On the morning of June 24, 1943, a flight of four U. S. Army P-47 Thunderbolt fighter planes took off from Hillsgrove Army Air Field in Warwick, Rhode Island, on what was to be a routine formation training and intercept flight.
The flight leader was 2nd Lieutenant Thomas J. Beasley, flying in the number one position; followed by 2nd Lieutenant Douglas Edward G. Smith, Jr., 2nd Lieutenant Donald L. Murrie, and 2nd Lieutenant Max Itzkowitz, in the second, third, and fourth positions. To put it in layman’s terms, the flight formation would resemble a game of “follow the leader”.
The aircraft headed north towards central Massachusetts and came under the direction of Boston air-traffic controllers. Just before noontime, they’d reached the vicinity of Westborough, Massachusetts. At that time Boston advised the flight leader to make a 45 degree left turn. Lt. Beasley signaled for the planes to begin the turn, after which the formation would be flying abreast of each other. It was during this maneuver that Lt. Smith’s and Lt. Murrie’s P-47s (#42-8186, and #42-8208) collided in mid-air causing severe damage to both aircraft.
Almost immediately Smith’s P-47 burst into flame and fell away from formation. Smith managed to bail out, but his parachute only partially opened and he was killed when came down in the town of Hopkinton. His burning aircraft came down directly on railroad tracks belonging to the Boston & Albany Railroad which ran along the Southborough and Westborough town lines.
Meanwhile, Lt. Murrie’s P-47 went into an uncontrolled spin, but he was able to bail out safely. His plane came down and exploded in a swamp in Westborough. Murrie landed in a nearby wooded area and was able to signal Lt. Itzkowitz circling overhead that he was alright.
Lt. Murrie later gave a statement to military investigators which reads in part:
“I was flying number three position while Lt. Beasley was leading the flight. Lt. Smith flying number two position, and Lt. Itskowitz in number four. We were circling to the left in trail, waiting for an intercept.
Upon receiving instructions from Boston, we rolled out of the turn and moved into right echelon, flying straight and level. Lt. Beasley gave the signal to make a 45-degree turn to the right in order to bring the flight into a line abreast.”
It was at this time the collision between the aircraft occurred.
“As soon as I found I was out of control and in a flat spin,” Lt. Murrie went on, “I jumped, landing in a swamp near my plane which was already on fire. I was uninjured. Lt. Smith’s plane crashed on the B and A Railroad tracks about three-hundred yrds. from me. None of the local witnesses could tell me whether or not Lt. Smith had left his plane before it crashed.”
The situation then got even worse when Lieutenants Beasley and Itzkowitz realized that a passenger train was heading towards the wreckage of Lt. Smith’s airplane resting directly on the tracks. The train was roughly five miles away, so the two pilots attempted to stop it by flying low and trying to signal the engineer. Unfortunately, he failed to interpret their signals and continued on.
Lt. Itkowitz later related the following in his statement to investigators, “Lt. Beasley and I noticed the train about five (5) miles distance. We flew very low and tried to signal the engineer to stop. Apparently he didn’t understand and the entire train passed over the wreckage of Lt. Smith’s plane. I circled long enough to see fire trucks, ambulances, police cars and many civilians standing in the vicinity of both crashes. I circled low and saw Lt. Murrie wave to me and knew he was O. K. I then went back to the Base and gave authorities the exact position of the crash.”
As Lt. Itkowitz flew back towards Hillsgrove Field, Lt. Beasley continued to circle the area until advised by radio to return also to base.
The mid-air collision had been witnessed by civilians on the ground, one of whom was James G. Stockwell, an auxiliary police officer for the town of Southborough. He and a civil defense volunteer were manning an aircraft spotter shack when the accident occurred, and immediately notified Boston Command.
Another witness was Doris M. Bigelow, who’d been standing in her yard with her son watching the planes pass overhead. Her property abutted the train tracks.
The statement she later related to investigators says in part:
“I knew from railroad schedules that a train was due by on these tracks about this time. I ran into my house and phoned the railroad station and told them to stop all trains going out this way. They told me that a train had already gone by the station there at Westboro. They gave instructions to flag the train before it got to the crashed airplane. I ran out to the tracks to stop the train from coming through. I was about five hundred (500) feet from the wreckage of the plane when I flagged the oncoming train. The engineer of the train saw me and immediately applied his brakes. The train skidded hitting the wreckage of the burning plane causing several of the cars to derail”
Others also tried to warn the approaching train. Among them were two small boys who went running along the tracks waving their arms.
By the time the engineer realized the danger it was too late, and the train slammed into the burning aircraft wreckage and derailed. The locomotive was pulling five passenger cars and one baggage car, which tore up a considerable portion of track before coming to rest. As the dust began to settle, two of the passenger cars caught fire, but fortunately no serious injuries from those aboard the train were reported.
Numerous people descended on the area, and state and local police had their hands full keeping onlookers and souvenir hunters at bay until military officials could arrive and take charge.
Lt. Smith is buried in Memorial Park Cemetery in Memphis, Tennessee. Although printed news sources place the accident in “Southville” and/or “Westboro”, Lt. Smith died in the town of Hopkinton. This fact was established through town of Hopkinton death records.
All of the pilots on this flight were members of the 58th Fighter Group, 311th Fighter Squadron. This particular Massachusetts World War II aviation accident is unusual due to the fact it involved a train derailment.
As a footnote, According to the P-47 Thunderbolts Pilots Association website, Lt. Max Itzkowitz went on to log about 1,000 hours flying a P-47 throughout the rest of WWII, 700 of which were in combat. He earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, and Air Medal with six clusters. He left military service in December of 1945 at the rank of captain.
2nd Lt. Donald Murrie was later promoted to 1st Lieutenant, and flew combat in the Pacific Theatre. On October 22, 1944, after returning form an attack mission, he and other P-47 pilots were forced to ditch in the ocean and remained in the water for hours before being rescued.
Jim Nash is the founder and owner of New England Aviation History