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WWII’S FORGOTTEN HEROES - TRAINING FLIGHT VICTIMS

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They are perhaps the most forgotten of World War II's forgotten.

They never reached Europe or the Pacific. Instead, they died thousands of miles from the war in lumbering bombers and crude fighter planes that plowed into snowy New England mountainsides or dropped into the Atlantic, often in the black of night.They were the casualties of flight training, deprived even of the gratitude and honor bestowed on victims of combat.

More than 15,130 men died in World War II flight training across the country, according to the Air Force Safety Agency in Albuquerque. Among them were at least 118 killed in 35 accidents on training flights from Westover in the western Massachusetts city of Chicopee, according to military and state records.

Most died on flights of giant B-24 bombers, which allowed escape only through their underside in a crash. The plane was nicknamed the "Liberator," but many called it the "Flying Coffin."

The accidents were blamed on mechanical failure and errors by often inexperienced pilots.

Frank Tencza, a Vietnam veteran from Wilbraham, held a 1989 memorial service atop Mount Holyoke for 10 airmen who died in a Westover crash there in late May 1944 as they prepared to invade France on D-Day. That operation, so well-remembered by history, was launched 10 days later without them.

This year, Tencza is organizing another service at the South Hadley site for Saturday, two days before Memorial Day and nine before the 50th anniversary of D-Day. This one will honor all who died on Westover training flights in World War II.

"Who would . . . think of training accidents as part of the cost of war?" Tencza asked. "Let's remember them - at least once."

"Nobody in officialdom ever recognized them after they were dead. Within a month, they were forgotten," said Brian Lindner, who organized a similar 1989 service for nine victims of a crash on a mountain in Duxbury, Vt.

Hearing the Westover death toll 50 years later shocked Betty O'Connell, who worked in supply and outfitting at a base hangar during the war.

"I don't ever, ever remember that much," she said haltingly. "They sure kept that information from us."

"It was part of the war thing," said Gordon Newell, who serves as a civilian spokesman for Westover, now an Air Force Reserve base. "There was just so much going on - necessity of war."

They were sarcastically known as "90-day wonders," these fledgling fliers mostly in their teens and 20s who were sent to Westover to form crews, gain flight experience, and fly out three months later to join the Army Air Corp's 8th Air Force in Europe.

Although the Air Force wasn't a separate military branch until two years after the war, America's warplanes made a huge contribution in crippling Hitler's Germany.

But the staggering losses in combat quickly washed away memories of training accidents, however terrible. "The numbers were absolutely nothing compared to the losses being taken on major raids," said Frank Faulkner, a historian of Westover.

Sixty bombers were lost in a single raid over Schweinfurt, Germany, in October 1943.

Meanwhile, relatives of training victims were tormented by a feeling that the deaths lacked even the meaning and dignity of perishing in fighting. "I think if he had died in combat, he was fighting for our country. He was only on maneuvers," said Vivian Leite of Middleboro, a victim's sister. "Something like that shouldn't happen."

For her, training victims are the "forgotten heroes."

Leite's brother, Cpl. Jim Perry, was 18 when he died with eight others in the October 1944 crash at Duxbury.

"My mom and dad never got over this. I think there's always that resentment," Leite said.

The sole survivor of that crash was Jim Wilson, a gunner who lay unconscious on the frozen mountainside for more than 60 hours until rescuers found him. He lost his hands and feet to frostbite.