As more than 150,000 Allied troops landed on a half dozen French beaches during one of the largest military operations the world has ever known, recreation seekers on Lake Greenwood could have been mistaken for thinking that war had descended upon them as well.
Propellers of a twin-engine 20,300-pound North American B-25 Mitchell bomber, piloted by Army Air Service Col. Dan Rossman, clipped the lake’s surface, sending the mighty aircraft plunging to the murky bottom and giving birth to one of the strangest stateside events of World War II.
The long, narrow lake was calm on that late afternoon of June 6, 1944, a dangerous condition for Rossman and his two passengers, Walter “Blackie” Wallace and Lt. Col. John Jackson, their commanding officer.
In an audio diary recorded shortly before his death in 2014, Rossman said the lack of breakers or other distinguishing features on the lake’s surface made it “literally impossible to judge your altitude over the water within 20 to 30 feet.”
“We were coming over the lake, and I remember seeing off to my left a man in a boat, fishing. I think we were eye-to-eye, and if we’re eye-to-eye with each other, that means we’re too low,” Rossman said.
Jackson, who flown the airplane across North Africa and Italy on combat missions with Wallace, pulled back on the steering stick, forcing a hard stall and sending the plane’s nose skyward before it slammed down.
Now, 75 years after her watery fate was sealed, work continues by volunteer craftsman in restoring the airplane to how it looked when it took off from the Greenville Air Base on June 6, 1944.
An open house is planned from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday at hangar Y-1 at the Jim Hamilton-L.B. Owens Airport in Columbia. The painstaking rehabilitation is due to efforts by the South Carolina Historic Aviation Foundation.
Ken Berry, its president, said the iconic airplane has a mystique surrounding it, partly due to a myth that developed about what caused the wreck.
“I think what makes this particular B-25 interesting for starters is the story behind the ditching in the lake. Growing up in this region of the state lots of folks just like myself knew about the plane sitting on the bottom of the lake,” Berry said. “The local legend all the way down to Lexington and Columbia area was that the crew flew too low trying to get a peek at sunbathing beauties at a beach. Lots of folks still believe that, as it’s a cool story and seems to fit the narrative. “
Rossman vehemently denied that bathing-suit clad women brought down the plane used to train airmen in Columbia who would later carry out one of World War II’s most daring missions: The July 18, 1942 Tokyo raid, known as the “Doolittle Raid.”
“It wasn’t until 1995 when a story developed about why we were flying so low. That story had to do with we were buzzing bathing beauties. I’ve said all along that bathing beauties had nothing to do with it, it was straight low flying all along,” Rossman said.
Attempts to surface the B-25, which has been called “Skunkie” but whose official — and preferred — designation is “GF2,” began in the early 1960s, but it wasn’t until 1983 when the bomber was pulled from the lake.
Mat Self, son of Greenwood patriarch Jim “James” Self, headed up the plane’s recovery after reading an article in Air Force Magazine about the search for a B-25 to be installed at the National Air and Space Museum.
Because of the plane’s role as a teaching tool for the Doolittle Raid crew, it took on significance during the famed group’s reunions — and keeping it in South Carolina became a top priority.
In 1992, cosmetic improvements were made in time for the “GF2” to be part of the 50th anniversary Doolittle Raiders gathering. In 2002, the airplane was repainted to appear identically to Lt. Col. James Doolittle’s own airplane.
Berry said Rossman’s bomber will never fly again — but he and others preserving it also consider that an advantage.
“Locating certain parts is hard sometimes, and of course keeping funding coming in to support the restoration and our basic operating cost. We have some amazing core members who have really made stuff happen. They work countless hours on the project,” he said. A pair of grants from Richland County have allowed Berry’s team to purchase equipment, and they’re nearing their initial goal of having the plane ready to be exhibited at a museum – which could happen by the fall.
“This B-25 won’t fly again due to being submerged for so long. It would take huge sums of money to rebuild the internal structure to airworthy condition. You could probably buy one or two flying B-25s for what it would cost,” Berry said. “Plus, we think this aircraft, having such a unique local relic quality, is too valuable to be possibly severely damaged.”
Its cockpit now completely restored, volunteers are moving on to the bombardier’s and navigator’s areas of the B-25.
“Our plane is the only World War II plane that we know of that has never left the state it was shipped to directly from the factory,” said Katherine Cuddy, a South Carolina Historic Aviation board member.
South Carolina and the Doolittle Raiders have an inextricable relationship. In February 1942, the U.S. Army Air Corps’ 17th Bombardment Group was stationed in Columbia for advanced combat training of B-25 Mitchells.
A year before Rossman’s plane plunged into Lake Greenwood, another B-25 sank to the bottom of Lake Murray, where it remains today.
Rossman played a key role in helping to get his airplane back into form, and his children remain active with the foundation.
The Roswell, Georgia native also painted a dramatic — and somewhat graphic — scene in the moments after the plane struck water.
“I remember feeling something hit my head, and what that something hitting my head is Blackie Wallace going through the airplane, and Blackie Wallace has a gash on his cheek, three or four inches long, and I could see his teeth through it,” Rossman said. “He had been lying back on the navigator’s desk behind the cockpit listening to reports about D-Day on the low-frequency radio, and what I felt was him coming forward. How he survived, I don’t know.”
Berry said the recovered B-25, in addition to “being a unique relic representing South Carolina’s rich aviation history,” has another layer of significance given the remarkable coincidence of it going down on D-Day — thousands of miles from the battlefield.
“I do think the accident occurring on D-day does add to the mystique as Dan had mentioned some of the guys on board that day were listening to AM radio coverage of the huge event in Europe unfolding. It really completes the story and helps you visualize daily life during wartime,” Berry said.