Years before sailor heads to Alaska, a tragedy in the air

Second of three parts

Early aviation buffs (from left) Ralph Hannum, Cliff Young, J. Edwin “Eddie” Mendenhall and Walter Hannum in the mid-1920s at Cliff’s home near Marshallton, Pennsylvania. Ralph was Walter’s uncle, but they were the same age and thought of each other as brothers. Eddie was Walter’s cousin, Ralph’s nephew.

Walter Hannum was just a toddler when his mother died. She was in her late twenties and had taught in Chester County public schools. A newspaper story said she had been ill for six weeks with typhoid fever. It described her as “an estimable woman … of a high Christian character and greatly esteemed by all who knew her.”

Obituary for Walter’s mom, who died June 28, 1915

Until his dad remarried several years later, Walter lived on his grandparents’ dairy farm in Downingtown, Pennsylvania. His father had a young brother named Ralph, who was the same age as Walter.

“He was my uncle, but he was only three months older than myself. So we were raised together, and he was more like a brother.”

They would grow up to share an interest in motorcycles and airplanes. But early on, they did chores on the eighteen-acre farm, where the Hannums had three horses and twelve to fourteen cows.

“You went out and hoed corn and picked the bugs off the vines. You kept busy. Ralph and I didn’t get in on the milking back then, but there was a hand pump to pump water. Up in the attic was a big wooden tank, and every evening we had to fill that tank. And this pump, Ralph and I couldn’t work the handle ourselves, so we had to team up to pump this water. And of course, where they watered the cattle, that trough had to be filled. So that was our job every day.”

Initially, Granddad Hannum resisted new technology.

“A way back, the horses were used in the field to plow and pull the wagons, mowers, hay rakes, everything. Dad got to talking about a Fordson tractor. Granddad said no, that they weren’t good for the ground because they packed it down from the weight, when you plowed or harrowed with them.”

He gave in after a big farm nearby got a Fordson.

The Hannums’ 1917 Fordson tractor

“Ralph and I used to go up and run it, like for crops, because they liked a kid on there, because they used the men for the heavy work. Ralph and I would get to fighting over whose turn it was to drive it.”

Walter’s dad bought a 1917 Fordson at an auction for $90. It had iron wheels. The entire differential unit was lying on the ground when he made his bid, and he didn’t know what, if anything, was wrong with it. He took the part home and installed it. The tractor ran fine. Walter and Ralph later improved it with rubber tires.

Walter was a lanky lad with a crinkly grin. Sometimes his granddad had him smarting and scratching his head.

“He had these leather slippers with elastic inside. And you talk about a man with a fast draw! He could whip one of them off and crack you across the back before you knew what. Times I stood there and wondered, well, what was this for? Something I did. I wasn’t always sure.”

Walter Hannum

In time, he thought highly of farm life.

“I look back, and I think it was a good way to be brought up.”

Still, his eyes were on flying machines. As kids, he and Ralph would stand out in the field and gawk at the old Jennys flying overhead. The Jenny biplanes were cheap and available after the First World War. Then once, there was a big, old LWF biplane at the far end of the field.

“Ralph and I had been fussing so much about flying, Grandmother Hannum got in her sugar bowl and she got out $12 for us. It was $6 apiece for a ride. The thing held four. Ralph and I had to face the back. Two people faced the front. We had a ride, and Grandmother figured that would quiet us down. But it didn’t. That was it.”

Walter’s dad, Bill Hannum, remarried in 1921, and the family moved to a house up the hill, across from Northwood Cemetery. Bill and the former Clara Pierce had met at a square-dance. They went on to have two daughters, my Aunt Hilda and my mom, Elizabeth.

Walter’s dad, my grandfather Bill Hannum

During his first and only year of high school, Walter helped an older friend, Cliff Young, build a little biplane. Walter made ribs for the wings instead of studying at night. When he quit school, he signed on as an apprentice in the pattern shop at Downingtown Manufacturing, and stayed with it until Cliff drew him away to a dream job working on airplanes.

Cliff had gotten a job in the experimental department at the Bellanca aircraft factory in New Castle, Delaware. He brought Walter, now about eighteen, into the company. Walter moved into Cliff’s farmhouse near Marshallton, a village about four miles from Downingtown.

“Then I got short on clothes. Cliff brought me home in the Model T. I got the clothes, and my dad gave me the devil.”

Bill told his son, “Those airplanes are no good. You can’t use them for a thing. It’s just some guys fooling around, and you’ll never amount to a damn if you follow that job. You go back and learn your trade – pattern-making.”

Walter did as he was told.

 “It was just as well. The Depression hit, and airplane factories closed up. At least at Downingtown, we were making parts for paper machinery three days a week or three days every other week.”

He kept tinkering with planes and going aloft in them, but not always safely. Once, he and Cliff crashed through a post-and-rail fence during takeoff when a headwind kept them from clearing a stone house. Neither was hurt, but the propeller was broken and the landing gear and bottom wing were damaged.

And then about 11 a.m. on August 9, 1931, the unthinkable happened.

“Cliff had got ahold of a real nice, modern biplane, not a world war surplus. It had a big V-8 water-cooled engine with ninety horsepower, and could haul three people.

“So one Sunday morning, I’m goin’ down the road in my hot ’29 Chevy roadster, and I stopped at Granddad’s, and young Eddie Mendenhall come out. Now he was a cousin, he was just fifteen at the time, and he wanted to go with me over to Cliff’s to fly. He was interested in aviation too.

Fifteen-year-old Eddie Mendenhall of Downingtown and the wrecked biplane, as shown in the Daily Local News of West Chester. The crash on August 9, 1931, killed Eddie and seriously injured Walter Hannum and pilot Cliff Young. The newspaper described Eddie as “one of the town’s promising young lads.” He played football at Downingtown High School.

“Cliff  had his plane there in the field by the barn. Eddie and I got in the front seat, side by side and facing forward. Cliff fired her up and we went flying. Half an hour later, when we came back to land, the engine quit at around 300 feet, and the plane went into a spin. A spin is very simple: If you get that airplane too slow to stay in the air, one side will quit flying first.”

The plane, a Challenger, spiraled into a field, hitting on its nose.

Four men, two of them Cliff’s relatives, hurried to the wreck. So did a friend of Walter’s, who sped there in Walter’s roadster, crashing through farmers’ fences. He found Walter sticking out between the plane’s firewall and gas tank. The engine had smashed back into the forward seats.

Eddie was the worst off. He had broken bones in both legs and both feet, and a fractured skull. He died four hours later in the Homeopathic Hospital of West Chester, where the three fliers had been taken by car.

Cliff, at the controls, had been seated behind Eddie and Walter. When the plane hit the ground, his head snapped forward, and the safety belt knocked out all of his teeth, Walter said.

With no sensitivity, an Associated Press story the next day said Cliff, who was thirty-eight, “suffered many broken bones and shock from which he is expected to die.” But he hung on, and during eight months in Abington Memorial Hospital, he underwent three surgeries.

Gawkers at the crash site near the village of Marshallton

“He never did recover,” Walter said. “Four years later, he died.”

Walter’s injuries included lacerations on his face, bone fractures in his left foot and right ankle, and a broken jaw. He believed he survived because Eddie, seated beside him, cushioned him on impact.

“I think his body protected me when we went in.”

My mom, who was just shy of three years old, says that seeing her brother all bandaged up frightened her.

So, why did the plane’s engine quit? Walter knew the answer.

“It was carburetor ice. In them days, they knew nothing about it. It was in August, and who would’ve thought you’d have ice in the carburetor in August?”

In the Homeopathic Hospital, Walter met student nurse Emma Collier, a 1928 graduate of Radnor High School. “Emma is a girl who, no matter what happens, is always ready to laugh” and has a “musical giggle,” according to the yearbook blurb alongside her photo. She was an athlete, with a letter in track. “In jumping, she cannot be excelled,” the blurb’s writer said.

Emma Collier (standing, second from left) as a student nurse at the Homeopathic Hospital of West Chester

Walter had a couple of dates with Emma after he got into shape. He courted her with his Chevy roadster, taking her to movies at the Warner Theater in West Chester. But there was a hurdle: She had a boyfriend. Walter talked with him one night about automobiles and soon had him out of the picture.

“I kind of overcome him. He lost out,” he said with that crinkly grin.

Often, Walter didn’t have enough gas money for his car, so he rode his Harley to see Emma.

“Her parents lived down back of Paoli, so I’d bum a quarter off my dad – I could buy a lot of gasoline with a quarter back then for a motorcycle – so I’d go down to see her on the motorcycle. So then her parents, they made me park it out on the main road and walk in, because I guess they didn’t want the neighbors to know that Emma went with a lowlife that rode a motorcycle.”

In 1932, the year after the plane crash, Walter was riding his Harley on Baltimore Pike one Sunday morning when someone in a Buick roadster pulled out from a stop sign and hit him. That was the end of the motorcycle. Walter was banged up, too, and landed in the hospital again.

Emma and Walter on the Fourth of July 1934, three months after their wedding

He and Emma were married on April 12, 1934, but on the sly because she was still a student nurse and would have been canned if word got out. The students’ house mother knew about the nuptials but covered for Emma.

Walter told his dad about getting hitched and had a moment of dismay.

“Well, there’s no use in telling you anything,” Bill told his son in disgust, and walked away. Then he turned to come back and said, “Well, she seems like a nice girl. I think you’ll be all right.”

The couple lived for a few years in an apartment above a garage on Downingtown’s Brandywine Avenue, then rented a bungalow along Route 113 owned by Walter’s Aunt Marie for $20 a month.

Walter was still working at Downingtown Manufacturing, where on March 7, 1931, he had completed four years’ pattern apprenticeship and the vice president wrote, “We cheerfully recommend him as trustworthy and competent.”

When his “brother” Ralph bought a plane, a Taylor J-2 Cub, while working in Ohio, Walter and a pal became part owners for $200 apiece. Ralph brought the Cub to the Main Line Airport in Malvern, where Walter took flying lessons. In 1941, he got his pilot’s license.

Four years later, with Walter in the Navy and World War II almost won, he left Washington state’s Whidbey Island for Adak in the Aleutians. He found out what “further transfer” meant.

He was going to Attu.

Part 3 coming Friday, August 13

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