Uncovering a lost tale of World War II

By Jim Ignasher

At 5:52 a.m. on April 3, 1942, a U.S. Army B-25 bomber left Westover Field in Chicopee, Massachusetts, and headed south for a routine anti-submarine patrol over Narragansett Bay and the nearby Atlantic. America had entered WWII barely four months before, and now German subs prowled our coastline. Instead of conventional bombs, the belly of the plane carried depth charges: containers resembling 55-gallon drums designed to explode under water for killing submarines. The weather was clear, the plane was over friendly territory, and would have a tactical advantage over any sub it might encounter. Therefore there was no reason for anyone aboard to think they wouldn’t be home in time for dinner.

This is another forgotten tale of our state; an incident that passed into obscurity because of wartime secrecy and the grander scheme of WWII. Newspapers only told part of the story. The rest was gleaned from the official army investigation report.

The pilot was 2nd Lt. George Loris Dover, 25, of Shelby, N. C. He and his four-man crew awoke at 3:30 a.m., showered, ate breakfast, and sat through a flight briefing before climbing aboard their aluminum warbird for what they thought would be a routine day. However, 20 minutes into the flight, as the plane was passing over southern Rhode Island, something went wrong. Exactly what occurred is uncertain, but army investigators later put the following scenario forth.

It was surmised that as the plane neared the Rhode Island coast, one of the engines began running erratically based on a ground witness who claimed he heard the motors “skipping, popping, and snapping”. Forced to abort the mission, Lt. Dover turned the plane northeast towards Hillsgrove Air Field in Warwick (today known as T.F. Green). If a distress call was sent it wasn’t received. Despite the rural nature of the area in 1942, the depth charges weren’t jettisoned, likely for fear of injuring civilians on the ground. Furthermore the crew didn’t bail out, and instead elected to remain with the plane.

With only one engine malfunctioning, the B-25 probably would have made it safely to Hillsgrove, but then the second engine began to misfire, and Lt. Dover put the plane in a downward glide to maintain air speed while attempting to fix the problem. As the ground loomed closer it became apparent that a crash landing was the only option, so at the end of the glide Dover pulled the throttle back, which raised the nose, and “stalled” the aircraft, allowing it to “pancake” into a wooded area in West Greenwich, instead of going in nose first, thus giving the crew their best chance at survival. Yet in spite of his efforts, the fully-loaded fuel tanks ruptured on impact, and the woodland became an inferno. Then the depth charges exploded, blasting a large crater in the ground and hurling pieces of the aircraft 300 feet in all directions. There were no survivors.

Besides Lt. Dover, there were four others lost in the crash. There was the co-pilot, 2nd Lt. Neil W. Frame; radio operator S/Sgt. Robert H. Trammell; the bombardier, Pvt. Robert H. Meredith; and tail gunner, Pvt. Thomas J. Rush.

Lt. Dover, known as “Loris” to his friends, was the first serviceman from his community to die in the war. This distinction led to the Shelby V.F.W. Post being named in his honor. Besides his family, he left behind a fiancé whom he’d planned to marry in four months.

Tragically, his was not the only loss suffered by the Dover family during the war. At the funeral, George’s younger brother Grady was quoted in the Shelby Daily Star as saying, “Now sombody’ll have to take Loris’s place.” True to his word, Grady joined the Air Corps and became a B-17 bomber pilot. He was killed in action Feb. 10, 1944, when his plane went down over Germany.

The co-pilot, Lt. Frame, grew up in Porterville, Calif. He graduated flight school with Lt. Dover, and like Dover, he was the first from his community to die in the war. On the day of his funeral, all of Porterville’s merchants closed as a show of respect.

Staff Sgt. Robert H. Trammel, of Brunswick, Ga., died 20 days shy of his 26th birthday.

21-year-old Pvt. Robert H. Merideth, of Thyatira, Miss., was the only married man of the crew.

At 27, Pvt. Thomas J. Rush, of Philadelphia, was the “old man” aboard. Before enlisting he’d been an amateur boxer.

Investigators pointed to defects in the R-2600-9 engines used on the B-25 as the probable cause for the accident, citing similar failures in other aircraft using those motors. The aircraft involved in this accident was the only B-25 to ever crash in Rhode Island.

The warbird fell in the area of Hopkins Hill, which is still largely undeveloped, but a few modern homes have encroached at the edges in recent years. Although Mother Nature has since reclaimed the burnt forest, it’s possible that the blast crater still scars the landscape as a silent memorial denoting the spot where five men perished in the service of their country 74 years ago. Yet I suspect that there are very few people who know of its existence.

And unfortunately the story of these men isn’t unique. New England is littered with hundreds of WWII military crash sites, and many more are scattered across the nation. With the exception of a very few, such as the one on Wolf Hill here in Smithfield, virtually all of them have been forgotten.

This Veteran’s Day, please take a few moments to reflect on those men and women of our military, past and present, who have made it possible for us to enjoy our freedom.