Peru residents remember paratroopers lost in 1942 plane crash on Garnet Peak

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PERU — On a foggy night 75 years ago — August 15, 1942 — Mattie Bishop "saw a huge plane headed south, just above the tree tops" on Garnet Peak.

A few minutes later, neighbors heard a crash followed by an explosion.

It was the crash of the Douglas C-53 transport plane that was carrying 19 members of the U.S. Air Force headed to Rhode Island. Sixteen paratroopers died in the wreck.

If it wasn't for the crash, the men on the plane likely would have served in the D-Day invasion, said Alec Gillman, West Region interpretive coordinator for the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, at a ceremony at the site Tuesday morning.

After the plane crashed, Sgt. Robert G. Lee, badly burned and disoriented, fired shots seeking aid for his comrades. Lee worked on his own to pull the two survivors and the bodies of several others from the wreckage, but most of them were caught in the burning plane that went down in the middle of the woods.

At least one resident fired shots in response, fighting through undergrowth with other local responders to find the source of the sound.

It was one of the worst aviation disasters in history, when 16 members of the air force died in the crash on 2,200-foot Garnet Peak on their way to Providence, Rhode Island. There were only three survivors, including Lee.

The group of mostly paratroopers had been training in night jumping before leaving Fort Bragg, N.C.

On Tuesday morning, Berkshire County residents retraced those rescuers' steps on a muddy, damp hike through the Peru State Forest to the crash site and the memorial with the names of the dead.

The weather recalled the foggy night when the plane went down.

"It's very fitting that a day like today is exactly like it was the day of the plane crash," said Edward Munch, member of the Peru Historical Commission, at the ceremony commemorating the 75th anniversary of the crash.

"There was no trail here," he said to the crowd of about 50 attendees. "The people that came up had to cut their way through."

Townspeople, committed to removing bodies from the wreckage, worked for hours in the dark on that night.

Besides Lee, two other men survived the crash: Alonzo Pearson of Pennsylvania and James Fern of Virginia.

Lee, who was subsequently recognized for his heroism, pulled both men out of the burning wreckage.

Peru resident George Greule had a simple reason for attending the ceremony that he shared as he hiked the slick, muddy trail to the crash site.

"You can't just let an anniversary like this go by without some sort of recognition," he said.

Greule is an Army veteran.

During the ceremony, state Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, read from a resolution that had been passed in the State House on Monday commemorating the anniversary and the Army Honor Guard performed a salute.

Tom Butler, of Hinsdale, remembered his parents talking about the crash.

"[My parents said] how sad it was. It was wartime, and they didn't die in the war," he said.

Jesse Pelkey's grandfather, Nelson, was one of the rescuers.

"Back then, everybody just worked together, and they got the job done," said Pelkey, who brought his two-and-a-half year old son — also named Nelson — to the ceremony.

Munch told those in attendance that the town's response to the crash represented "America at its finest."

The town received a citation of merit for its aid in the crash. At the time, this was the second such citation in Massachusetts and the fifth in the nation.

"[I came] to honor my brothers," said Laurin Steele, who lives in the Schenectady, N.Y., area.

Steele grew up in Peru and is a Vietnam War veteran of the United States Air Force.

"If we don't commemorate it, it will get lost," said Mary Lou Galliher, a resident of Hinsdale who grew up in Peru. "To a kid in school, World War II is like the Civil War."

"Fate intervened on a foggy mountain ridge in the Berkshires," said Mike Whalen, a naturalist at Mount Greylock.

The memorial marking the site — a 5-foot-high stone mound with a plaque listing the names of the dead — was first dedicated in 1946. Four shorter mounds surround the central memorial.

Townspeople had previously put up a cross to observe the first anniversary of the crash.

In 1969, vandals unsuccessfully attempted to pry the bronze plaque from the main stone mound.

Now, Peru resident Lynn Mcavoy acts as unofficial caretaker for the memorial, putting up flags there each spring.

At the close of the ceremony, Munch picked up a piece of blackened aluminum — one of many remnants of the plane that people have found in the wilderness and put on top of the stone mounds of the memorial.

"This isn't a rock," he told the group. "This is a chunk of aluminum ... That's a cold piece of metal, but that was someone's belt buckle, someone's button."

Reach staff writer Patricia LeBoeuf at 413-496-6247 or @BE_pleboeuf.

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