STU BUTCHER

The Associated Press reported on July 10 that divers have located human bones near the wreckage of a US bomber that crashed on Dec. 17, 1944, in the Adriatic Sea off Croatia. Among the airmen who died was a Chanute native.

The discovery was made at the site of the crash of The Tulsamerican, the last B-24 Liberator bomber built in Tulsa, Okla, near the end of World War II, according to Croatia’s state TV.

An effort to recover and return pieces of the wreckage to Oklahoma for display at the Tulsa Air and Space Museum has been underway for several years. The plane was hit after a bombing run over German-occupied Poland. 

It crashed into the Adriatic Sea on Dec. 17, 1944. The crew apparently tried to get the plane back to its base in Italy, but they eventually decided to ditch it in the Adriatic. 

“The remains of human bones have been found, but we can’t say anything without further analysis,” Zadar University archaeologist Mate Parica said in the AP story.

The wreckage itself was found at the bottom of the sea at a depth of some 40 meters — 130 feet  —   nea the island of Vis in 2010 after a 17-year search. 

Three members of the 10-man crew were killed in the crash, including the flight engineer, Tech Sgt. Charles Elmer Priest, who was from Chanute.  

 

Family of Priest sought

Chesley “Cole” Herndon, Oklahoma City, told the Tribune that sadly members of the 461st have not been able to locate the family of Charles Priest after many years of trying.

Priest’s parents, Clyde Elmer Priest (1890-1950) and Mary Hazel Osborn Priest (1888-1983) are both buried in Woodland Cemetery in Mound City. They both died in Chanute.

He had a sister and brother, Emma Jean Priest (born Feb. 7, 1925; died March 25, 1998) and Dale Franklin Priest (born Feb. 20, 1926; died Sept. 28, 1948), both buried in Woodland Cemetery.

Charles Priest was born in 1920 and graduated from Chanute High School.

The 461st Liberaider newsletter provided history of the ill-fated The Tulsamerican.

“There was an emergency airfield situated on the Isle of Vis for returning allied airplanes that were badly damaged and could not make it back to their home bases in Italy. Lt. (Eugene) Ford chose to attempt an emergency landing on Vis; however, there were complications due to the battle damage to The Tulsamerican. It was the flight engineer’s responsibility to extend the landing gear, so T/Sgt. Charles Priest tended to his duties in an effort to get the wheels down. Priest managed to extend the main gear, and then began work to extend the nose gear. At this time, Lt. Ford opted to do an orbit off the Isle of Vis in order to give Priest some time to extend the nose gear. During this first orbit, the nose gear would not budge. Lt. Ford decided to give it one more orbit and then land even if the nose gear was not down and locked. About halfway through the second orbit, the remaining two engines quit. They had apparently run out of fuel while attempting to get into the traffic pattern for a landing at Vis, and were forced to crash the airplane into the Adriatic just off the Isle of Vis.”

 

A survivor’s recollections

Lt. Val Miller wrote his recollections of that day in a letter written to the daughter of Ford.

“Finally, it was determined that we would attempt to make a landing on this little island. We were approaching the island, and it appeared we might be successful. I was on the flight deck, seated immediately behind Lt. Ford. The co-pilot, Vincent O. Ecklund, and Russell C. Landry, navigator, and Charles E. Priest, engineer, were with me on the flight deck. This is a small area and I could have reached out and touched any one of them. We were flying at approximately 100 feet above the water, when suddenly two more of the plane’s engines cut out. Lt. Ford said. ‘We’re going in.’ Because of the loss of power, the plane fell over on its side and crashed into the sea. It was a tremendous impact.

Somehow, I did not lose consciousness and was able to inflate my Mae West and somehow shot out through the wreckage and was able to come up out of the water. As noted, it was December and the water was cold. The waves were high, and while I could see land at times, I could not see anyone else. In some reports, it has been stated that we ditched. This is not so. We had no time to try to ditch the plane after we lost power.

“Since I could see land in the distance, I tried to swim, but was unable to do so because my right leg had been broken in half between the ankle and the knee and was simply hanging by the skin and muscles. At this point, I still had not seen any other crew member. I am not sure how long I was in the water, but it must have been at least two hours. The sun had gone down and it starting to get dark, and then suddenly a small boat appeared and two men pulled me out of the water into the boat. I was aware that they were searching in the area and that other men were pulled into the boat. At that time, I was not aware of who survived. Later, I learned that they were unable to find Lt. Ford, Lt. Landry, and Sgt. Priest. I, of course, do not know exactly what happened to these three, but I speculated that they must have lost consciousness by reason of the crash. Your father, as first pilot, was strapped in a seat which had a backing of heavy metal, for flak protection. 

“We were taken to a little island and received emergency medical attention from a British doctor. Subsequently, after a day or two, we were picked up by an airplane and flown back to Italy. I spent sixteen months in Army hospitals, before I was ultimately released.”

 

Hitting the water

Sgt. John Toney wrote:  “As we circled the second time, Ford saw we couldn’t make it and ordered us to bail out, but before we could get out, the other two engines quit and he yelled ‘ditch.’ With the bomb bay doors open, gear down and no power, we really hit the water hard. The plane broke up and I was under water when I came to. We were always instructed not to open our Mae West inside the plane, but since I couldn’t swim a lick and I was still in the plane under water, the first thing I did was to inflate that Mae West. I don’t know how I got out. I was knocked unconscious when we hit, but do remember coming out a hole in the plane. Lt. Ford, our flight Pilot, Lt. Russell Landry, our Navigator, and Tech Sergeant Charles Priest our Engineer were killed in the crash. I don’t know how many hours we were in the water, but much longer than we wanted. The rest of us were picked up by Yugoslavian fishermen and a British Rescue Team. We were taken to a large building of some kind on the Isle of Vis, where they stripped us and wrapped us in blankets and administered first aid. They poured down us what I think was Vodka. We were then taken by a C-47 to the hospital at Bari, Italy. Some of us were returned state side for further medical treatment and recovery.”

 

Tech Sgt. Charles E. Priest (1920--Dec. 17, 1944) is listed on the memorial wall at the Florence American Cemetery in Florence, Italy.

 

Editor’s note: Anyone with information on Charles Priest’s surviving family is invited to call the Tribune, 620-431-4100 and will be connected to Cole Herndon, Oklahoma City.

 

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