by Tim Gilmore, 4/7/2023
1. Buzz Cut
Millard McGhee, 27 years old, was standing at his bathroom mirror shaving, 7:45 in the morning, when the engine from a P-51 Mustang Army plane tore through his second-floor apartment and killed him. Even now, you can stand outside his old apartment, no. 3, and see the site of rupture at 2893 Post Street. McGhee, a manager at Krome Shoe Store on Forsyth Street downtown, was getting ready for the workday.
Another engine blew through the brick of the Miriam Apartments at Willow Branch Avenue and Post Streets, and, depending on which version of events you hear, either came to a stop in the middle of Willow Branch or in nine year-old Starr Brown’s bed.
Just 45 minutes earlier, two army pilots, Jack Egar and James Cope, had launched from Pinellas Army Air Field outside St. Petersburg. Instead of heading out over Tampa Bay in combat training, they’d decided to fly to Jacksonville and prank Egar’s mother by “buzzing” the house where he grew up at 2749 Post Street. To “buzz” a building was to fly low and close, to give it “a buzz cut,” the usual military haircut.
“Three lives were lost and severe damage caused,” said the front page of Jacksonville’s Florida Times-Union the next morning – July 21, 1944, “as two U.S. Army P-51 fighter planes crashed and exploded after colliding in midair yesterday, leaving a path of ruin from fire and wreckage for more than two blocks along Post Street from Willow Branch Avenue to a point east of Cherry Street.”
Egar’s lifeless body was found in an abandoned lot between the undamaged craftsman bungalow at 2873 Post Street and the Miriam Apartments at Willow Branch and Post, about three blocks from his childhood home. He’d graduated from Robert E. Lee High School a few blocks southeast. Whether true or not, neighborhood lore said Cope’s engine sliced McGhee in half and that Egar’s mother was raking leaves in her front yard when her son terrorized the neighborhood, crashed his plane and died.
The official Army report said Egar led Cope just 75 feet over Post Street, and 50 feet west of his mother’s house, when “his plane sheared the top of a palm tree which extended about 10 feet above the high power electric lines. The electric lines are about 50 feet high.” Both planes headed west, “one plane over the south side of Post Street while the other was over the opposite side.”
The first “plane then appeared to be out of control and topped 10 feet of a pine tree at the next corner, James and Post Streets. Skidding across the street, Lt. Egar’s plane struck a third tree, several houses and a line of garages. The airplane was completely demolished and was scattered through a number of houses and yards.”
Army investigations concluded that when Egar first lost control, Cope jerked away to avoid a direct collision, crashed through other trees and then into apartments and houses. Several witnesses noted “previous occasions in the last two weeks in which one or two P-51s had buzzed this area in the identical manner.”
The fire department said the crashes had damaged 17 houses, including four apartment blocks. The Army report included photographs that made this section of Riverside look like a war zone and listed various cars destroyed, holes in the walls of 976 Rubel Street, a hole in the bedroom ceiling at 2913 Post Street, destruction of a bedroom and back porch at 2919 Post Street, a bedroom at 2929, and so on.
Explosions had sounded across the neighborhoods southwest of Downtown that morning. As firefighters battled flames, hundreds of wanderers filled streets and yards, women in housedresses, men in sleeveless undershirts and brimmed and banded hats, others in suspenders or overalls, smoke billowing across the detritus, across policemen standing akimbo.
The Army report described “a great deal of buzzing going on by both Army and Navy planes” and cited “almost daily instances,” quoting Jack Gross, chief comptroller at the Civil Aviation Administration, that “airliners are buzzed by Army and Navy aircraft.”
2. The Narrowest Escape from Death
Witnesses quoted in the T-U the next morning waxed surprisingly eloquent. A woman identified as Mrs. W.G. Frierson watched the planes from her front yard at Forbes and Barrs Streets. “One of the planes veered in front of the other,” she said, “and they locked wings as they collided. Then they slid off sideways and came down fast, skimming the treetops.”
An Internal Revenue Service agent named L. E. Rohrer was backing his car out of his garage at 2821 Post when he saw a plane bounce skyward off the tree it sliced, then swerve back down across Rubel Street to Willow Branch. Already another fighter plane was crashing through the top of a wild cherry tree in Rohrer’s back yard, then slashed the trees of his next door neighbor, County Commissioner R.A. Mills, knocked the chimneys off a garage apartment on Post Street, then blew to pieces across the backs of six or seven houses and apartment buildings.
The plane smashed through a light pole, then crashed into the Cherry Street intersection and knocked the two-story Cade residence at 2865 Post Street off its foundation, drenching it and the Wilkinson residence at 2869 in fuel and setting them aflame.
F.E. Wilkinson was shaving, like his neighbor Millard McGhee, six buildings west, when something like an “earthquake struck my house and then flames seemed to be everywhere.” Newspapers reported Wilkinson pulled his wife and his two year-old grandchild Judy, asleep on a back sleeping-porch, his 78 year old mother-in-law and two neighbors from the flames.
His heroic first-person account, as published in the T-U: “I dashed into their room and found them both covered with debris and flames over most of the room. I got them out of their beds and helped them out of the burning house. I then turned my attention to my mother-in-law, Mrs. W.I. Powers, an invalid, who was sleeping in the front room.
“I then discovered that the Cade home, next door, was burning. Mr. Cade was out of town and I knew that Mrs. Cade and her son, Gregory, 2, usually slept in the front bedroom on the second floor. I went into the house and helped Mrs. Cade and her son out of the bedroom window. The front end of the home, including the porch, had been knocked almost down by the impact of the plane hitting it and the sloping porch helped us get down safely.”
Raining “bits of exploding plane” made holes in various houses. An “electric armature” from one of the planes sat perfectly atop the Wilkinsons’ buffet as if it had been “placed there by human hands.” The buffet remained undamaged. Newspapers and Army reports noted injuries to several civilians, including minors and two women named Grace.
Herbert and Dorothy Brown and their nine year-old daughter Starr Lee surely experienced “the narrowest escape from death,” the T-U reported. As the family slept, an airplane engine flew over the parents’ heads, through bathroom walls, and over their daughter’s bed, “before spending its force and landing in Willow Branch Avenue, just a few feet away.”
Seconds earlier, “the same plane had ripped off all the walls of the back bedroom where 11 year old Richard C. Lorberg, son of the Reverend F.W. Lorberg, pastor of the Grace Lutheran Church, and Mrs. Lorberg, were asleep.” Rushed to nearby St. Vincent’s Hospital, the little boy recovered “miraculously.”
Seven decades later, in August 2012, Starr Brown Tolleson told the Times-Union’s Charlie Patton, “That engine was in my bed. I saw it. And I’ve got a good memory.” After the tragedy, Tolleson said, she and her family lived temporarily at several homes across Jacksonville before returning to the Willow Branch apartment. “Mother,” Tolleson said, “was petrified anytime a plane came over.”
3. Apocalypse Lost
When the planes tore across Post Street, John Wesley Carver and his grandfather Clarence were at home in the apartment at 2842. John’s parents were in Miami when they heard the news over the radio. They kept calling home, but couldn’t get through. “In the middle of the chaos,” Chris Carver, John’s son, says eight decades later, “My great-grandfather snagged sheet aluminum pieces from the wreckage and later used them to make sails on a model Spanish galleon he carved.”
Now a cousin who lives in Virginia keeps the galleon in his garage. Urban legends tell of pieces of aircraft later showing up in attics and back yards or spliced into splitting branches of old oaks. Thinking of that galleon in the Virginia garage makes me wonder where other pieces of the tragedy have migrated and in what surprising ways.
What haunts Bryan “Red” Henry most is what nobody said and what he wishes he’d asked. His grandparents, his 19 year-old mother-to-be, Renee Hedgecoth, and her 17 year-old brother Larry lived at 2846 College, between James and Cherry Streets, where fiery parts of plane came to rest in their back yard. Red was born four years later. His mother moved back to the apartment in 1959 and he lived there from age 10 to 15.
He lives in Virginia now, but when he can, he comes back through Jacksonville and walks his childhood neighborhood, wishing he could still speak to his mother, could ask her about her memories.
“My grandparents’ life in that house was overshadowed by a family tragedy many years earlier,” he says. “In 1933, when their son Maurice was almost three, he ran out into College Street one day and was struck and killed by a car. I never heard either of my grandparents allude to the crash at all, in spite of the fact that one of the planes barely missed their house.”
A year after the crash, The U.S. War Department rejected property damage reimbursement claims from 42 residents. “Although the denial is regrettable from the standpoint of the claimants,” Brigadier General Thomas Green said on July 27, 1945, “it is the only conclusion which could be made in view of the obvious fact that the pilots of the two planes had violated explicit instructions and were clearly outside the scope of their duties.” In 1947, Congress approved a bill to pay Millard McGhee’s parents $5,760 — about $80,000 in today’s currency — and the following year, a total of $1,583 to five claimants.
That fateful morning burned in the memories of those who’d survived it. John Ditcher told Army investigators he ran out to the intersection of Post and King Streets, “in time to see a flash and flames rise about 200 feet in the air.” From Acosta and Post Streets, Stanis van Meensel “saw an orange colored flash and it appeared as though both planes crashed about the same time.” From Park and Stockton Streets, Richard Telfair “saw a large, white flash, then a series of light explosions with small objects hurling into the air.”
Early on a random Wednesday morning before my first class, I walk the path of destruction from 80 years ago. I talk to a kind young couple moving bags of books into their car behind the Miriam Apartments. They’ve heard about the plane crash; her mother told them all about it.
Beside the brick patchwork still visible where Cope’s engine killed Millard McGhee, three big blocks of square sand-hued brick apartments replaced original housing in 1970. A young girl whose hair is kind of half-mohawk and ironic half-mullet says her life here is quiet except for the occasional revelers on Friday and Saturday nights and the mockingbird nest of twigs, roots, and shards of a plastic cup outside her window.
It’s like with an apocalypse. The biggest moment breaks time open to eternity, but lasts only as long as those who remember. Even ancient times had their own ancient times. There were gods who’d grown old before the world’s oldest gods and the earth was ancient before the world.
From the Office of the Base Surgeon at Jacksonville Army Air Field, Thomas G. Caceci, Captain, M.C., on July 21, 1944, regarding James R. Cope, 2nd lieutenant, and John R. Egar, 2nd lieutenant:
“The above officers were killed in an aircraft accident on 20 July 1944 at approximately 7:45 A.M. on Post and Cherry Streets, in the city of Jacksonville, Florida. Identification was made from bill folders and clothing found on the body of James R. Cope. Identification of John K. Egar was made from a ring bearing the initials J.K.E., found on one of the bodies.”