How a WWII bomber crash in Colorado hit home

B-24 trainees (from left) bombardier Leonard A. Kuther, navigator Billy G. Adams, co-pilot Robert E. Cockrell, pilot Charles H. Everett, air engineer Furnifeld M. Simmons, nose gunner Arthur E. Nixon, top turret gunner Dale M. Baird, radio operator John D. DiMarino, and ball turret gunner John L. Weidrick. The photo was taken February 25, 1944, at Peterson Field in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

The trouble on the B-24 started when its radio shorted out, sparking a fire on the flight deck and knocking out the interphone that kept crew members in touch. The four-engine bomber left the formation of other Liberators creasing the sky high above Colorado and descended to 10,000 feet. Below lay the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains and, in the distance, Peterson Field, where the Army Air Forces training mission originated.

Suddenly, No. 3 engine, driving the inboard propeller on the right wing, began spewing gasoline. The pilot shut it down, feathered the propeller and headed for the airfield. Radio operator John DiMarino, from his table directly behind the pilot and co-pilot, told the top turret gunner to get into position for an emergency landing.

The photo was in the attic of Mom’s rancher outside Downingtown, Pennsylvania, where she had lived for sixty-nine years. I found it after she moved to assisted living, while we were cleaning out the place to prepare it for sale. The eight-by-ten glossy print shows the crew of a B-24 Liberator in their flight suits, lined up in front of their heavy bomber, looking serious. A mountain range is in the hazy background. There’s no credit on the photo, but it appears to have been taken by an Army Air Forces photographer.

Along the bottom, someone had used a red pen to identify each man by his position – bombardier, navigator, co-pilot and so on. On the back, again in red, are the names of the crew, along with their ages, home states, the date the photo was taken, February 25, 1944, and the place, Peterson Field, Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Josephine Venditta

Mom had penciled in that John DiMarino, identified as the radio operator (second from right in the photo) was engaged to my dad’s older sister Josephine Venditta and was killed. I found a photo (right) of Aunt Josie with the crew picture.

DiMarino is on the Chester County Hall of Heroes website. It has a write-up on him because his hometown was Devon, which is in the county and on Philadelphia’s Main Line. The story says he was killed aboard a B-24J Liberator when it crash-landed due to engine failure, five miles north of Peterson Field. The accident happened April 5, 1944, less than six weeks after the crew’s picture was snapped.

It made me sad to learn there had been such a tragedy in Aunt Josie’s young life. She was only eighteen when her fiancée died. He was twenty and never got a chance to fight in World War II.

“Johnny was a nice-looking guy,” said my Aunt Patty, one of Josie and my dad’s younger sisters. “He was an Italian and lived in Devon. We all knew him. The families knew one another.”

She didn’t know how Johnny and Josie met. It might have been at Tredyffrin-Easttown High School.

“They started to date and got engaged,” Patty said. “He died and she went on with her life.”

Patty was ten at the time. She said Josie gave her engagement ring to their mother, who had it enlarged and wore it on her own finger. What became of the ring when Grandmom died in 1966? We don’t know.

I’ve always thought my dad’s big Italian family in Malvern, Pennsylvania, was as big as they come – he, Josie and Patty were among a dozen children. But then there was Johnny DiMarino’s family – seventeen children.

Johnny’s parents came from the same town, Torricella Peligna in the Abruzzo region of central Italy. Mariano DiMarino came to America in the 1890s, and Maria followed him in 1904. They were married in Philadelphia that year and moved to Greensburg in western Pennsylvania, where John Dominick DiMarino was born May 18, 1923. The family moved to Devon. Johnny’s dad died there at the close of 1930.

John D. DiMarino

Johnny attended Tredyffrin-Easttown High — he’s in the freshman class photo in the 1938 yearbook – but didn’t graduate. According to the Army enlistment card he filled out, he worked for American Non-Gran Bronze Corporation in Berwyn. The company made bearings and bushings for cars, trucks and planes, including Charles Lindbergh’s history-making Spirit of St. Louis.

In the summer of 1942, Johnny registered for the draft. By the end of the year, he was with the Army Air Forces and went on to become a radio operator and gunner. A week after his death on the training flight in 1944, a Requiem Mass was celebrated at the Catholic Church of the Assumption in Strafford. He was buried in Philadelphia National Cemetery.

His mom survived him by three decades. She died at age ninety-four.

The Air Force Historical Research Agency at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, has accident reports from World War II to 1956. I emailed and got a digital version of the report on what happened to Johnny DiMarino’s plane. It’s twenty-four pages long, part of a compilation titled Aircraft Accident and Incident Reports: 1941 thru 1948.

When I read the account, there was an immediate disconnect not entirely unexpected. The picture of the B-24 crew taken just weeks before the fatal crash shows nine fliers. But there were eight men on the bomber that crashed. (B-24s typically had a crew of eight to ten.)

Two of those in the photo were not on the doomed B-24 — bombardier Leonard A. Kuther (at the far left) and ball turret gunner John L. Weidrick (far right). One man who is not in the photo but was on the plane was gunner Andrew F. Krempusch.

According to the accident report, at 3:14 p.m. on April 5, 1944, the B-24J made a forced emergency landing five miles north of Peterson Field. It crashed and burned, killing five men. Three crew members, all of them gunners, escaped injury.

Here’s who was on the B-24:

1st Lieutenant Charles H. Everett, pilot, age 27, from Georgia (fourth from left in pix) KILLED

2nd Lieutenant Robert E. Cockrell, co-pilot, age 23, from Mississippi (third from left) KILLED

2nd Lieutenant Billy G. Adams, navigator, age 25, from Texas (second from left) KILLED

Staff Sergeant Furnifeld M. Simmons, air engineer, age 32, from North Carolina (fifth from left) KILLED

Staff Sergeant John D. DiMarino, radio operator, age 20, from Pennsylvania (second from right) KILLED

Staff Sergeant Andrew F. Krempusch, tail gunner, age and home state not known (not shown in pix) NOT HURT

Sergeant Dale M. Baird, top turret gunner, age 27, from Pennsylvania (third from right) NOT HURT

Sergeant Arthur E. Nixon, gunner, age 21, from Texas (fourth from right) NOT HURT (The report doesn’t specify which gun he manned.)

The ages above were how old the men were at the time the photo was taken, so they might not all be accurate. All eight were with the 2nd Air Force, which conducted basic military and technical training. Their unit was the 214th Combat Crew Training Squadron, Section III, at Peterson Field.

Photo from the accident report shows the wrecked B-24J burning.

Now, here’s what the report says happened:

After No. 3 engine was shut down and the propeller feathered, the plane returned to Peterson Field and dropped two flares while passing over it at about 2,500 feet. The flares meant the plane would have to make an emergency landing and that radio contact was impossible.

In his statement, Sergeant Baird, the top turret gunner, said: “Shortly after Number 3 engine was feathered, the radio operator [DiMarino] told me to take my position for emergency landing … so I took my position.”

The page from the accident report that has the investigators’ findings

Several planes were in the traffic pattern. The pilot, Lieutenant Everett, decided to make a long approach to give the tower time to clear the field. Soon after the plane passed over it, Number 4 engine — the outboard engine on the right wing — started smoking badly and apparently lost all of its power. The plane veered to the right and back again. Everett continued heading away from the field, with the plane losing altitude all the while.

“Evidently he held this heading too long before turning back to the field for an emergency landing, because soon after the turn, the plane crashed while nearing the field,” the report says. “Airplane complete wreck.”

Sergeant Nixon gave a statement saying he and the two other gunners who escaped unhurt tried to get others out of the burning wreckage. “After the crash, there were still three alive,” he wrote. “We tried to get everyone out, but it was impossible to get to them. The co-pilot told us to get away.”

An undated photo of Josie with my dad, Carmine J. Venditta. Dad was a senior at Tredyffrin-Easttown High School, bound for the Coast Guard, when his sister’s fiancee was killed in the B-24 crash.

Six officers who investigated the crash focused on the failure of the Number 4 engine and found that one of two things or a combination of both caused it. “First, that either the pilot applied excessive power to this engine, causing detonation when Number 3 engine was feathered, or, secondly, material failure occurred on this engine due to previous abuse by another crew.”

The officers also laid some blame on Everett, saying “he could have reached the field with 2,500 feet of altitude when directly over it, which was about the same time Number 4 engine started smoking and losing power.”

Corrective action, according to the investigators, was this: To all fliers, stress the importance of never going farther than gliding distance from the field when operating on fewer than four engines “once you reach the field with sufficient altitude to land.”

In trying to picture Johnny’s last moments, I assumed that because he had told the top turret gunner to brace for impact, he too got into position for an emergency landing. But what was that position for a radio operator?

 To find out, I got a digital version of Primary Flight Instructions for the B-24 from the AirCorps Library in Minnesota, but the manual didn’t have the answer. AirCorps data/library specialist Ester Aube jumped in to help me.

“That info would usually be contained in a flight manual like the one you downloaded,” she emailed. “I did some more searching, though, and found a slightly more detailed description in a manual that I have called Emergency Procedures for PB4Y-2. The PB4Y was a slight variation of the B-24 used by the Navy, so presumably the information is the same for ditching techniques.”

Ernie Beam was an Army Air Forces M.P. in North Africa.

The PB4Y manual’s entry for radio operator says this about how he gets ready for a crash landing: “To assume his ditching position, the radioman sits on the radio table, facing aft, with back and head braced firmly against radio equipment rack; feet should be placed in radio operator’s chair, legs slightly bent.”

Is that what Johnny did? Is that where he was when he died?

Josie lost the young man she wanted to marry, but as Aunt Patty put it, she got on with her life. She married Ernie Beam, a boarder at the Venditta house in Malvern and an Army Air Forces veteran who served mainly in North Africa as a military policeman. They had two sons, my cousins Mike and Bill.

Aunt Josie died in 1995, Uncle Ernie in 2020.

Johnny DiMarino’s death in a training accident doesn’t diminish his sacrifice. He lost his life honorably in the service of his country.

18 responses to “How a WWII bomber crash in Colorado hit home

  1. Thanks for preserving the past and honoring the Fallen.

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  2. Pingback: How a WWII Bomber Crash in Colorado Hit Home – Lest We Forget II

  3. Dad really enjoyed reading this post ( me too) . Thank you so much for sharing!

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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  4. John Di Marino

    Wow, I always wondered about my Uncle John. I knew he died in a plane crash during WW2 and that’s all. My dad, Angelo and his family never talked about it. Thank You so much for this story. I am sending it out to my family. If it wasn’t for that crash , we would be cousins.

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    • Hi John. Thanks for writing. I’m glad my post caught your attention, and that I was able to shed light on what happened to your uncle. Such a tragedy that touched both of our families, but you can be proud of him. He took on a dangerous job and died for his country.

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  5. Paul DiMarino

    Thank you so much for this. John was my great uncle.

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  6. John A DiMarino

    Thank you for posting, it’s exciting to hear more history on my family. Everything has always been such a mystery.

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    • Hi John, thanks for writing. You’re one of several DiMarinos I’ve heard from in the last day. It’s gratifying to know that I contributed to your family’s understanding of what happened to Johnny.

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  7. Thankyou for this chilling information .. John was my uncle. I was two years old when he died however I was always interested in gathering info regarding his life. I do have the original telegram sent to my grandmother (John’s Mom) announcing his death. Thankyou once again …Joan DiMarino Delaney.

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    • Hi Joan, thanks for your note. I’ve heard from others in the DiMarino family in the last day. It’s gratifying to know that I shed some light on what happened to Johnny, and his connection to my own family. If you would like me to add the telegram to my post, you could send a digital image or a hard copy in the mail. Just let me know. Take care.

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  8. Steven DiMarino

    You know more about our family than we do. Thanks for writing this up.

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  9. Thanks for the note, Steven. I’ve gotten several messages in the past few days from DiMarinos. It’s good to hear from yet another one, and to know I’ve shined a light on a tragic figure who connected our two families.

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