The Wilmington News Journal, a sister publication of The Times-Gazette, is publishing a daily story on the 1964 air tragedy through Saturday, the day of the historical marker dedication and commemoration.
The spring rain had been falling hard for the last few days in Wilmington, and local rain gauges measured three inches the afternoon of Saturday, April 18, 1964.
It was still raining and it was too wet to get in the fields of the Robert Henry farm near Melvin and Stone roads. Nial Henry, Bob’s son, instantly had some options.
As our friends from the south might say, “Well, the field’s too wet to plow and I can’t dance.”
Whether Nial could dance or not we don’t know, but we knew he liked music. He was, as they say today, a percussionist in the Wilmington marching band. We called each other “drummers” at the time, but percussionist sounds more dignified.
Nial’s option on this particular night was two-fold. Folk music was sweeping the country and Nial’s friends, Steve Miller and Terry Moffitt, billed as the Buffalo Boys, were the main attraction at the Hootenanny program to be held at the Wilmington Junior High School that night.
Steve and Terry already had a significant following at that time, although they went on to greater fame when they joined John Reynolds and Bret Hutchins to form the popular local folk group the Tradewinds.
The other option for Nial was the Wilmington Drive-In, which was advertising four movies as a “Big 4 hit teenage rumble” — on the bill were “College Confidential,” “Too Soon to Love,” “Live Fast, Die Young” and “Girls on the Loose.” The movies were a bit risqué for the early 1960s, although how racy could a movie be that starred conservative comedian Steve Allen and his wife, Jayne Meadows.
Nial decided to call his then-girlfriend, now wife, Susan Gregory Henry, and ask if she wanted to accompany him to one of the entertainment venues.
After receiving counsel from Susan’s parents, Nial decided they would attend the Hootenanny concert at the junior high.
Some of our other classmates had opted to go to the drive-in, which turned out be an unforgettable night for them.
Midway through the first movie, at approximately 8:53 p. m., there was a giant flash in the eastern sky. Seconds later, there was another, and a slight quiver could be felt. A few minutes later, cars began to depart the drive-in. Some headed in the general direction of the source of the light, while others felt the need to just go home.
My brother, Jack Haley, was a Wilmington police officer at the time and had been on patrol near Frisch’s in the east end of town. Jack saw the great flash, too, along with several smaller flares, and he immediately headed toward the sound of the explosion.
Jack told me later he was one of the first people on the scene. He saw a plane burning on the John Hook farm, near the Melvin and Stone roads intersection. He saw another burning plane in a nearby field.
“It was difficult for emergency personnel to get back to the scene of the accident because the unplowed ground was soft from the soaking rain,” Jack said. “Several local farmers had to use their tractors to pull the emergency vehicles out of the mud and take them back to the wreckage.”
Security was tight. Nial had dropped Susan off at her residence in Wilmington and started back to his home near Melvin and Stone roads when an Ohio State Highway Patrol trooper stopped him. He politely asked Nial to produce his driver’s license.
“Son, where is Route 1, Sabina?” the trooper asked.
“Just down the road here a ways,” Nial responded, pointing toward his farmhouse.
“I better see you go in that front door or you will be arrested,” the trooper told Nial, before allowing him to proceed to his home.
Nial stood in his front yard and watched as the ambulances, and later the black hearses, began to arrive.
We learned later, of course, that on that tragic evening the 907th Tactical Group of the 302nd Troop Carrier Wing of the former Clinton County Air Force Base along with the 2nd Special Forces Group (Green Berets), were scheduled for an operational readiness inspection.
The military members on this mission riding in nine aircraft were conducting a routine night paratroop drop. Weather conditions were poor and the mission had been canceled.
Returning to base, two aircraft — C-119 Flying Boxcars — collided in mid-air and crashed, killing 17 of the 19 personnel onboard.
Owners of the farmland near Melvin and Stone roads, Mike and the late Ed Keiter, found bits and pieces of airplanes for years after the crash when they plowed the ground.
We all now have the opportunity to come together to honor and to remember the heroic service members who lost their lives in the April 18, 1964 military air disaster.
The Ohio History Connection, Clinton County Historical Society, Buckeye Wing Association and Special Forces Association Chapter 45 will dedicate the marker at an event beginning at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, April 21 at J.W. Denver Williams Memorial Park in Wilmington.
We hope you will join us in remembering them. They served us well.
Pat Haley is a Clinton County commissioner.