By the Johnson County Museum
In July 1944, at the height of World War II, the unthinkable happened in Merriam, Kan. After flying unusually low, a B-24J Liberator Bomber crashed into a neighborhood of homes. Three people aboard the bomber were killed. Six aboard and on the ground were injured, four homes were heavily damaged, and a fifth house was destroyed. What caused the plane to crash? And why was it flying over Johnson County in the first place?
The bomber, which left Lincoln Army Air Field in Lincoln, Neb. on July 26, 1944, was under the command of and piloted by 2nd Lt. Kenneth H. Keech, a 1940 graduate of Shawnee Mission Rural High School. Keech and his crew of five were preparing to go to Europe to fight during World War II. The July 26 flight was to be their last test run – an opportunity to calibrate the bomber’s compass. The Army Air Forces had instructed the crew to fly at 7,000 feet and within 100 miles of the air field.
During the flight, the compass did not operate properly and the flight crew found themselves near Kansas City, Kan. Keech suggested they “buzz” his in-laws and wife in Merriam, Kan. Buzzing was the act of flying out of one’s way to flyover a home or other location. Buzzing was often done at high speeds, low altitudes, and with some aerobatics to impress family and friends.
Spectators on the ground noted a plane flying no higher than 100 feet, and another said it nearly touched the treetops. There were no aerobatics or high speeds involved, however. In fact, it may have been low speed that brought the plane down. The B-24J Liberator was large with four propeller engines and was known for being a clunky flight at low altitudes and low speeds. As the airborne behemoth practically scraped the tips of the houses’ roofs below, the pilot was unable to get the plane to ascend. Witnesses noted that the plane clipped a roof peak or tree.
Keech himself later recalled that the plane felt like a car “sliding on ice.” Unable to fly straight, Keech eventually saw nothing but air. He later recounted that he thought the plane was disintegrating in the air.
According to the Johnson County Herald, “frantic spectators had watched the plane skimming over housetops and trees for some time before the crash. The Merriam telephone exchange was flooded with calls of complaints.” One spectator remembered seeing the plane disappear behind trees, then a giant ball of black smoke rising into the air. Robert Gorham, a local teen, climbed a tree to see the plane better. When it crashed, the plane destroyed his bicycle, which he had parked under the tree.
When the smoke cleared, a path of wreckage was evident. Homes in various levels of demolition, and several on fire. The plane had broken up, with the fuselage coming to stop between two houses. The propellers had flown off and fallen into homes.
The first house struck was the Bernadel home at 5511 Loomis (Antioch today), which had the peak of its roof shorn off. No one was harmed there because the Bernadels had gone to town. Across the street lived the pilot’s in-laws, the Skeens, and his wife, Wilma Keech. Like the Bernadels, none of the residents were home when plane came buzzing. A handful of other homes were damaged, including the Cates home where much of the wreckage could be found. The Gray home at 5418 Slater was entirely engulfed in flames. Trees, telephone poles, and electrical lines in the vicinity were knocked over.
Some residents on the ground were injured in the crash. A.I. Lang of 5421 Slater was hit by debris and went into a state of shock. Another resident, Mary Rice of 6522 Woodlea, was thrown from a chair in her home and lacerated her hip. Mrs. Gray was severely burned when the plane came to a rest against her home at 5418 Slater. The mother of three escaped her home through a broken window before it was completely engulfed in flames. Luckily her two young children were playing in a neighbor’s yard and were uninjured in the accident.
Following the crash, residents of the neighborhood helped pull the living clear of the plane’s wreckage, while volunteer firefighters responded to the fires and an ambulance attended to three crew members injured on the ground. The military dispatched a crew from the Olathe Naval Air Station to secure the perimeter and retrieve what was left of the fuselage and all of the plane components scattered among yards, gardens, homes, and driveways. Ultimately, three of the six crew members died in the accident. Keech was thrown from the cockpit through a hole that was torn in the bomber’s side. Incredibly, the pilot survived to tell his tale.
In his reports, Keech blamed the accident on medical treatments he received for severe tonsilitis during the week prior the flight. Keech claimed sulfadiazine – the drug he was treated with daily – could have disoriented him. While it is true that the Army Air Forces prohibited pilots from flying for five days after their last dose of sulfa drugs and that side effects included disorientation and depth perception issues, medical officials and military experts instead cited pilot error, negligence, and flying at dangerously low altitudes as the major causes of the crash. The Johnson County Herald opined the crash was the “result of recklessness and damn foolishness in the piloting of a plane.”
On the 50th anniversary of the accident, on July 26, 1994, the Journal Herald newspaper caught up with Keech. He told how he thought about the accident often – it haunted him – and how he had struggled to come to terms with what we would call “survivor’s guilt” today. For years, Keech had experienced “painful flashbacks.” In the crash, his left arm had been so severely burned that it was later amputated. He had received no training for surviving with just one arm and had struggled mentally and physically. But Keech counted himself lucky. He survived, as did two of the other crew members, 2nd Lt. Guy L. McMackin and Sgt. Charles E. Edwards, who had been critically burned.
Those who perished iIn the crash were 2nd Lt. James B. Davis of Oklahoma City, Okla.; Capt. Calvin H. Somers of Brownsville, Pa.; and Capt. E.G. Vellone of Syracuse, N.Y. Kenneth Keech died in 2004. The accident was commemorated in Merriam with a historic plaque and bench in 2014. It is located on Antioch, south of the intersection with 55th Terrace on the west side of the street.