SHERIDAN -- When a member of Sheridan's American Legion chapter decided in 2011 to spearhead the construction of a memorial park at the site where a World War II bomber crashed more than 70 years earlier, he knew little about the nine men who died there.
Four years later, with the park's dedication quickly approaching, Nelson Mears, 66, now regularly talks to their family members. He has written several stories about the men for The Sheridan Headlight. And he wears the dog tags of two of them on a chain around his neck -- something he said pulls him closer to the work he's doing.
"When we started the project here, I knew I wanted to: number one, build a nice park, and number two, find out who the guys were," Mears said. "The more I found out about them, the deeper my love was for the project. I feel like I have an obligation. I owe it to them. They deserve it, and I'm on a mission to see it through."
Mears grew up on a farmstead 5 miles from the site in rural Grant County where a four-engine Boeing B-17F Flying Fortress caught fire and crashed about 4 p.m. on March 12, 1943.
According to an Arkansas Democrat article printed the day after the crash, hundreds of people gathered and watched the plane burn into the night. The impact shook windows up to 4 miles away, and debris was scattered over a 100-yard area, the Democrat reported.
Years later, Mears rode a bus past the site every day on the way to school. Local civic groups had marked the spot with a simple monument inscribed with the men's names.
The stone, which was below the road grade, was often surrounded by mud and standing water, Mears said.
Near the bottom, the monument read, "At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we shall remember them."
"Well, that wasn't true," Mears said. "Because they weren't honored for many years. But they'll never be forgotten again."
Local American Legion leaders decided in 2011 that the monument was not enough. They obtained a grant from the Arkansas Department of Rural Services to buy the land for a memorial, and they've since received two more grants from the Southeast Arkansas Economic Development District, as well as about $60,000 in private donations, to develop it.
Local companies have donated tens of thousands of dollars more in materials.
After four years of fundraising, designing and laboring, the 1-acre plot just off Grant County Road 51 has been transformed. A public dedication is planned for 4 p.m. on Oct. 12.
On Wednesday morning, a small group of volunteers and trusties from the Grant County sheriff's office worked quietly under overcast skies, stacking brick pillars to support the wings of a life-size B-17 replica.
The replica -- a wooden frame wrapped in plywood and sheet metal -- serves as the park's centerpiece.
Like the real B-17 that crashed on the site 72 years ago, the replica has a wingspan of 103 feet. About 15,000 of the large bombers were produced during World War II. They were armed with 11 .50-caliber machine guns and could carry up to 8,000 pounds of bombs.
According to a U.S. military document, the B-17 that crashed near Sheridan had become the property of the Army Air Corps in December 1942. It cost nearly $316,500.
Mears designed his replica based on a $35 model airplane kit. Picking up the model's wing Wednesday, Mears explained that 1 inch on it translated to 4 feet in the bigger version.
"With this, we were able to build an accurate model of the plane," Mears said. "I wanted it done right."
Workers also have erected a memorial wall at the park.
Although the park started as a memorial to the nine men who died there in 1943, its purpose grew, Mears said. The names of all military members from Grant County who were killed in action from World War I onward will be inscribed on the wall.
In addition, two unknown-soldier headstones were placed near the park's entrance to honor about 700 Union soldiers and 1,000 Confederate soldiers who died at nearby Jenkins Ferry during a Civil War battle in 1864.
Mike Harrington, a 68-year-old Vietnam War veteran, remembers going to the B-17 crash site as a child and seeing the old monument. He drove past the spot a few weeks ago on a whim, and he has helped work on the park every day since.
"Back when I was a little kid, I came here and there was just a monument in the woods. That's all that was here then," Harrington said Wednesday. "To see this now, it really touches me that this has come so far. I'm so happy about the place."
Before the October dedication, workers will add a wrought-iron fence around the B-17 replica and place benches throughout the park, Mears said. They'll also landscape, add propellers to the B-17 and etch the names of deceased service members onto the memorial wall.
In the future, Mears said he hopes to create a self-guided tour, through which visitors can use their cellphones to listen to biographies of each of the B-17's crew members. He wants people to learn who the men were, just like he has.
"It personalizes it," Mears said. "When you get to know them and know what they loved and about their families, it's totally different."
'Place of life'
The crew aboard the B-17 consisted of the pilot, 2nd Lt. George Davis; the co-pilot, 2nd Lt. Robert Turchette; the navigator, 2nd Lt. Leo Dolan; the bombardier, 2nd Lt. Phillip Niewolak; engineer, Tech. Sgt. Dewitt Tyler; radio operator, Tech. Sgt. Peter Ivanovich; and gunners Staff Sgt. Kenneth Cain, Staff Sgt. Arthur Potter and Staff Sgt. David Secorski, according to Mears.
According to U.S. military records, they were flying from Smoky Hill Army Air Field in Salina, Kan., to Morrison Army Airfield in West Palm Beach, Fla. From there, it was intended that they leave for Europe and join the fighting.
The military's investigation into the crash found that the aircraft stalled at low altitude. Investigators placed 70 percent of the blame for the crash on the pilot and 30 percent on the weather -- a finding that family members, Mears and others who have looked into the crash disagree with.
Mears said the crew's plane was a "lemon." According to its individual aircraft record card, the B-17 had been "condemned" on March 11, 1943, the day before its final flight, because of maintenance problems.
Paula Corrado, the daughter of Ivanovich, the plane's radio operator, said her father had written several letters to his mother in which he said there was something wrong with the aircraft.
"He loved the B-17," Corrado said. "He says, 'I love it, but our airplane has problems.' His crew didn't leave with the rest of the squadron because they had to fix the airplane. He wrote his mom and told her, 'Next time you hear from me, I'll be on the other side of the world.' She always said, 'My poor boy, he didn't know it would be heaven.'"
Corrado was a baby when her father died in the crash. She and her sister, Elizabeth, were adopted by Ivanovich's parents and grew up alongside his six siblings in Bisbee, Ariz.
While the rest of her family visited the crash site when she was still a child, Corrado refused to go.
"I was afraid it would be more than I could bear," she said. "I was afraid I could feel his crash, feel his final thoughts. It was always a place that meant death to me."
Now a singer living in Austin, Texas, Corrado is gathering her five children, and their spouses and children, to attend the October dedication. She first saw the spot on Veterans Day two years ago after reading about the construction of the memorial park.
"I know that my dad's ashes are there, that the constellations there are the ones looking down on him," Corrado said. "I'm so glad it's in Sheridan, Ark., because these people, they really love their service people.
"It doesn't remind me of death. I see it as a place of life. I see it as a place where somebody is saying, 'Thank you. We haven't forgotten you.'"
Metro on 08/23/2015
Print Headline: Park honors crashed B-17 crew