Marker placed to honor 60th anniversary of Columbus crash

  • Published
  • By Airman Davis Donaldson
  • 14th Flying Training Wing Public Affairs

In 1959, the U.S. was in the competitive Cold War with the Soviet Union to be the indomitable force of nuclear power; and as part of the feud, Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi, fed the fight by flying bombing missions as the 4228th Strategic Wing.

With every war comes risks and the will to sacrifice. On Oct. 15, 1959, eight Airmen assigned to Columbus AFB paid the ultimate price on one of their missions.

Twelve different, simulated-bombing missions were conducted daily at Columbus AFB to ensure the readiness of the pilots. During these missions, crew members would have to endure a peril and innovative feat: a Boeing KC-135A Stratotanker would refuel a B-52 Stratofortress midair.

While refueling on one of the training missions, there was a mishap, causing the combustion of the two planes from Columbus AFB. The accident took place around 6:46 p.m. outside the town of Hardinsburg, Kentucky.

Sixty years later, Oct. 15, 2019, family members of the crew and locals of Hardinsburg gathered to unveil a road-side marker commemorating the Airmen and their sacrifice. Three family members of the fallen Airmen helped unveil the marker.

On the marker, one side reads:

“B-52-KC-135A MID-AIR COLLISION—On October 15, 1959, Kentucky experienced the Cold War firsthand. Above Hardinsburg, KY, A B-52 bomber collided with a KC-135 tanker during a mid-air refueling. The two aircraft were flying a training mission with two nuclear weapons aboard. These armed missions would allow aircraft to hit assigned Soviet targets if the U.S. was attacked.”

On the other side it reads:

“After impact, the B-52 instructor pilot, pilot, electronic warfare officer, and radar navigator successfully ejected and were the only survivors. The other four B-52 crew members were unable to eject and were fatally injured. None of the four crew members from the KC-135 survived the collision. The nuclear weapons were recovered intact the wreckage.”

There was a combined total of 12 Airmen on board the B-52 and KC-135A. Only four of them were able to eject safely and parachute down toward the Kentucky fields.

Few witnesses below were able to comprehend the catastrophe as an aircraft crash. News reports state locals flooded Kentucky law enforcement agencies with calls, exclaiming what they had seen. Most reports state they had seen a UFO, a meteorite or a Russian “Sputnik” satellite.

Both of the flaming aircraft battered the ground 12 miles outside of Hardinsburg about two miles apart. There were no documented injuries from civilians. A single close-call was reported by a farmer saying part of the B-52’s engine impacted the ground nearly 50 feet from where he stood.

Two of the surviving Airmen were taken in by locals and transported to a Critchelow’s Store in Glen Dean, Kentucky. There, the Airmen made phone calls to Columbus, telling the tragedy.

The other two survivors landed nearby at the farm of a man named Russel Morgan, in a grove of trees and were rescued.

Once the news was received by Columbus AFB and Strategic Air Command headquarters, Air Force personnel sent doctors to recover the survivors the following day.

Dispatch teams from Barksdale AFB, Louisiana; Offutt AFB, Nebraska; Fort Knox, Kentucky; the Kentucky National Guard and several other agencies were sent to gather wreckage and assess the scene.

The Atomic Energy Commission was sent to recover two unarmed nuclear warheads being toted on the B-52. They secured the warheads, and on the same day the bodies of the other eight Airmen were discovered. The bodies were declared deceased by a local county coroner and were issued death certificates.

Those who lost their lives that day include:

Maj. Robert H. Imhoff, K-135A commander

Capt. Lyle P. Burgess, B-52 instructor navigator

First Lt. Donald Arger, B-52 co-pilot

First Lt. William E. Epling, KC-135A co-pilot

First Lt. John W. Mosby, B-52 navigator

First Lt. Harold E. Hemlick, KC-135A navigator

Tech. Sgt. Howard L. Nelms, B-52 tail gunner

Staff Sgt. Paul E. Thomasson, KC-135A boom operator

Those who survived the crash included:

Maj. Milton E Chatham, B-52 instructor pilot

Capt. William G. Gutshall, B-52 commander

Capt. James W. Strother, B-52 radar navigator

First Lt. Gino Fugazzi, B-52 electronic warfare officer