Soldiers’ last flight to Telemark
The remains of a crashed WWII plane remain on a Telemark mountaintop. Here is the tragic story behind it.
By Bjørn Olsen
From Leuchar Aiport in Scotland, the American bomb squadron was preparing for a mission to Norway. The bomb squadron was equipped with a Consolidated B-24 Liberator with registration number 42-52196, and the bomber’s commander was the 22-year-old junior officer John B. O’Hara accompanied by nine other crew members.
The plane’s crew had just arrived in Scotland from New York on the luxury cruise liner “Queen Elisabeth.” During the passage from New York to England, the crew enjoyed music from none other than Glenn Miller and his orchestra. Little did junior officer O’Hara and Glenn Miller know that in a few months they would both lose their lives in plane crash.
A mission to Norway
On Saturday September 9, 1944 junior officer John B. O’Hara and his crew had gotten orders to drop off weapons and equipment to the Norwegian Heimefronten (the Norwegian resistance group during WWII) in a zone called D-14 by Sperillen in the municipal of Buskerud. The pilots had checked the little forecast that was available for Southern Norway, which was said to be rainy and foggy. The drop-off of weapons and equipment was scheduled at 9 p.m. that night.
For a weapons drop-off in occupied Norway the weather situation was ideal, however, for flying it was inconvenient, and it was a demanding task for the 26-year-old navigator junior officer Lewis Bambick.
At 6:15 p.m., the large 4-motor bomb squadron took off from Leuchar heading toward German occupied Norway. The course was set to 60 degrees and navigator Bambick expected to reach the Norwegian coast by 8 o’clock. The radio operator, 23-year-old Bernhard F. Gittelman, listened intently to the radio – which was the only thing he could do. Communicating on the radio would lead the Germans right to the location of the plane itself.
By 8 p.m. commander O’Hara could see the contours of the Norwegian coast. The visibility was poor with low fog and rain. Ahead lay a terrain of mountains which was to be passed. In about five minutes the scheduled drop-off to the Norwegian home front soldiers or “the boys in the woods” as they were also called, would happen. This mission would be the last for O’Hara as he was being transferred to another department.
Gunmen Frank G. Felthous, Normann J. McLaughlin, Wesley C. Bowman and Hubert D. Bourquin were preparing their machine guns. Despite poor weather and slim chances of German fighter planers attacking, being prepared was not undermined.
The large bomber plane came in over the Norwegian coast at full speed, and commander John B. O’Hara decided to increase altitude with 6,500 feet to make it possible to fly over the highest mountain tops. The plane kept its position in the clouds and was therefore well-protected from the enemy. However, another enemy emerged; icing in the clouds. O’Hara gazed out through the cockpit window and witnessed the ice forming on the wing. He hoped that the ice would disappear as the plane flew farther inland. Decreasing altitude would be a certain death.
The commander now realized that heavy icing was beginning to spread throughout the plane, and the ice was now on both the wings and the propellers. The navigator was working intensely to find the exact position as the plane was now losing altitute and was starting to lose its momentum in speed. Due to the ice, the plane was starting to act erratic. John O’Hara avoided making sharp turns as that would cause the plane to steep in the air. At the same time, O’Hara carefully maneuvered the rudders continuously in order for them to not freeze.
The plane was now at an altitute of 4,300 feet and the plane was on its way down, fast. The Liberator plane was now at an altitude lower than most of the tall mountain tops in Telemark, and not even the crew knew of their own whereabouts. O’Hara gave orders to drop off the load, and those were the commander’s last words…
Between 8 and 9 on Saturday night, September 9, 1944, the people in Seljord could hear a violent bang and a flash of lights from Skorvefjell.
A movie night had been arranged in Seljord and people were exiting the cinema. Most of them both heard the band and saw the flash of lights caused by the plane crash.
Today, scattered pieces lie throughout an area beneath Gøysen on Skorvefjell in Seljord. The area is protected as a WWII historical site. All the fallen crew members were transported back to the United States to their respective hometowns.
From the book Telemark i norsk luftfartshistorie (“Telemark in Norwegian Aviation History”) by Bjørn Olsen. For more information about this story or the book, email Bjørn at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in the Nov. 8, 2013 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.