COMFREY - In the afternoon of a very cold and windy February day in 1963, four U.S. Air Force officers died in a B-47 crash in Bashaw Township, about three miles northwest of Comfrey.
The crash took the lives of Lt. Col. Lamar Ledbetter, Capt. Donald Livingston, 1st Lt. Thomas Hallgarth and Lt. Michael Rebmann.
Based at the Lincoln, Neb. Air Force Base, the bomber crew was on a low-level training mission that day, heading towards a bomb scoring site near Heron Lake, according to the Minnesota Wing, Civil Air Patrol.
Staff photo by Fritz Busch
Retired rural mail carrier, World War II veteran and woodworker Doug Wall of Comfrey stands near a Bashaw Township field, northwest of Comfrey, where he saw a B-47 crash on a very cold and windy day in February 1963.
Douglas Wall, a retired rural mail carrier and World War II Army veteran who served in Germany, drove his father from his farm to town to buy groceries that day because his dad's car wouldn't start.
"It was 20 below, with a south wind," Wall said. "After dropping my dad off at his farm, I was driving east, looked up and saw a big airplane in front of me. It was flying at about 500 feet, heading north with black smoke trailing it."
A licensed small plane pilot himself, Wall sped up his Nash Rambler as fast as it could go towards the plane, in an effort to do whatever he could to help.
"An engine fell off in a nearby field. The plane was vibrating badly. 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 atom bomb. I turned and parked by the side of the road. I ran over as close as I could, but the heat was unbearable. Particles of ash were flying through the air. I got a chunk in my eye."
Near the crash site, Wall said he saw an open parachute lying on the ground with parts of a man in the harness. He stayed at the scene for what he described as a long time and nobody else came, so he got back in his car and drove back towards Comfrey.
Near the creamery, Wall saw fire trucks coming towards him so he turned around and returned to the crash site and parked behind a fire truck.
"(Firefighter) Ted Nelson saw I had a cinder in my eye and got a First Aid kit out for me," Wall said.
He talked to several of his Comfrey neighbors who told him they had to remove boulders that were blown onto the road after the crash.
"They must have sailed over my head because I didn't see any when I was out there the first time," Wall said. "A couple guys told me they saw a parachute low in the air over Comfrey, so they drove out of town, ahead of it to try and meet the guy when he landed. John Evers was one of the men that jumped on the chute and stopped it."
Wall said he, Evers and L. P. Schwaegerl stayed near the airplane wreckage until U.S. Air Force personnel arrived that evening.
According to an England-based account of aircraft crashes, the crash was caused by engine mount failure. The account read that two of the four airmen parachuted out of the plane but the other two men were not able to eject.
Wall said Twin Cities newspaper reporters were knocking on his door before the sun rose the next morning. He added they "juiced up" his story a bit.
Reporters were followed by droves of Air Force personnel who interviewed Wall at length. The Minnesota Wing of the Civil Air Patrol, U.S. Air Force Auxiliary took part in an extensive search and rescue operation.
The Minnesota Wing reported the bomber's ground impact created a 25-foot deep, 50-foot wide crater. Three airmen were found dead, two near the crash site. A third man who parachuted was found near St. James, about 15 miles southeast of the crash site.
A parachute was found entangled in a fence on the Clarence Zender farm, about six miles west of St. James, according the Feb. 21, 1963 edition of the New Ulm Daily Journal. One of the plane's engines was found one and one-half miles from the crash site.
Marianne Schotzko of Sleepy Eye was a student at the Comfrey school when the crash occurred.
"It rattled the school windows. There was a big, black cloud of smoke in the air," Schotzko said. "There were many people around for weeks afterwards including Air Force personnel and the Brown County Sheriff's Office. They tried to protect the wreckage from people seeking souvenirs. Gas stations and restaurants were open almost all the time. Visitors couldn't find rooms closer than New Ulm."
Last fall, the Brown County Veterans Council appropriated $1,000 for a crash memorial and to spur other organizations and the public to begin a project for the 50th anniversary of the mishap.
The Comfrey American Legion Post and American Legion Auxiliary designated $250 to the project. In an effort to raise funds, they will host a Whopper Wagon from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. today at the Comfrey Community Center.
Donations can be sent to Albin Johnson Legion Post 244 B-47 Memorial Fund, Choice Financial Bank, P.O. Box 98, Comfrey, MN 56019.
Fritz Busch can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org