Tragedy & heroism on Pine Mountain (Reheated Biscuits, No. 47)
One more look at an all-but-forgotten story of a dramatic rescue in the middle of nowhere, Georgia
Today in F&AB #47: Leftovers! I’m still convalescing from my Thanksgiving feast — grilled turkey for the win — so here’s a story from back in the early days of F&AB. I’ve welcomed in a whole lot of new subscribers since then, so please enjoy this dramatic and terrifying little tale.
Pine Mountain, on the western edge of Georgia, is one of the last little foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, one of the final high points as you head south toward the Gulf of Mexico. It’s fairly remote, tree-covered — take a wild guess what kind of tree is most prevalent — and was one of the favorite respites of FDR back in the ‘40s. It’s not the kind of place you just stumble across.
There are only a couple buildings on Pine Mountain, a FDR-era WPA-built rest stop for hikers and, a few miles south, a small restaurant and Southern-kitsch shop. State Route 190, a two-lane highway, traverses the mountain, and hiking trails crisscross it.
On a clear day, you can see three counties over. On a clear evening, you can pick out planes moving amongst the stars. But on a foggy night, you can’t see a damn thing.
Rain poured down and fog shrouded the mountain on the night of Oct. 1, 1953. Around 9:30 that night, Robert Wadsworth, his father-in-law Homer Swan, and a local minister named Billy Colquitt were just wrapping up a little visit when they heard a plane roaring, impossibly loud and far too low, right over their heads.
They were at the foot of Pine Mountain, and they knew it lay directly in that plane’s path. Seconds later, they heard an impact that echoed across the valley.
The plane was a B-25 out of Eglin Air Force Base on the Gulf Coast of Florida, headed to Andrews Air Force Base just outside Washington, D.C. Bad weather had forced the plane to divert westward from Atlanta, and the pilot opted to use visual flight rules to navigate his way from Columbus, Ga. up to Atlanta — but the heavy fog disguised the remote, dark Pine Mountain until it was too late. The pilot, Capt. Stephen A. Clisham, pulled back on the stick in a desperate, futile attempt to clear the mountain. They wouldn’t make it.
Four of the crew died on impact: Clisham, co-pilot Capt. Virgil G. Harris, Tech. Sgt. Othelier B. Hoke and Airman 3rd Class Robert W. Davidson. Two others were thrown clear of the wreckage: sailor Richard K. Schmidt and Airman 2nd Class Benny J. Shepard.
Schmidt awoke to find himself battered, broken, soaked and covered in mud and blood and fuel. Miraculously, the nearly-full fuel tanks had not ignited on impact. He could hear Wadsworth and the others tramping up the hill and through dense underbrush toward him, and he called out, “Don’t strike any matches!”
Shepard was in agony; his wounds were mortal, and Colquitt knelt by his side and asked Shepard if he’d been saved. "We prayed, and God saved him, and then he died," Colquitt would say years later. "Wasn't that a miracle?"
Wadsworth and Swan pursued a more earthly form of salvation for Schmidt. They -- along with nearby hunters and local residents -- kept him stable until a doctor could arrive to give him a shot of morphine. Then they hauled the six-foot-three Schmidt out of the wilderness, through the muck and the rain, through woods that could have ignited at any minute with all the jet fuel around.
Just take a second to imagine the courage that must have taken, to walk into a crash zone of carnage and destruction, a scene that could have exploded into flame at any moment. These are the tales that always make me feel a little better about the state of humanity, the way that most people will rise up in times of supreme peril and do what’s right.
Schmidt survived; he suffered a broken hip and spent two weeks in intensive care and then lived a civilian life in New Jersey. He finally returned to the site of the crash in 2012 at a ceremony honoring both the victims and the rescuers.
If you duck off S.R. 190, down a winding path to an overlook called Dowdell’s Knob, you’ll be right where FDR used to have picnics and look out on the valley. You’ll also be just a few dozen feet from the site of the B-25 wreck. It happened nearly 70 years ago, but hikers in the area were still finding pieces of the wreckage as recently as 2012. A plaque, unveiled then, commemorates the fallen crew:
I’ve hiked this area, and I’m no geologist, but I would swear that the rocks, the trees, even the very soil itself changes as you walk westward from Dowdell’s Knob toward the site of the crash. Is 70 years enough time to erase the evidence of a crash like that? I don’t know. If you look at the site from the air, it sure seems like there’s a crescent-shaped scar spreading out directly from where the plane would have impacted:
You can see the Dowdell’s Knob parking lot in the upper right, and the road where Wadsworth and the others were standing when the plane flew over their heads in the lower right. And a whole lot of nothing in every direction.
A plaque and a single news story aren’t much to honor the lives of five men and the heroes who saved the sixth. But they’re better than nothing. Pine Mountain’s a beautiful place, but it’s a lonely one too. Good thing there were people nearby willing to lend a hand.
(Sources: the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, and also me)
Hope your T-Day holiday’s been a damn fine one. Stay sane through the first wave of Black Friday sales, and we’ll see you back here next week.
This has been issue #47 of Flashlight & A Biscuit. Check out all the past issues right here. Feel free to email me with your thoughts, tips and advice. And if you dug this, share it with your friends. Invite others to the party, everybody’s welcome.