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80 years ago | Arkansas heroes continue to honor WWII crash victims

A replica B-17 bomber sits along a quiet county road honoring the sacrifice of nine crew members who crashed in 1943.

SHERIDAN, Ark. — Despite their names, the two best-known memorials from World War II are far from the Continental U.S. Omaha Beach and The U.S.S. Arizona, which are now considered sacred ground after a global conflict that largely spared the American homefront.

But there remain a few signs of sacrifice nearby, including an amazing memorial of a B-17 crash that took place outside Sheridan that will soon mark its 80th anniversary.

"December 7, 1941, was when we got involved in the war, and so this was March 12, 1943," Nelson Mears said referring to the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Pearl Harbor is a day that will live in infamy and it's also the day a wartime tragedy came to Arkansas.

"By the time they circled and started to come down to make a landing, the engine was on fire so bad," Mears said. "The plane was breaking apart basically."

Mears recounts details of the crash of an American B-17 "Flying Fortress" 80 years ago. He's the historian for a hidden memorial and replica of the plane that springs up alongside Grant County Road 51.

"I wanted to find out about the nine guys that died here, the crew members," Mears said. "I wanted to find out why the plane crashed here."

That drive to learn more coincided with efforts by community leaders and fellow members of American Legion Post 30 to bring something that had become more of a footnote from the war back into full view.

"The plane is almost full scale, and we had a lot of the biggest part of it done by work-release inmates from the jail," Post 30 member Gary Kelley said. "We worked four or five, six years from their original dirt work to completion."

And that completion is a far cry from what stood there before, with a modest stone noting the nine "flyboys"— emphasis on boys— with the oldest among them just 26 years old.

According to Mears, the flight was doomed and the crew knew it. They would fly from Kansas to Florida to join another squadron and then rush overseas to join the fight. 

However, in the rush the plane's engines were faulty. Mears referred to letters sent home from the crew that said as much.

Despite that knowledge, the plane took off facing as much danger as if ordered to make a run over enemy anti-aircraft.

"The goal was to the mission and defeating the Germans and the war effort," Mears said regarding the pressure to get warplanes over to Europe. "They were willing to sacrifice so many of them, and the crew members would fly planes that they knew were bad."

Mears said he still keeps in touch with the surviving family members. Before the replica and park, he said they associated this place with sadness, but now, that's changed.

"All of the family members appreciate the fact that their loved ones that died in this crash are not forgotten," Mears said. "They're forever part of Grant County. They're part of our community now on the earth."

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