Sunday, January 17, 2016

Berks County, Pennsylvania: Family story about man's grandfather leads to plane crash investigation

Michael R. Mercier Jr. of North Carolina, whose grandfather was bumped off a doomed flight during World War II, visits West Nantmeal Township on Sunday. Mercier has found pieces of metal, glass and plexiglass in an earthen depression in the township that he theorizes was the point of impact. 

WEST NANTMEAL TOWNSHIP, PA  --  In Dec. 1943, Alfred R. Mercier attempted to hitch a flight aboard a B-24 on a training mission to Reading Army Airfield so he could see his girlfriend, Mary Jane Rittenhouse, in West Lawn.

Mercier, an Army Air Corps dental technician at Will Rogers Field in Oklahoma, was bumped off the flight by Lt. George O'Brien.

At 11:30 p.m. Dec. 4, 1943, the modified B-24D crashed in a field in West Nantmeal Township, Chester County, about 25 air miles from the Reading airport.

Everyone aboard, except Sgt. John F. Gillespie of Philadelphia, was killed in the fiery crash that left an indelible imprint on the township's history.

Alfred Mercier died last year at age 94, but he told the story of his close call with death many times to his grandson Michael R. Mercier Jr. of North Carolina.

Inspired by the story, Michael Mercier spent five years investigating the crash that could have claimed his grandfather's life at the height of World War II.

Mercier, 38, a helicopter mechanic with the North Carolina National Guard, presented his findings Sunday at a meeting with members of the West Nantmeal Historical Commission.

"I believe I was able to pinpoint the location of the crash," said Mercier, who visited the site twice last year. "It was on the south side of Hedge Road."

As evidence, Mercier presented the commission with about 40 pieces of the plane he found with a metal detector. Two of the pieces unearthed had serial numbers identified as parts of a B-24 from a manual downloaded from the Internet.

The parts numbers, 32D2011-8R, matched the casing around one of the bomber's four engines, said Mercier, who is also a historian at the Camp Butner Military Museum in North Carolina. He supported his findings with photographs, maps and old newspaper stories about the crash.

Susan L. Ward, township secretary-treasurer, said Mercier's findings confirm research work done by the local historical commission.

"It's so exciting to get this information," she said. "We'll cherish it as part of our archive on the plane crash."

The crash

The ill-fated B-24 arrived in overcast weather that prevented the pilot from seeing the landing strip at Reading, then a military airport.

The plane had circled over Reading for more than an hour before heading for Philadelphia, the Reading Times reported on Dec. 6, 1943. Apparently low on fuel, the low-flying plane went down on a tract old maps show was heavily forested.

Burning upon impact, one of its engines was catapulted across Hedge Road into a farmer's field and parts were scattered over a wide area.

Mercier found pieces of metal, glass and plexiglass in an earthen depression that he theorizes was the point of impact.

Sgt. Gillespie, 22, was thrown from the plane and landed in a creek. Badly burned and with a broken back, he was taken to a hospital the Veterans Hospital in Coatesville.

Sgt. Vern A. Vanderlin of Detroit survived the initial impact but died in Reading Hospital.

Residents of the area, about 4 miles east of Elverson, rushed to the scene after hearing the explosion. Some older folks interviewed by the historical commission say the wreckage was cleared within a day.

The quick response was not unusual for the crash of a long range bomber in wartime.

But Mercier noted the F-7, a modified B-24D attached to the 20th Combat Mapping Squadron, was a reconnaissance plane equipped for aerial photography. Officially, Army Air Corps investigators ruled the cause was pilot error.

A personal journey

Some of Michael Mercier's fondest memories are of childhood visits to his grandparents in West Lawn.

His grandfather told him the story of how he met his grandmother at a USO dance in Reading.

"They went against the USO rules and exchanged phone numbers," Mercier said. "They were married in 1944 and were together for 691/2 years."

Mary Jane Rittenhouse Mercier, who lived her entire life in West Lawn, died at age 91 in 2014.

An avid genealogist with an interest in military history, Mercier felt compelled to visit the crash site that figured so prominently in his family's history.

With the discovery of the plane's fragments, his personal quest was pretty much complete.

His grandparents gone, he has little reason to make the seven-hour drive from North Carolina to Berks County.

On Sunday, after meeting with the commission in the West Nantmeal Township building, Mercier made what could be his last visit to the B-24 crash site.

"I guess it's a kind of closure," he said. "If it weren't for that officer that bumped my grandfather off the flight, none of my family would be here."

Elizabeth Marks, a member of the commission, was touched by the sincerity of Mercier's quest.

"It's enriching," she said. "You can feel his emotion in your spirit."

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