Mystery still surrounds South Tyrone’s only aviation disaster linked to World War II

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Mystery still surrounds the only aviation disaster in South Tyrone linked to World War II, the crash of an American airplane at Killeeshil on July 1, 1945.

Crowds attending a Sunday Orange Service at Clonaneese Church were distracted by the thunderous sound of the low flying plane struggling over the rolling hills of South Tyrone and narrowly missing the chimneys of McCammon’s farmhouse.

Minutes later, stragglers of the procession rushed to the crash scene but it was too late to save the young pilot Flight Lieutenant Fred Barton of the US airforce.

At 23, Barton was hugely experienced and had completed more than 30 missions - many in the B17 Flying Fortress over Germany, before transferring to his final assignment as a test pilot at Langford Lodge, Co Antrim.

He had come close to death many times in less than 12 months flying ‘war weary’ planes that were being reserviced for action.

Another life was beckoning in the US with a young wife and family, but sadly Fred never got to see his son Fred Jr, who is still alive, and in touch with Killeeshil and Clonaneese Historical Society over plans to build a memorial to his father. It is not clear why the plane crashed, but it is believed it experienced some sort of operational fault.

“The tragedy is that the war was already over with Germany’s surrender, when Fred took off that bright Sunday morning”, said Jonathan Bell, who will be telling the story at Killymaddy Centre on Tuesday March 22 at 8pm.

“I believe he tried to belly flop the plane on a flat piece of land just over Bunker’s Hill, one of the only level areas in the area. Unfortunately, he had lost too much height. The plane’s nose struck the ground, bounced up the hill and exploded into flames, scattering debris over 300 hundred yards.

“Fred had cheated death many times and it is very sad that he died after the war ended when many of US airforce colleagues also based in Crumlin were returning home.

“We know that the weather was fair on the day he took off, and visibility good. It was a miracle that a major disaster was averted and the plane did not strike local houses.

“The Killeeshil and Clonaneese Historical Society want to erect a memorial close to the crash scene to mark this young man’sacrifice.”

Fred’s remains were repatriated to the US in 1948 and buried at a cemetery in Atlanta.