Smoldering parachutes…

An old Curtiss SB2C Helldiver sitting in an airfield in the Philippines. Photo taken by Edward Madden.

Curtiss SB2C Helldiver sitting in an airfield in the Philippines similar to the one that struck the stump in Vero Beach.
Photo taken by Edward Madden.

James B. Tippin, the author of “Encouragement, Loyalty and Make-Do” recounts the events of one evening during his senior year in high school when tragedy struck a Navy crew over Vero Beach, Florida.

The senior high school class had the soft drink concession at the local football games. Failure to recover the empties from the deserted playing field area would consume the anticipated profit of a five cent refund per bottle. Those dauntless high school seniors willing to bend and recover, long after the midnight hour, were few but dedicated. Hands full of sand spurs but empty bottles safe in storage, the polyglot but untainted crew left for home, me to the far outback.

Near home I could hear the cataclysmal scream and growl of an SB2C Curtis HelldiverĀ in deep trouble. The intense light from flares fired by the Navy pilot bathed the woods in extremely bright and piercing light…a thunderous explosion…then flames twenty feet high filled the slash pine woods with reflecting ghouls. Even at a thousand feet distance I knew the eye-burning, radiating heat could not be penetrated without special gear. I cried. No help came. It was first light before the belly tank of aviation fuel had consumed itself. I suppose no location fix from the pilot had been possible since the Navy had not yet appeared. It was obvious that silk parachutes yet were used in training service… for smoldering closely packed silk produces a gag inducing odor. Add two humans now little more than chalk …a melted scout knife the only remains of the rear seat gunner.

As I ran from the scene the sun was winking over the horizon. The landscape for miles in every direction was covered with slash pine forest…in every direction save one. With his flares the pilot had located a bare strip where some farmer had cleared a twenty foot wide, several hundred foot long strip for tomato planting. What the pilot could not see was a first growth pine stump about 5 feet in diameter at the end of the former tomato field.

We might do well to insist that those who would declare war first spend a day in the smoke from burning silk….