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  Cover Story July 29th, 2010     
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B24Bomber

by lyle e davis

Chances are you’ve never heard of Milligan, Nebraska.

Why should you?

Milligan, Nebraska, is a tiny little village, about 85 miles southwest of Omaha. Its population numbers only 281, as of 2008, down from the 315 in 2000.

One even wonders how it came by the name “Milligan,” when it was settled primarily by Czechs. Even today, its principal population and the largest segment of oldtimers is made up of Czechs.

So why are we even talking about tiny Milligan, Nebraska, when we are 1000+ miles away in Southern California?What prompted us to even acquaint ourselves with this tiny village.

Here’s why.

Let’s go back during WWII, when there was an airfield nearby, known as Fairmont Army Airfield, where bomber pilots trained in B-17’s and B24’s.

It begins to get a bit chilly in Nebraska, come October. And it was just that . . . a chilly day on October 25th, 1943, when four B-24 Liberators were flying in formation at about 20,000 feet. For some unknown reason one of the planes dropped out of formation. Another plane, as its crew was trained to do, moved into the vacated airspace. The first plane that had dropped out of formation, again, for some unknown reason, tried to return to the spot it had just vacated and a mid-air collision occurred, resulting in one aircraft exploding in mid-air, killing all but one crew member, the second aircraft descending in a tantalizingly slow spin . . with minimal air speed, minimal control services . . but it looked like it just might make a forced, crash landing. ‘Surely,’ its crew must have thought . . . ‘we’re gonna survive!We’re gonna make it!’ Then, about 1500’ above ground, it nosed over, crashing into the ground. All crew members killed.

It was the highest mid-air collision resulting in fatalities in Nebraska.

One can only imagine the sheer terror the air crew in the second aircraft felt as they fell from almost four miles high. The aircrew was almost certain to have known they were going to die as they saw the ground rushing up at them. The pilots feverishly wrestled with the controls, trying to regain control of the plane . . . whose flight surfaces were now all but useless. When the end did come, it came suddenly and those who died did not suffer once the impact occurred. But, oh, those terrible last minutes and seconds . .

The two plans crashed near Milligan, Nebraska.

One plane crashed on the boundary of the farms owned by Frank Hromadka, Sr. and Anna Matejka, two miles north of Milligan. Later on in the war, Mr. Hromadka’s son, Frank Hromadka, Jr. would serve valiantly, on the ground, in the European Theatre, ultimately being held in a German POW camp. But that is another fascinating story we’ll tell another day.

All but one crew member in the first plane, the one that exploded in mid-air, died. Second Lieutenant Melvin Klein, miraculously, survived.

Now, remember . . the town of Milligan, Nebraska, is very small. They don’t have a huge library; they don’t have a huge historical society. They don’t have a huge research or postage budget. Nothing they have is really huge . . . unless it might be their hearts.

After 66 years, thanks to the devoted efforts of some folks from a small Nebraska village, Diane Snyder, wife of Coach Dennis Snyder, President and CEO of the Escondido Charter High School, received a phone call in February from her mother, saying she had been contacted by a member of the “Milligan Memorial Committee,” who had taken it upon themselves to track down families of those aviators killed in the two crashed bombers.

They had sent letters to anyone named Galindo on the West Coast. Sergeant Ursulo Galindo, Jr., was the only crew member from the West Coast. When Diane’s mom received the letter, she immediately called Diane. For, you see, Diane Snyder’s maiden name was . . . Galindo.

Ursulo Galindo, Jr., was her uncle.

As luck would have it, one of Diane’s friends in Temecula also decided to write, this year, the ‘baseball story’ that includes portions about her dad and his two brothers, Diane’s uncles, Ursulo and Peter, known generally as “The Galindo Brothers.”

All of these events coming together almost at once has given rise to Diane and her mother talking about ‘the old days’ in Escondido in the late 30’s and the war years.

Diane and her husband plan to visit Milligan, Nebraska, in August, even visiting the crash site where her uncle died.

I reckon there will be plenty of warm hugs and handshakes aplenty when the Snyders meet the good folks of Milligan, Nebraska. Small town folks and farm communities know how to make folks feel welcome. And they aren’t bashful about putting on a major feed either. Having grown up in the midwest (Omaha), I’ve attended many a farm lunch and dinner and, believe me, no one ever goes away hungry.

To think of how dedicated “the Milligan Committee” was, to work so hard, to track down the family of those unfortunate souls who went down in the B-24s, is just nothing short of amazing. Back in September of 2009, they decided to sponsor three Nebraska Historical Markers commemorating three World War II training accidents, mid-air collisions that occurred near Milligan.

When the group agreed the project should honor the 32 airmen involved rather than simply mark the events, the project grew like Topsy. They decided to contact family members of each serviceman involved, notify them of the project and invite them to a special dedication ceremony, set for Aug. 14 in Milligan.

The airmen were from 19 states (none from Nebraska). In some cases, the research started with only a name and a hometown that turned out to be incorrect. It took six months and a lot of determination to track the families down.

The committee wrote letters and called and e-mailed families with the same last name, one region of the country at a time. One person used Ancestry.com. Another contacted libraries and newspapers of the airmen's hometowns. They called schools for graduation information and cemeteries for burial information. They e-mailed genealogical societies.

Dorothy LeFevre Galindo and Sgt. Ursulo Galindo, Jr. – Mr. & Mrs. – They were married on April 28, 1943 – less than six months before Ursulo was killed in the airplane crash. Dorothy joined the WAVES shortly after Ursulo’s death.

"Notifying" the family turned into much more than simply letting them know. The families and committee exchanged letters, photos and documents -- anything from church bulletins with the crash victim's name to the Western Union telegrams that announced their death. The documents will be compiled into spiral-bound books.

For nearly all the families, the project made them feel like someone cared about their son, or husband, or brother, or, in this case, uncle, when he died so suddenly, so far from home.

The committee's work gave closure to some and revived family connections for others.

The families of the servicemen were "deeply touched" by what the Milligan residents were doing, but the residents also felt the emotions, said Kathy Rischling, one of several members on the committee who either saw the crashes and aftermath or have family members who did.

The project offered a glimpse into the lives the crashes cut short. They were young men writing letters telling their moms not to worry, and men who didn't even know their wives were expecting. Letters showed the families' devastation, too, including one from a woman who remembered the day, as a little girl, when her mother closed the bedroom door to cry at the news of a brother's death.

To date, between 50 and 75 family members from across the U.S. are planning to attend the dedication. The Milligan committee will get to meet some of the families at the dedication ceremony Aug. 14. In the morning, family members will tour the Fairmont Air Base and the crash sites, escorted by local residents, some of whom witnessed the collisions.

A donation from the Milligan Library allowed them to move quickly. The library loaned the group about $14,000 for the markers. So far, they've raised just over half to repay the library, gathering about $8,000 in donations from across the U.S. Each contains the cause and facts of the crash, directions to crash sites, names of the farm owners of the sites and the name and rank of each crewman.

To the families and to the public, the dedication ceremony and the markers are a way to give permanent recognition to the airmen. And to think . . . the Milligan Committee did all their detective work in less than a year.

The midwest tends to be very family and community oriented. They know how important family members are and they recognized that somewhere, there were Galindo family members who would like to know the full story of what happened to one of their relatives. Most of the other crew member’s families were similarly tracked down and notified.

What we know about Ursulo Galindo, Jr., is that he was a terrific baseball player, that he was flying out of Fairmont Army Air Field, that he was likely part of either the 451st Heavy Bombardment Group, the 485th, the 504th, the 16th (training in B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Superfortess heavy bombers). Most likely, he was part of the 16th, the training group.

Fairmont Army Air Field was where, over a three year period, bomber and support crews went through their final preparations and training before being deployed overseas either to Europe or to the Pacific. Many aviators trained at Fairmont, some went overseas and never came back home; some, such as Ursulo Galindo, Jr., never made it out of the states.

The Fairmont Army Airfield housed and trained airmen from all over the country and the surrounding towns quickly became magnets for the men and the civilian population welcomed them with open arms. The men were given home cooked meals, taken to local church services, had a theater to attend, a USO was opened, apartments were rented, and dances were held. Perhaps a romance or two blossomed. Everyone knew that their stay would be a short one and then they would be gone.

In September 1944, after Ursulo had died, Lt. Colonel Paul Tibbets came to the Fairmont Army Airfield and picked several crews and their support personnel for a secret mission.

They were put on a train at night, sent to a special training area in the western U.S., and then were shipped to an island in the Pacific, called Tinian, for more secret training. Tibbets later commanded a B-29 heavy bomber, called the Enola Gay, which dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. A second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan a few days later. Japan surrendered and World War II was over.

After Japan's surrender in August 1945, the Fairmont Army Airfield was deactivated. Buildings were dismantled, surplus materials were given to local schools and communities, auctions were held, and the land slowly converted back to pre-war status. Only four hangers, the water tower (recently painted in WWII colors), runways, taxiways, cement foundations, and a few brick and cement structures remain. Now a state airfield, the former base is still used by crop dusters, local civilian pilots, and as storage for corn in the hangers.

In 2003, the airfield was chosen as a National Historic Site. It is hoped that the area can be preserved and some of its contents rebuilt for future generations to see and remember.

In the course of tracking down the military members who lost their lives that awful day in October, a number of accounts began to paint the dreadful picture of what happened. Perhaps one of the most complete was from the only surviving aircrew member.

Lt. Melvin Klein,
co-pilot of B-24 #42-7673
the sole survivor

The aircrews had completed training and been assigned aircraft and equipment and were all but ready to fly overseas as a complete group. They just had this one final flight.

One of the co-pilots was in the hospital and Lt. Melvin Klein was asked to take his place, which he did. He was assigned plane #42-7673.

Here, taken from his hand written notes, is the account of what happened:

“We took off. We were in formation at 20,000 feet. Weather:overcast. Solid stratus layer between 3 to 8M (thousand) ft, over 8 mile CAVU.(Ceiling and Visibility Unlimited) Formation, 4 ship diamond. We were #3, later we were #4. Asked to change places with #2, #2 goes up & over to his right, #3 goes over and under to his left.

(This is time to bring in a lot of seemingly unrelated items. Yet, with any of them missing, I would not be here to relate this story.)

1. We used seat pack parachutes. We did not buckle them until we had to use them.

2. My parachute leg straps were hanging between my legs. Iwas not flying so my feet were not on the rudder pedals but directly below me.

3. The leg strap buckles were bumping my ankles so I fastened them.

4. It was very smooth above 8M(thousand). We were at 20M. So, my seat belt was unfastened.

5. We were on O2 (oxygen).

To continue the mission statement: We were changing position in formation as described above. We were overtaking rapidly. Pilot retarded throttles and pulled back yoke, a proper correction, but too late. Our right wing hit #48 left wing and both wings broke off. We went into tight spin to the right. Itried to ring alarm on control pedestal. I could not move my arm from my body. A couple seconds later the plane blew up and I was unconscious. Icame to. I was falling. Iwas in the clouds, the stratus layer 5 to 8M. It was like someone had thrown a pail of cold water on me. (All of this was happening much faster than I can tell it). Irealized what was happening and reached for my rip cord. These were my exact words, “You dumb idiot!You have no parachute!”

It took me a couple seconds more to realize I had a parachute, fastened only by leg straps and hanging down by my ankles. I got hold of the straps and tried to slip my arms into them and don the parachute. Impossible. When you fit a parachute you put the shoulder straps on first, then you buckle the leg straps and tighten them. Additionally, I was wearing a leather fleece lined flying jacket. Very bulky.

About this time I broke out of the overcast. No sensation of falling only the houses and buildings were getting bigger very rapidly. I knew Ihad no time so I reached across and pulled the rip cord from the strap I held in my left hand. Iheld both shoulder straps so I would not tumble forward and slip out of the leg straps.

I was very close to the ground. The parachute opened perfectly. Itook only half a swing and I was on the ground. I remembered to not lock my knees, keep them slightlybent, not try to remain standing but to roll in the direction of motion. All the good things they lectured on in survival classes and I thought I was not listening.

Iunbuckled my leg straps, stood up and looked around. I was in a plowed field. As far as I could tell Ihad no broken bones and there was no bleeding from any open wounds.

There were 18 men in the two aircraft. 9 men per crew. They sent 17 bodies home for burial. Iwas the only survivor.

Extracts from Sworn Statements by Government Officials and Witnesses:

Plane number two was identified as B-24-H #42-7657, Lt. Charles L. Brown, Pilot.

Plane number four was identified as B24-H #42-7673, Lt. James H. Williams, Co-pilot Melvin Klein, who survived.

Number 2 plane, #7657, dropped back, out of formation. Number 4 ship, #7673, closed up to the Number 2 position. It is believed its tail was clipped by #7657 - #7673 did a half roll to the right then the left wing came off, went into a spin till it crashed. The other ship 7657 was apparently held under control until it had reached a fairly low altitude (about 1500 feet) at which point it went into a spin and crashed.

It is normal procedure for the number 4 ship to replace the number 2 ship automatically when the latter falls out of formation. Accident was attributed as 100% pilot error, though unknown which pilot had the greater percentage of error.

The second plane to crash, according to the eye witnesses, tried to make a landing, as it tried to straighten its course of flight. It dived, circled, and went into a spin, then glided and again spun earthward. The crash caused a terrific explosion and the plane burned, sending up billowing black columns of smoke. The charred bodies of the men were later removed to the air base. The twisted wreckage and corpses strewn about the wreckage was a horrible and sickening sight.

The bomber crashed about 50 feet west of the Mike Stech farm home, setting fire to a chicken coop and hog shed. All the chickens were killed and about 20 hogs had to be shot as they were so badly burned.

The windows on the west side of the Stech house were blown in from the concussion of the explosion. Milo Hromadka states that he was in the proximity of the first plane and the concussion of the explosion was so terrific that it knocked him backwards.

Duane Vavra:We drove the horses and wagons home as fast as we could and tied them up. We were the first ones on the scene at Alfred Matejka’s. We saw the bodies on the ground in the wheat field next to the holes made as they hit the ground. I didn’t see the parachute coming down with the one lone survivor as some others had. There was a large part of the plane that had the motor on the ground with 3 or 4 airmen still in the plane that had lost their lives and were being burned”.

Arlene Vavra:The airmen’s bodies were lying on the ground. A local nurse, Rose Soukup Stratton, was going from body to body checking their pulses to see if anyone had survived the crash.”

Alfred Matejka: “they hit the ground with their parachutes still on their backs, still wearing their oxygen masks.”

Back on August 5, 1996, Pete Galindo, one of nephews of Ursulo Galindo, journeyed back to Milligan, Nebraska. His mission was to visit the site of his uncle’s death. He had never met his uncle. Pete would not be born until two years after his uncle was killed. But, somehow, this element of the family history was important to him. He had heard so much about the handsome Uncle Ursulo that he felt as though he did know him.

This trip was Pete’s attempt to get close to his uncle for at least one time in his life. It was something he needed for his own inner peace.

Excerpts from Peter Galindo’s “Journey Into the Past:”

“In all, seventeen of the eighteen crewmen died. All of this directly related to me by Mr. Mike Hromadka, a truly wonderful man, who seemed to completely understand my reason for being there; and did all he could to put me at ease, knowing what tales he was telling. Icould see it in his every word and movement; he remembers it as if it were yesterday, and is still horribly hurt by the experience.”

Bob Rischling, a Milligan local, had taken Peter under his wing and drove him out to Mike Hromadka’s place:

“Bob got out of the car, went up to the house and told Mike what we were doing out there. When he returned, he had Mike with him. I was introduced to Mike, and told him of my search. Almost all of what I have previously written comes from my discussion with these two gentlemen. As Mike explained what he saw that day, I realize there were errors in most of the newspaper reports. Believe me, I have no doubts about the accuracy of what these two gentlemen told me. Imay not be the best judge of character in this world, but as Mike proceeded to tell me the story, I could actually see him going back in time, to that day. I could see the pain of his becoming an involuntary participant in such an awful event. He pointed to a tractor that was no more than 75 feet away, and said that the first plane fell no further than that from where he wasstanding that day. I could see it in his eyes and gestures when he told me how they ran to each crewman and held their fingers to each throat, seeking an almost impossible pulse. He looked at me, probably in the same awestruck way he did that day, when he told me that each one was in a row, all facing east; and how for years they wondered why.”

Later, Peter would go out to the airfield:

“It was easy to find. The tops of the old hangers are visible through the cornfields that now occupy the land. The corn is very tall this year, but the hangars are still easy to spot, even a mile back in the corn.

As I walked along the tarmac, the airbase did come alive for a moment. Nothing that was clear or identifiable, but I could see the bombers sitting there, one taxiing down the runway, while uniformed men walked about. Just for a moment, but long enough to know why I was there, what had driven me to do this. I was close, just for an instant.”

Peter was genuinely impressed with these kindly folks from the Milligan area. He mentioned Maxine Ackerman, Mrs. Rischling, and most of all, Bob Rischling and Mike Hromadka.

Peter recorded his thoughts on his visit to Milligan in a well written memoir, “A Journey Into the Past.”

Peter lives today in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

A Typical Milligan, NE., Home

Modern day Milligan really isn’t a whole lot different from what it was like back on that fateful day. Let’s back up a little bit and take a look at Milligan,Nebraska; learn a bit more about these kind and gentle folk . . . what they are like, what their town is like.

There are, at last count, 128 men in the village, and 153 women. Median age is 41.5 years. Median household income was $34,732 in 2008; that compares to $49,693 in the rest of Nebraska.

It doesn’t cost a lot to live in Milligan. You can buy a nice home there for $62,068. That compares to $126,500 in the rest of Nebraska. The cost of living there is rated very low at 70.5, compared to the U.S. average of 100.

It’s a mostly white community, with 97.8% of the town being white, a few Native Americans, and less than 1% of other races.

While the village was incorporated on February 15, 1888, by Czechs . . . there is now a bit more diversity. The village population is Czech (54.9%), German (29.2%), Irish (7.9%), Danish (3.8%), Swedish (3.2%), English (2.9%).

And how did a town, incorporated by Czechs, come to have a name like Milligan, which is not Czech, but Irish?Well, it seems there was this influential railroad man named Frank Milligan, one of six directors of the railroad line, who had bought up a lot of land that was eventually to become the village. The village was officially incorporated on February 15, 1888. In 1900 the Village Board considered changing the name but decided against it because it would have been too costly to change the name on all the deeds.

 

Milligan, the village, is enclosed within less than one square mile. 0.23 square miles to be exact.

 

Milligan Auditorium

Lincoln, the state’s capitol is 60 miles distant, Omaha, the states largest city, is 120 miles northeast of Milligan.

The Milligan Bank

It’s primarily an agricultural community, as are most of the small towns in Nebraska and Iowa. It gets as high as 88 degrees in the middle of summer, but the average is closer to 75 degrees. That’s in the summer. The winter season, which generally runs from November through mid-April, will get down as low as 10 degrees, up to 35 degrees. Six inches of snow would not be unusual in the winter months.

It’s a Republican village with 73% voting for the GOPin the 2004 election.

34% of the village is Methodist, 25% Catholic. 15% are Evangelical Lutherans, 11% are Church of Christ members, Mennonites make up 5% of the village and the remainder is “other.”

Aside from the heavy Czech influence in Milligan, the village is typical of many small towns or villages in Nebraska and Iowa. Good, honest, hard working people who are family and community oriented. The family ethic and the work ethic are both very prevalent in the midwest.

Epilogue:

Following his survival of the crash, Lt. Melvin Klein refused to fly again and was sent to Rapid City, S. Dakota.

His love of flying, however,soon took him back to the air again and he was flying Tow Targets. At the end of a plane was a banner and other planes would shoot at it. One day Mel went to his commanding officer and said “If I am going to be shot at, I’d rather go over seas and maybe become a hero.”So it was. He was based in England and was with the 388th Bomb Squadron. He completed 35 missions over Germany and received 5 oak leaf clusters as well as the Distinguished Flying Cross.

In 1970, the government began to cut back and Mel Klein, who had become a bona fide Air Force Hero, retired after a brilliant military career.

In 1985 he began to have slurred speech and he was eventually to be diagnosed with ALS, (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). Mel Klein passed away on September 3, 1993, in the V.A. Hospital in Sepulveda, California.

The Galindo Brothers

‘Three Galindo Brothers’ all served in WWII. Ursulo (‘Urs’) the oldest, was in the Army Air Corps and was killed in the plane crash on October 25, 1943. Diane Galindo Snyder’s dad, Adan (‘Don’), the ‘middle’ brother, was in the Navy Air Corps and served in the South Pacific. Adan “Don” Galindo passed away on March 28, 1985. The youngest, Pete, served in the Army Air Corps. Pete, Ursulo’s brother, passed away Monday, July 12, 2010.

Acknowledgements

I was born in a small town in Minnesota, called Windom. Chief claim to fame: It’s the home of the Toro Lawnmower Company. Current population:about 4500.

It used to be a standing joke that the reason Windom never grew much is that everytime a baby was born, someone left town. Amusing, but not totally true.

It’s just that the bright lights, great educational opportunities and better job offers, cause folks to move to the bigger cities. That, and the fact that the small family farms are not as prevalent as they used to be. Big corporate farms are now all the rage.

I moved from Windom to Omaha, Nebraska, when I was about three years old. Being so young, mom and dad figured they maybe, sorta, ought to come along as well.

But Inever lost my small town roots. We went back almost every year to visit and playat Grandma’s farm and to occasionally take in a movie ‘in town.’

So I know and treasure small town life. Iknow these folks. I love ‘em!They are the fabric of which this country is made. Strong family ethics, strong community ethics.

The Milligan Memorial Committee and what they accomplished is representative of what so manysmall towns and its people can accomplish, once they make up their minds something needs to be done.

We are right proud, as we say down on the farm, to present those folks and give a tip of the old chapeau to some mighty fine people and extend a hearty well done. Very, very well done.

A special big thank you to Shirley Brunkow, a member of the Committe, a perpetual motion machine and researcher of the top order. Shirley helped us immensely in the preparation of this story.

Shirley Brunkow

 

The Milligan Memorial Committee: Back row L-R, Dennis Steeby, Roma Bigelow, Shirley Brunkow, Kathy Rischling. Front – Dorothy Novak, Janet Bartels (chairman), Merle Buzek

When we head back to Omaha next summer for our 55th high school reunion, you can bet we’ll be visiting Milligan, Nebraska.

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