A-26 Crash - Yankai, September 1945 (Part I)

By Mr. Marty Oxenburg
69th Depot Repair Squadron

As an Armorer, I arrived in Kunming, China via the Burma Road in May 1945. I was attached to the 69th Depot Repair Squadron, 301st Air Depot Group, 14th Air Force-Flying Tigers.

After the Japanese surrender in September 1945, the Chinese Nationalist and Communist armies were having skirmishes in the Kunming area. The concern of the 14th A.A.F. was to prevent the Communist Army from getting access to our armed aircraft.

In September of 1945 my friend Leonard Chennel ( deceased ) and I received orders to be transported by air (approximately 100 miles) to Yankai. The Yankai Air Field was almost deserted when we arrived, since the majority of the troops were on their way to the good old USA. There was no shortage of aircraft, as the planes were parked wing to wing.

Our orders were to remove all guns and cannons from the aircraft. We worked in a dirt floor cabin packing the guns. After removing the armament, we applied Cosmoline and wrapped the weapons in heavy wax paper for shipment back to Kunming. Most of the planes we worked on were B-25s, P-51s and P-61s.

Len and I made a major mistake; we assumed that the 50 caliber, and 20mm cannons had been 'cleared' by the departing flight crews. With the excitement of going home, the war having ended, I suppose the crews did not realize the dangerous situation they had left behind. In training we were instructed to clear the guns of ammunition.

Len and I were working on two 50s, each pointed in opposite directions. Len's barrel was against my knee. I stood in order to get a better position, and at that moment there was an explosion. Len had touched the firing solenoid on his gun. Two seconds before the firing, my knee had been pressed against the barrel of Len's gun. I know someone was looking after me on that day.

When the explosion occurred, we thought we were being fired on by the Commies, so we grabbed our 45s, opened the door and heard loud excited voices. They were coming from a small group of Chinese Nationalist troops outside the cabin. One of the soldiers had been hit in the arm from the splintered 50 caliber bullet. Blood was flowing from his arm like a geyser. I applied a tourniquet to the soldiers arm ( I knew there was a good purpose for those large brown G.I. handkerchiefs ), and we rushed him to the hospital. When we arrived, a medic whose name was John, gave the soldier a shot of morphine and the unfortunate victim passed out.

As the soldier lay unconscious, we heard a loud explosion coming from the direction of the airfield. Looking out the hospital window I observed black smoke rising from the field. I could not see the runways, since they were in a valley. Except for the wounded soldier, the medic, myself, and a few patients, we were the only ones in the hospital at that time. Len had remained at the cabin. The phone rang, and John was told that an A-26 Invader pursuit bomber crashed on an attempted takeoff. John became very nervous, so I told him to get his emergency medical kit, and we headed for the field in an ambulance.

On take-off the plane ( as I was told ) never became airborne. For some unknown reason the pilot did not abort the flight. The plane hit an embankment and broke into flames. The crews parachutes and clothing caught fire, and they had either been thrown from the plane, or were able to get out on their own power. The crew of three were trying to extinguish the flames, when Chinese farmers working nearby in a rice paddy ran to them and threw each of them to the ground, rolling them in water, but the damage had been done.

I will never, ever forget the awful scene as we arrived at the crash site. The crew were lying in a rice paddy. They were severely ( 3rd degree ) burned since the plane erupted in flames. The crews age bracket was about 23 to 26 years. They had severe burns over their entire bodies and were in excruciating pain, and in shock. Their skin was hanging from head to toe. They were lying about 150 feet from the plane, and I could hear ammunition exploding.

John, the medic immediately administered shots of morphine. Len heard the explosion and arrived at the crash site with a weapons carrier. We carefully placed two of the crew in the ambulance, and one in the weapons carrier. The drive to the hospital seemed like forever.

The hospital was at the top of a high range of hills, and we had to circle the bumpy dirt road. When we arrived at the hospital the Chinese soldier was lying where we left him, and he was still out 'cold'. A few of the nurses and doctors were at the movies, so someone ran to alert them. Within minutes the hospital staff began to work feverishly in an attempt to save the crew.

A plane from Kunming arrived with medical supplies, doctors and nurses. Each day after Len and I finished work we would spend our evenings at the hospital. We knew it would take a miracle to save the crew. Never in my life since the time of the crash did I ever see doctors and nurses work so desperately around the clock trying to save these three young men. Within three days from the time of the accident the pilot and crew chief died due to infection and other medical reasons. The radio operator survived. We were all very saddened, and depressed.

I learned that the crew was to fly the A-26 to Karachi, India and then to Germany where they would leave the plane and return to the USA. They were probably looking forward to being with their loved ones for Christmas 1945.

I decided to document this story hoping someone might be able to identify the crew. If so, please let me know, as I would like to contact a family member to let them know that their loved ones were given the very best of care, under the circumstances.


P.S.  In the early 1990s I decided to search for the pilot and crew chief's families. I wanted to let them know that their loved ones were given the very best of medical attention. I placed the above story in the JingBao Journal which was a magazine for those who served in China. I received a response from Jesse Reifsnyder. Jesse was a Crew Chief with the 11th BS / 341th BG. Jesse told me that on the day of the crash he was in a A-26 at the opposite end of the field when the crash occurred. He got out of his plane and helped pull a crew member from the crash site. He recognized one of the crew members as someone he occasionally had coffee with. It was the Crew Chief of the crashed plane and his name was Fred Garner. Jesse was able to tell me where Fred lived prior to coming to China. I was able to contact Fred's wife. When Fred left for China his wife was pregnant and gave birth to a son, who unfortunately he never met.

I was still determined to find family of the pilot, but did not know his name. So in 2008 I placed a story in the Ex-CBI Roundup. I quickly received a response from Lisa Froug-Hirano. Lisa's Mom had served with the Red Cross in the CBI. After Lisa's Mom died Lisa continued to subscribe to the Ex-CBI Roundup and noticed my story. As a CBI history buff, Lisa knew who to contact. She contacted the Army records department and they sent her the names of the crew of the A-26. The pilots name was Lynn C. Nordahl. It took me 63 years to learn his name. Lisa then did a search and found a phone number which proved to be the son of the pilot. So in 2008 I spoke to the son and daughter of Lynn.

I think my contacting the family of the deceased help bring them closure, as well as to myself.

P.S.S.  The above article appeared in the Jingbao Journal, a 14th Air Force Association magazine. In the following addition there was a reply from Jesse Reifsnyder. Jesse at the time of the accident was in the 11th Bomb Squadron, 341st Bomb Group ( same as the A-26 crew that crashed ).

I learned that Jesse lives in Fleetwood, PA ( near Reading ). Jesse and I have had several conversations regarding this tragic accident. We agree on most events that happened that day in October 1945, but not everything.

Jesse explained that at the time of the crash he was also in a A-26 at the opposite end of the runway waiting to take off. As a Crew Chief, Jesse and his pilot Lt. Leonard Russell (Coldwater, MI, ) were one of the first on the scene of the crash. Jesse's plane was at the far end of the runway waiting to take off prior to the crash. Jesse and Lt. Russell did not actually witness the crash, due to the curvature of the runway. Jesse and Russell ran to the plane and pulled the crew away from the plane. Jesse and Lt. Russell were ordered back to their A-26, and were told by the Control Tower that their plane was interfering with traffic and that help was on the way.

In my conversations with Jesse Reifsnyder ( as recent as 06/02/07 ) he was able to identify the A-26 Crew Chief, Fred Garner. During a conversation with Jesse in 1997 he told me that occasionally he would have coffee with Garner and knew him. Jesse checked the 11th Bomb Squadron roster, and gave me Garner's city of origination. With the aide of the Internet White Pages, I contacted a few Garner's in the town where Garner lived prior to entering the military. Spoke to a W.A. Brown who was a boyhood friend of Garner. Brown's sister Adelle was married to Fred Garner, and was pregnant prior to Fred leaving for China. I asked W.A. if he or Garner's family had been contacted by the Air Force regarding the crash. W.A. said Adelle was contacted by an Air Force Chaplin and was unable to offer any information regarding Fred's death, except that he was killed in a plane crash. I asked W.A. Brown if he thought his sister might want to speak with me. He arranged for me to talk to Fred's wife Adelle. I asked how much did she want to know, and her reply was, everything. This was one of the most difficult and emotional experiences I have ever gone through. Adelle was quietly sobbing, and I was so overcome, I asked for a moment in order to compose myself. Adelle told me that Fred's son was born while he was in China. Five years after the crash Adelle had Fred's remains returned from China, and he was buried in a family plot.

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