Siblings Scott Smernis, of Islamorada, and Kim Strong, of Texas, visit the site where their father's Air Force plane crashed near the future site of Palm Beach International Airport in February of 1956. (Meghan McCarthy / The Palm Beach Post )

In 1956, five Air Force crewmen died in a fiery crash off Belvedere Road. Sixty years later, the pilot's children return to honor the man they never got to know.

By Eliot Kleinberg

Palm Beach Post staff writer
Sunday, Sept. 4, 2016

 

Scott Smernis, walked, bouquet in hand, to the edge of a grass field along the northwest runway at Palm Beach International Airport. Kim Strong bent and jabbed five small U.S. flags into the ground in a circle, then took the flowers from her brother and laid them in the center. She straightened up, wiping tears from the inside of her sunglasses.

And then Scott pointed off into the distance.

(Meghan McCarthy / The Palm Beach Post )

To the spot in the sky where Andy Smernis worked his hands and feet and brain and fought to bring in that giant military plane, even as he saw from the corner of his eye that flames were shooting from its left wing. The spot where he fought not to drop into the homes below. Fought to reach that runway. Fought to bring himself and his four crewmates home to their families.

He nearly made it. And died trying.

"It's so pretty and green now," Scott said, gazing over the quiet runway and the field beyond. "It's hard to think of the field on fire. And the bodies. Including my dad."

Scott was two years old, his sister seven, when a U.S. Air Force KC-97 Stratofreighter plane, a long-range heavy military cargo aircraft based on the B-29 bomber, slammed to the ground just short of the runway, killing the pilot and four others on Feb. 21, 1956.

Last month, the siblings came for the first time ever to the spot where that crash six decades ago claimed the life of the father Scott never knew.

In saluting their dad, the two also honored a man who, as a teenage military policeman, had dragged Andrew Smernis, already dead, smoke pouring from his uniform, away from heat so intense it melted the MP's shoe polish.

In all its years as an airport, there has never been a fatal commercial plane crash at PBIA. But in 1956, while it was Palm Beach Air Force Base, it had two military ones. One in August killed three people. And then there was the one in February, with Scott and Kim's dad at the helm.

A 1957 aerial view of the Palm Beach Air Force base. (Bob Rabe/The Palm Beach Post)

The Crew: Five Family Men

Captain Andrew B. Smernis

Captain Andrew B. Smernis, 35, grew up in the St. Louis area and worked climbing poles for the phone company before becoming a flyboy. In his 20s, during World War II, he flew the China-Burma-India route, supplying Chinese rebels fighting the Japanese. After the war, he was part of the Berlin Airlift, dropping supplies to German civilians cut off by the Soviet Union. He spent time stationed in Hawaii and California, where Kim was born in 1948. Later, Andrew got assigned to the base in West Palm Beach. Scott was born at Good Samaritan Hospital in 1954.

"He was gone a lot," Kim Strong said. She said her mother Edna once calculated she'd been apart from her husband for a combined five of the 10 years they were married. But, Kim said, Andrew Smernis "was happy. He was bubbly. He had a laugh that made everybody laugh."

And, she said, "my parents were madly in love."

A 1955 holiday photo shows Andrew and Edna in West Palm Beach with their children. Fifty-three days after that Christmas, Andrew Smernis would be dead.

1955 holiday photo of Edna and Andrew Smernis and children Kim (left) and Scott

 

Clockwise from upper left: Meredith, McLeod, and McDeid. We were unable to locate a photo of James.

The second pilot was another World War II veteran, Earl Wellington Meredith, Jr., 36, an only child born in Oneida County, Wisconsin, near Green Bay. Married in 1942, he had three children and a stepdaughter, living in Sacramento. In September 1954, Meredith and another pilot were flying 15 reserve chaplains from Burbank to Sacramento when a fire broke out on their C46 transport plane. The pilots got all the chaplains into parachutes — none had jumped before — and didn't leave the doomed plane until all the clergymen were praying their way down to a safe landing.

The co-pilot, Second Lieutenant Thomas Dee McLeod, 25, of North Dakota, was married with a wife and child.

The flight engineer, Technical Sergeant William Edward McDeid, 27, also from North Dakota, had a wife and two children.

The panel engineer, Master Sergeant John Harold James, 34, was part of a large family; one brother and seven sisters. He'd married in 1940 in Montana and was living in Stockton, Calif.

That Fateful Day: "There's One In Trouble"

At just after 4:30 p.m. on Feb. 21, 1956, the temperature was 71 degrees. Wind was from the north at a breezy 18 knots — about 20 mph. Visibility was a sweeping 10 miles.

The crew had flown two hours and 38 minutes, leaving the base at 1:45 p.m., on a routine training mission. The 2-year old plane had been serviced the day before. A separate crew had flown it that morning without incident.

A U.S. Air Force KC-97 Stratofreighter plane. (Historical photo courtesy Boeing.)

Meredith was completing the final phase of instruction in flying the massive cargo plane before transferring to trans-Pacific flights.

On approach to the 6,500-foot runway, Smernis conducted a routine "pull up and go-around." As the Stratofreighter again approached the strip a few minutes later, and was five to seven minutes away from landing, Smernis called to say "Breaking off GCA. I've got trouble." (GCA is "ground controlled approach"). Smernis then called to the control tower to say his Number 2 engine was on fire.

"This was the last communication that the tower received from the aircraft," an accident report said.

Many military families lived in Belvedere Homes, within shouting distance of the base. One military wife told The Palm Beach Post that her husband also flew the Stratofreighter, and she often watched the planes land. She recalled she was in her yard, about three blocks from where the plane would crash, and told her husband, "There's one in trouble." She said she watched flames shoot from the left side.

From official U.S. Air Force accident report of Stratofreighter plane that crashed Feb. 21, 1956 what's now Palm Beach International Airport; an investigator's crude drawing of where the plane's pieces, and the bodies of the crews, came to rest. (U.S. Air Force)

"My husband kept trying to calm me down, and saying he (the pilot) was going to make it," the woman, who asked her name not be used, told the reporter. "He almost did."

The plane — flying at about 163 mph, its bulk and contents totaling 55 tons of momentum — hit a 42-foot-high light pole. At about 660 feet from initial impact, the fuselage and wings separated. Almost immediately, ruptured fuel and oil tanks erupted. Witnesses said that they saw flames shoot 80 feet in the air and that the explosion rattled windows for blocks.

The aircraft staggered another 120 feet in the air, then hit the ground, right wing tip first. As it slid, both wing tips tore off. It shot across Belvedere Road, over a ditch, through a chain-link fence, and onto the base property.

"All five people were thrown clear of the aircraft at impact and killed instantly," the report said, dying of what now would be called blunt trauma.

The wreckage was spread in an oval 640 feet wide and 1,360 feet — a quarter of a mile — long. The cockpit, the accident report said, "had been completely destroyed by impact and subsequent ground fire." One wing continued to burn for a half hour as Air Force workers kept civilians back.

Everyone from soldiers on guard to those directing traffic kept asking: "Who were the boys that went down?" And military wives just couldn't stop weeping. They couldn't stop repeating that it could have been their boy.

The day of the crash, Kim Strong said, "I just remember lots and lots of people coming to the house and a lot of confusion."

Front page of Palm Beach Times from Feb. 22, 1956, shows wreckage of Stratofreighter plane that crashed the previous day what's now Palm Beach International Airport. (Palm Beach Post archives).

The investigation would conclude the fault lay not with the crew. It was an in-flight fire; not in an engine, but in the area of the left wing's leading edge.

"By all estimation, he was an excellent pilot and knew his airplane upside down backwards," said Strong. "I'm sure he did everything possible to get it down."

Then-Palm Beach County Commissioner Ken Foster praised the crew on the week of the crash. "That plane could have crashed in Belvedere Homes or other nearby residential areas, and taken a greater toll of life," Foster said. "The crew showed tremendous courage."

Copies of the accident report, obtained by both Scott Smernis and The Palm Beach Post, remain heavily classified to this day. In Smernis' copy, the Air Force withheld 53 pages of statements and 87 pages of testimony from the crash, most of it from people who likely now are dead. It even, inexplicably, blocked from Smernis something he probably already knows: his father's birth date.

The Rescuer: "Don't Call Me A Hero"

Had the five crew members not been ejected, the report said, the fire in the cockpit likely would have killed them anyway. But if not for Ron Walsh, it could have been hard to tell. The five might have burned to ash.

Ron Walsh was a 19-year-old military policeman.

Walsh, son of a New Bedford, Mass., sea captain, was all of 17 when he got his mother's OK to join the military, as three brothers would as well.

On that day, he recalled in an interview from New England, he was a 19-year-old security officer at Palm Beach Air Force Base. He'd come on duty at 4 p.m. As he rode the perimeter, "a sergeant that was with me commented that, ‘Hey. There's an aircraft. Looks like she's got a problem.'"

Within moments, Walsh said he heard an explosion and saw flame and smoke rise from behind barracks.

"When we got there, the fire trucks had just arrived," he said.

The cockpit was burning furiously, and around it, grass had caught fire. Walsh also saw five bodies. Some were on fire as well.

"He is an amazing man and a hero to us," Scott Smernis told The Post in an e-mail. "He walked into flaming wreckage to pull the crew out."

Walsh said there was no substantial fire around the bodies and all he did was drag them away from the grass fire, so hot it melted the polish on his service boots.

"We were not in danger," Walsh insisted. "Please don't call me a hero. I was doing my duty."

But he did recall that he couldn't bring himself to look at the faces of the dead men. And that he quickly became physically ill. But he kept going.

"They never taught us in the service what to expect. ‘Post-traumatic syndrome,' they call it now," he said. "They just put the uniform on you, and ‘on the job training.'"

Walsh, who will be 80 in January, said those images "stuck with me for 60 years."

The Aftermath: "I Missed Having A Dad"

Andrew Smernis was buried at Oak Grove Cemetery in Bel-Nor, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis. Earl Meredith and John James were buried at a military cemetery in San Bruno, Calif., near San Francisco. Tom McLeod and Bill McDeid were buried 200 miles apart in North Dakota.

Edna Smernis moved to Fort Lauderdale and Kim and Scott attended high school there. Scott went to the University of Florida, and was recruited to the Northwest by Microsoft. A decade after that, he burned out on computers and bought a Harley dealership. Yet another decade passed and he tired of the drizzle. He kept the dealership but moved to the Florida Keys. Kim taught special education and she and her husband raised a son and two daughters in Fort Lauderdale; they retired to a town north of Dallas.

Edna and Andrew Smernis.

Edna died of lung cancer in 1986. She was just 64. Scott says she didn't talk much about her husband's death. And, he said, she never remarried: "Nobody could replace her Andy.

"I definitely missed having a dad. How could you not? But my mom was fantastic," Scott said. "She tried to make sure I was afforded the opportunities and experiences I would have gotten with a father. She didn't have a lot of money by any means. She lived off the benefits and went back to work when I was in high school. I don't feel like there was this huge hole in my life because my dad wasn't there. I know it would have been different had he been."

Does he think his dad is a hero?

"Anybody that joins the military is a hero," he said. "They don't have to do that. They do it out of love for their country."

Andrew Smernis receives Air Medal at Oct. 22, 1945, ceremony in California.

The Air Force eventually left town, and the airport returned to full civilian use in 1961. Runway 14/32, where the crash happened, is used only in bad weather or when the main runway is undergoing maintenance.

Never Forgotten: "Honor Him With A Sharp Military Salute"

Ron Walsh never forgot that burning field in South Florida. Even as he built a career in insurance and then retired 15 years ago, it stayed in his memory. Not so much the grim images. But, rather, thinking about those five family men and the lives they'd never have. And those military wives who daily stood in their front yards, wringing their hands, as their eyes followed those planes in.

Ron Walsh in 2015.

A few years ago, Walsh said, he began looking up military pals on Ancestry.com and other databases. He wondered about the five who died that day in West Palm Beach. He found them on the "Find a Grave" web page. That's how he connected with the Smernis family.

For each of the five entries, Walsh posted that he helped recover the body, and was privileged to do so. Walsh said for him it was the high-tech equivalent of a Jewish tradition he follows, even though he's not Jewish: placing a rock on the marker of a loved one. Or a longtime friend. Or a military buddy. Or someone you perhaps never knew but want to salute.

"Lastly," Ron Walsh wrote Scott Smernis this spring, "when you or your family visit your dad's hallowed ground, please honor him, in my behalf, with a sharp military salute."

On that beautiful day in late August, their first time at this hallowed ground, Scott Smernis and Kim Strong didn't literally salute. But they did the next best thing. After planting the flags and laying the flowers, they stood, silent, lost in thought. Scott's wife Susan came up and rubbed his back, then pressed her head to his chest. Kim's husband Jim, a veteran commercial pilot, stood in respect a few feet away.

"To be here and to see where he left the earth is very humbling," Kim Strong said.

"I only know him through pictures," Scott Smernis said. "This is a way for us to say goodbye to him."

Staff Researcher Melanie Mena contributed to this story.
Sources: Families of the crew; Ron Walsh; U.S. Air Force; Palm Beach Post archives


About the KC-97 Stratofreighter


» First flight: Nov. 9, 1944

» Span: 141 feet 3 inches. Length 117 feet 5 inches (including boom)

» Gross weight: 175,000 pounds

» Top speed: 375 mph. Cruising speed: 300 mph. Range: 4,300 miles. Ceiling: 35,000 feet

» Power: Four 3,500-horsepower P&W Wasp major propeller engines

» Accommodation: four crew, 96 troops or 69 stretchers, tanker equipment


Fatal crashes at PBIA


» It’s believed there's never been a fatal civilian commercial air crash at what's now Palm Beach International Airport.

» The first commercial flight ever from Morrison Field, an Eastern Airlines flight with 11 people aboard that departed the day the field opened in 1936, crashed near Port Jervis, N.Y., en route to Newark, N.J., but remarkably, no one died.

» In December 1943, 14 men were killed when their plane crashed just after leaving Morrison Field. Their story finally was told in 2014 in The Palm Beach Post’s story, "The Forgotten 14."

» The February 1956 fatal Stratofreighter crash was the first of two that year. On Aug. 21, a giant C-124 Globemaster transport plane slammed into a nursery 3 miles southeast of the base, killing three aboard; three others were hurt but walked away.

» On Sept. 12, 1980, a gambling junket flight to the Bahamas with 34 people aboard dropped into the ocean near Freeport. The plane and victims never have been found.

 

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