crashed about 100 yards beyond the grade school and exploded, according to the article. Neighbors said it made a hole big enough to put a house in. All three young men who were in the plane were killed instantly.

The superintendent of schools in the county called in the buses and dismissed school for the day, the article continued. He said that after their narrow escape, neither teachers nor students were in shape to continue their studies.

'Final thought was saving lives'

That young pilot was Don Hodges, 24, from Lebanon. He knew his plane was in trouble and that he was going to crash, but even then his thoughts were about protecting others. His last efforts were to save the lives of those he had sworn to protect.

So just before 11 a.m. on October 31, 1956, Don Hodges and his crew members - second lieutenants David J. Paul of Cleveland, Ohio, and Berel Carlson of Flushing, New York - died after saving the lives of those young schoolchildren and their teachers.

Frisby also found a local Tennessee news article about the crash. It ran in the MTSU student newspaper, Sidelines, and it described Hodges' time as a college student right before he joined the Air Force in 1953.

Worked at Lebanon Airport and LFD

"While attending Middle Tennessee State College at Murfreesboro, he worked 24 hours a day - attending classes in the morning, working at the Lebanon Airport after school, and serving night duty with the Lebanon Fire Department," the Sidelines story reported.

Hodges' parents, Mr. and Mrs. George Hodges, Sr., and Donald's brothers Wayne and George, Jr., lived in Lebanon back then. His sister, Virginia Bogress, resided in Dayton, Ohio.

And Don was brought back to rest in peace in Cedar Grove Cemetery with the other heroes who gave their lives in service of their country.

Five decades and three years later, the name of 1st Lt. Donald N. Hodges was engraved in the granite of the MTSU Memorial Monument in front of the Tom Jackson Building on campus.

And a single new brick, also bearing the young Cold War pilot's name, was placed in the plaza there, among the names of dozens of other heroic veterans who gave their lives in conflicts from World War I through Iraq and Afghanistan.

"To those who have fallen who were students first and served their country with honor," the central monument with the single star says.

Students pass through the area daily on their way to class, and sometimes they sit and remember.

Writer Connie Esh can be contacted at cewrites@yahoo.com.

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crash, hero, Hodges, Lebanon, Lebanon Airport, Lebanon High School, MTSU, pilot, plane, Wilson County
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