Twelve enthusiastic young soldiers — with their lives ahead of them — met their fate in the rugged frontier terrain of Central Pasco.
Ten of the men were from the 488th Bomber Group from MacDill Field, flying in a B-17 Flying Fortress on Feb. 28, 1944. The plane crashed, leaving just one survivor.
The other two men each were flying P-51 Mustangs from Bartow Army Air Field on June 8, 1945. They did not survive the crash.
One of the men on the B-17 was Leopold Palm, who was the first German alien to be inducted in the Fifth Army Corps, after begging entry.
As a Jewish citizen of Germany, Palm and his family fled the Nazis to come to the United States in 1942. Palm’s utmost desire was to give back to the country who gave him refuge.
He wrote jubilant letters home about his service, and received medals for marksmanship.
In one letter he said, “As anxious as I was, you will understand how proud I am to be a citizen of the United States… and I am trying to live up to the responsibilities which it brings with it.”
As a local historian and genealogist, I became aware of part of this story in 2015 during research I was doing on the history of Wesley Chapel. While working on that project, I encountered 92-year-old Bill Smith, who shared his deep knowledge of the area.
He told me about the two crashes in Central Pasco.
Smith had seen the wreckage.
He has passed away since our conversation in 2015, but as the widely known radio host Paul Harvey used to say, some of “the rest of the story” recently fell into my lap.
The period leading up to World War II was one of enormous economic strife, following the Great Depression.
It was also a time of escalating scientific milestones, and of secrecy, too. Even President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s handicap was kept from the American people — in a conspiracy partially enabled by the media.
When our country entered World War II on Dec. 8, 1941, preparation had been ongoing to become proficient in rapidly evolving industries.
Part of that involved perfecting aircraft and quickly training pilots.
Taking a step into the distant past
A series of Army Air bases were constructed in Florida — in such places as Zephyrhills, Bartow and Hillsborough County.
In fact, there were 172 military installations across the state.
At the Zephyrhills Air Base, said to be populated by young soldiers in training, the spirit of patriotism was high.
The threat was unlike anything we have seen since domestically except 9/11: German U-boats and submarines were in our Gulf of Mexico.
Flash forward to the present.
On Feb. 26, 2020, a small group gathered at the welcome center at MacDill Air Force Base to meet public relations officer Shannon Bowman.
We met — more than 70 years after the accidents — to piece together other parts of the story. Among those gathered were:
- Linda Ligon Rodgers, who is interested in finding out more about the history of her uncle, John, who was a copilot on the B-17
- Robert Widner and Dennis Cole, who, for years, have been collecting information on the aircraft, runways, training protocols and military data of the day
- Myself and my husband, Ernest, who wanted to fill in gaps in stories shared with us by Smith, who was a veteran, too
At MacDill, Bowman led us past Hangar 3 where the plane was prepared and then to Hangar 5 — two hangars in the base’s historic district.
That’s where we learned about the B-17 crew and the events of their day.
Stephen Ove, MacDill’s official historian, told us that over 20% of the soldiers who had gone through Hangar 5 had not returned.
The historian explained that the B-17 was an extraordinary plane with a long length of service—flying reconnaissance over Normandy and obtaining its name ‘flying fortress’ for its ability to sustain abuse.
It was a war horse.
The 1941 hangar was a history book of facts and information.
Ove recounted that the Boeing B-17 took off at 9 p.m., on Feb. 28, 1944. After two hours of flying, the control tower radioed for the plane to return.
But, instead of arriving at MacDill Air Force Base, the plane collided with trees and crashed northeast of Hillsborough Army Air Field, on K-Bar Ranch. The B-17 careened into the terrain, broke up and burst into flames. Debris scattered over a distance of 520 yards, in a semi-wooded area of the ranch.
Nine fliers were killed and Sgt. Tom E. Norman, was injured seriously, according to base records.
The B-17 careened into the terrain, broke up and burst into flames.
Those killed, close to the midnight hour of that Leap Year, were:
- William P. Alsabrock Jr., flight officer, age 21
- Donald G. Barber, second lieutenant/pilot, age 19
- Larice Lavell Boyle, staff sergeant/flight engineer, age 23
- Twyman W. Harper, private first class/assistant radio operator, age 22
- John Fulton Ligon Jr., second lieutenant/co-pilot, age 25
- Arthur P. O’Connor Jr., second lieutenant/bombardier, age 27
- Ernest Leopold Palm, sergeant/assistant engineer, age 24
- Lawrence R. Siers, sergeant/radio operator, age 21
- Roy D. Stroh, sergeant/tail gunner, age 25
The accident reports, photos of the accident scene and documentation of the plane’s remains are filed away in the historical records at MacDill.
Besides Bill Smith, the late local historian Eddie Herrmann also described the account of the two Mustangs in the 1945 crash. Herrmann was only 9 at the time of the event.
It was mid-day on May 30, 1945, when a squadron of 16 Mustangs flying from Bartow Army Air Field made their way over Pasco County, on their way to Marianna Airfield.
Two P-51 Mustangs made contact in a mid-air collision at about 9,000 feet.
The pilots involved in the crash were Flight Officer John Terry, age 21, of Lakeland, and Second Lt. Robert Walker, age 20, of Great Falls, Montana.
One plane came down in an area near current-day Interstate 75 and State Road 52, while the other crashed south of what’s now known as Bellamy Road.
Researcher Robert Widner has meticulously worked for more than 50 years and was able to pinpoint the site where the plane carrying John Terry went down.
The crashes occurred during an ominous time, in an era where patriotism permeated community cultures, especially in places such as Zephyrhills, where the Army Air Base had a transformative effective on local life.
Undoubtedly these two crashes were acknowledged by many at the time — but perhaps more through quiet prayer and thanksgiving than in flashy outward displays.
With the passage of time, the deep woods of the area are being uncovered with settlement, and it may well be time to acknowledge the deaths of these courageous solders.
Indeed, there are plans to place a plaque somewhere along Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, in one of the local park areas, to pay tribute to their heroism.
During our recent visit to MacDill, despite the long passage of time, we hid moist eyes, as empathy for their tragic end transcended the years.
By Madonna J. Wise
Published April 08, 2020
Teresa Brown says
Thank you for taking the time for this history of our town, and the young Heroes.
Teresa Brown age 38