Marker Monday: Lost Airmen of World War II
Nebraska 12, Naper, Boyd County, Nebraska
View this marker's location: 42.958869, -99.08987
On August 3, 1944, a C-47 transport carrying twenty-eight men of the U.S. Army Air Forces crashed in a ravine six miles southwest of Naper during a severe storm. There were no survivors. It was the largest single military air disaster in Nebraska history. The plane was in flight from the Bruning, Nebraska, Army Air Field to Pierre, South Dakota, where the men would complete gunnery training before going overseas. A monument in nearby Knollcrest Cemetery honors their sacrifice.
The largest plane crash to occur in Nebraska during World War II took place on August 3, 1944, when a C-47A “Skytrain” transport plane crashed near Naper, Nebraska in Boyd County, killing 4 crew members and 24 passengers. The plane left Bruning Army Airfield at 7:07 PM, carrying 24 P-47 pilots who had just graduated from the 262nd Fighter Pilot Training School at Bruning Army Air Field.
The pilots aboard this plane, among the most experienced trainees who were soon to be stationed overseas, were on their way to the Pierre Army Air Field in South Dakota, where they were supposed to train for thirty more days at the aerial gunnery range located there. At around 8:25, the plane crossed over the Keya Paha River and approached a thunderstorm. The plane seemed to enter the storm cloud and, after a large flash of lightning, the plane’s engines stopped. Shortly thereafter, the plane was seen falling from the sky in a sharp dive. At some point, it flipped upside down shortly before crashing into a hill, instantly killing all inside.
The exact cause of the crash was never discovered. Eyewitness accounts suggest that the crash was caused by a lightning strike, but no markings on the plane confirmed this. One investigator thought that strong winds in the area may have destroyed the plane. Blame for the crash was similarly hard to place. One report attributed the crash solely to pilot error, but another report noted that the weather station, which had predicted clear skies, and material failure of the plane also contributed to the crash. A wing tip broke off from the plane and was found separate from the rest of the crash, leading some to believe plane damage was a cause.
Since the crash was so big, the military took precautions in hopes of preventing another similar incident. New rules were created about C-47s flying into certain kinds of weather. Among the dead was a pair of twin brothers from Del Rey and Fresno, California, one of whom left behind an infant daughter, along with two native Nebraskans. Three of the dead had previously survived crashes in Nebraska. A memorial cross currently marks the location of the crash. A cross was first placed on the site in 1946 but was replaced in 2001. A memorial service marking the 60th anniversary of the crash was held in 2004 and was attended by relatives of the deceased.