Thief steals plaque memorializing 1944 plane crash that Merriam historian worked decades to have installed

Myra Jenks with some of the clippings she's collected on the plane crash.
Myra Jenks with some of the clippings she’s collected on the plane crash.

By Sophie Tulp

Last Monday wasn’t just another 100 degree day in Merriam for longtime resident Myra Jenks. It also happened to mark the 71st anniversary of a milestone in city history: the crash of a B-24 bomber crash on July 26, 1944.

But, unfortunately for Jenks, the commemorative plaque that she worked against obstacles for 20 years to install wasn’t there to memorialize the tragedy on the anniversary this week. Less than a year after it had been installed, someone stole it.

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Jenks was 21 years old and working downtown at the local sporting goods store, Lou & Campbell, when she got the news. A Bomber from Lincoln, Neb., was flying too low on a test-run when local pilot Ken Keech lost control of the aircraft, crashing just four blocks from her house at what would now be 60th Street and Antioch Road.

The plane had reportedly been circling the area for about 15 minutes, and it was creating a buzz around the town.

Suddenly, a wing of the plane that had been flying visibly low over Merriam clipped the roof of Jenks’ neighbors, the Bernadells, before continuing to plummet, ultimately destroying five houses and claiming the lives of three on-board while injuring another three who were on the plane. The crash also caused minor injures to three civilians.

A 1944 report from the Joplin Globe that ran the next day said “the plane…went out of control and sheared off a corner of the nearby residence of Herman Betchke. The ship then plowed through a power and telephone lines. A series of explosions occurred at intervals after the plane struck the ground.”

Keech, who lived near Jenks at the time, was performing his last test-run with the plane before heading off to assist in the war effort. The officers told him he could pick anywhere to practice the last run, Jenks remembered hearing. So, he chose to “impress” his hometown, Jenks said.

By the time Jenks arrived home from her shift, the entire neighborhood was blocked off, and the damage was apparent, debris was found for a mile from the crash site.

“It was a big deal, this big bomber, it was the biggest one built at that time, but it wasn’t reliable they said,” Jenks said. “But then Kenny got too low. They said the boys were at the window, waving and having a good time, and Kenny was trying to get it to go back up but they said that particular plane was hard to get them to surge back up. It made quite a mess.”

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In the 70 years since the tragedy, the crash remains a vivid memory for witnesses, a few of which, including Jenks, still live in the city. Over the years Jenks has collected all of the significant materials associated with the event: newspaper clippings, reports, updates and photos. She inherited her mom’s knack for scrapbooking, preserving the history of Merriam almost singlehandedly.

Jenks’ grandchildren call her “The Queen of Merriam,” a fitting title for the 92-year-old who has authored a book on Merriam’s history (“Historic Merriam, The History of Merriam, Kansas”) was the former president of the Merriam Historical Society and curated an entire collection of historical Merriam artifacts in the local community center, then on to the Johnson County Museum.

For Jenks, she wasn’t even trying to archive history for generations to come, she was just trying to document her life in her hometown, saving with it some of the town’s most significant moments.

However, July 26 not only marked the anniversary of the tragedy, it also marked a week since the plaque Jenks had worked for 20 years to install, had been stolen from its location at Town Center in Merriam. The plaque wasn’t there for anyone to visit on the 71st anniversary of the event.

Jenks and her daughter Sherry Howe speculate that thief thought the plaque was made of genuine bronze, but in fact it was no more than a replica material.

Jenks received a call about a week and a half ago from a resident trying to visit the plaque. He called Jenks for directions, and when he still could not find the publicly visible sign, Jenks visited the location and found it was gone.

“We went by there, and sure enough, there’s that pole just standing there by itself!” Jenks said. “And I said, ‘Well it’s gone!’ … I called Public Works and [we think] they thought it was bronze. That’s the only thing I can think of, who wants a big sign about something that they probably don’t even know happened?”

The plaque, which was dedicated last winter, and honors the men who perished in the crash, was 20-years in the making for Jenks. She started working on it for the first time in 1995, to be dedicated during the 50th anniversary of World War II. However, the relatives of the still-living pilot were hesitant about the idea, since Keech had gotten the initial blame after the crash.

“I had one ordered and it was bronze and had it all worked out and everything,” Jenks said. “Right after I ordered it, Norman, the brother of the pilot said [the family] would rather you didn’t do that, so I called and cancelled the whole thing.”

When Keech passed away a few years ago, Jenks got the okay from his brother Norman and proceeded to order the plaque, which for a year stood across from the Cinemark theater in the highly-trafficked “Town Center.”

After realizing it was missing, Jenks and her daughter called the police who assured her the Public Works Department had already been informed and was in the process of ordering a new one.

Parks and Recreation Director Anna Slocum adds that a groundskeeper probably noted the theft during a routine maintenance visit.

“It’s in the process of being replaced, the process has already been started,” Slocum said.

But for Howe, the missing sign was more than just an annoyance she could brush off. It was her mother’s last big project before retiring her 25-year-long position as president of Merriam’s Historical Society, which disbanded the next year.

It was “The Queen of Merriam’s” lasting legacy to the town, along with her book, and for now it’s missing.

“She tried for years to have a commemorative plaque declared,” Howe said. “It was dedicated last winter and someone has already stolen the plaque. The city of Merriam is getting a replacement one installed, but I don’t know if they’ll take new precautions to keep it from getting stolen again.”