Stephen F. Austin State University




During World War II thousands of American air crews and pilots trained at the many Army Air Force Bases here in Louisiana. Airmen were trained to fly observation planes, fighter planes, and both light and heavy bombers. Due to this extensive training and continuous use of these aircraft, there were crashes that injured and killed many of these servicemen training for combat. One such accident took place in Winn Parish in the community of Gum Springs where the Army Air Forces had several practice bombing and gunnery ranges.

On March 3, 1945 a B-17 F Model number 42-30893 assigned to the 3rd Air Force, III Bomber Command 89th Wing, 329th AAF Base Unit left on an instrument training mission to the bombing ranges outside Winnfield near the Gum Springs Community. On board the heavy bomber was a crew of eleven men. The normal crew for a B-17 was ten men but on this mission Technical Sergeant Alexander G. Harwood III was on board giving the crew and radio operator up to date training on the radio systems. The bomber took off late in the day of March 3, 1945 and turned toward Winnfield. The skies began to darken as a weather front slowly came through the area. When the bomber arrived over the target area, right at dark, it flew right into the path of a cold front. The cold front brought forth severe thunderstorms that greatly hampered the visibility of the pilot and crew, with the base weather section advising of less than two miles of visibility and closing. As the weather turned even more for the worse, the base weather section advised the control tower at Alexandria AAF Base to advise all planes flying at this time period to land well in advance at the field before the conditions at the airfield lowered. But due to these severe weather conditions B-17 42-30893 began experiencing radio receiving and transmitting problems. Only scratchy bits and pieces of information were received at the base. As the weather got worse the B-17 turned due west as the crew tried to outrun and fly under the weather front. The B-17 dropped down in an attempt to get under the weather front so it could make a turn east/southeast to get back to its home base and flew low over two houses in the Gum Springs Community. According to the crash accident report from the Army Air Forces, it was noted that the B-17 had gotten so low that it struck a sixty-five foot tall pine tree, shearing off the left wing, causing the plane to crash into the ground. After passing these houses the families heard a loud crash and explosion and large fire. The location of the site was determined to be nine miles west/southwest of Winnfield at the Gum Springs Community. The Base Operations Officer led a convoy of men and equipment from Alexandria AAF Base to the location in the National Forest. When arriving they were advised of the location by several local residents but it was found that there was not an actual road into the site area. Army Engineers began building a quick road into the area. And this road is still located on the National Forest and is named "Plane Road." Army Air Force personnel arrived and recovered the bodies of the eleven crew members and began their investigation of the crash.

The accident investigation revealed several factors leading to the crash. First, the inability of the pilot to use instruments to find his home airfield, the pilot dropped down and lost altitude to avoid the weather front, the plane actually was overloaded with eleven men on board instead of ten, and last the pilot should have maintained 500 feet of altitude until he could locate his position either by radio or direction finding equipment on board. But after reading the many reports it is the author's assumption that the plane should have been ordered back to base due to the intense and severe weather front coming into the area as another cause of the accident. And on several occasions there had been a request through Army Air Forces channels for an emergency landing strip to be built in the Gum Springs area. But this never came about and could have saved this crew. Eleven brave American servicemen perished in this crash who were preparing and training to go overseas into air combat: 2nd Lt. Russell L. Cobb (pilot), 2nd Lt. Robert J. Keavy (co-pilot), 2nd Lt. Omar H. Lauridsen (navigator), 2nd Lt. Bruno J. Wieclaw (bombardier), Technical Sgt. Alexander G. Harwood III (radio operator), Sgt. Harold D. Bush (radio operator), Cpl. Lester J. Smejkai (gunner), Cpl. Jay "Joey" E. Crites (engineer), Cpl. Niels Anderson (gunner), Pfc. Bruce C. Rue (gunner), and Pfc. Millard B. Beaird (gunner).

This crash and this story were almost lost over the years but due to the hard dedicated work of two US Forest Service personnel, Al Brazzel and Craig Rice, and assisted by many other Forest Service employees, work began to remember and honor this brave crew and to bring out the story of this fatal air crash so many years ago. Records were searched for and obtained with information on the crash, the crew, and the location. The location was determined and they found the actual site. These two Forest Service personnel began the process of obtaining a historical marker in remembrance of the crash itself along with a plaque bearing the names of the crew. Through their diligence now located at the US Forest Service Ranger Station at Gum Springs is a beautiful historical marker and plaque listing the names of this brave crew mounted on a beautiful stone at the foot of the flag pole at the work center. Craig Rice also had a bronze medallion of a B-17 Flying Fortress affixed to the monument to let folks know what these massive heavy bombers looked like. My wife and I recently went to the Gum Springs Ranger Station and were able to see this beautiful monument. It touched my heart since I am a family member of a WWII MIA/KIA airman so I understand the importance of this monument and the remembrance of the crew. Hopefully in the month of October 2019 a dedication service will be held to dedicate the marker and to honor and remember this crew.

Even though it has been seventy four years since the ending of World War II there are many brave air crews still listed as missing in action and there are many crash sites that are forgotten where brave American airmen were killed. These locations and crew should never be forgotten. I salute the US Forest Service personnel who have ensured for generations to come that this crash and location will not be forgotten and most of all, this crew of eleven brave men will never be forgotten. We remember our HEROES! A big thanks and a job well done to the US Forest Service and Forest Service personnel for this great accomplishment!

Squadron of B-17 bombers from Alexandria Army Air Force Base flying a training mission in World War II.(Alexandria AAF Yearbook Robertson Collection)

B-17 bomber from Alexandria Army Air Force Base conducting a practice bombing mission in World War II. (Alexandria AAF Yearbook Robertson Collection)

Winn Ranger District Headquarters located near Winnfield, Louisiana. (Robertson Collection)

Rickey Robertson and Craig Rice of the US Forest Service standing at the Memorial Monument in remembrance of the crash of the B-17 and to the crew that was killed. (Robertson Collection)

Memorial Plaque describing the crash of the B-17 bomber that is located at the Winn Ranger District Headquarters near Winnfield, Louisiana. (Robertson Collection)

Memorial Plaque listing the names of the 11 crew members that were killed in the crash of the B-17 at the Winn Ranger District Headquarters near Winnfield, Louisiana. (Robertson Collection)

The Plane Road was built by Army Air Force Engineer units on National Forest land to get to the crash site location of the B-17 near the Gum Springs Community near Winnfield, La. (Robertson Collection)

The Plane Road as it looks today on the Kisatchie National Forest in the Winn Ranger District. (Robertson Collection)