by Nancy Kurtz, National Register Coordinator
In the early morning of January 13, 1964, a B-52D bomber, call sign “Buzz One Four,” with a crew of five and carrying two thermonuclear bombs, crashed in a blizzard on Savage Mountain in Garrett County. Two of the crew of five survived. The bombs were found intact in the wreckage.
On Saturday, July 12, 2014, in the fiftieth anniversary year of the crash, family members of the Buzz One Four crew and local residents gathered at the Little Crossings Memorial on the National Road in Grantsville to remember and honor the crew members.
I had coordinated assistance from the Governor’s Commission on Maryland Military Monuments to repair monuments to two of the crew members, the marble memorials commemorating the lives of Major Robert E. Townley and Major Robert L. Payne.
Many in the large crowd that gathered with family members of the crew recalled the rescue and recovery of that tragic week, when the community united to help. By the time the Air Force arrived the first afternoon, the people had organized the volunteer community response and were searching the area.
In the days that followed the crash searchers bivouacked in the American Legion hall, fire hall, school and church. Thousands of meals were prepared by the Lutheran Church Women of St. John’s.
At the recent memorial service, as the people of Garrett expressed their gratitude to family members of the flight crew who had made the supreme sacrifice fifty years ago, so also did the families express their appreciation for the devotion and love shown to them by the citizens of Garrett.
The story began just over fifty years ago when Flight Buzz One Four was returning to Georgia from Massachusetts, the final leg following a nuclear alert mission over Europe. This was during the Cold War, when the Strategic Air Command had ordered loaded B-52 bombers to be airborne twenty-four hours a day, flying their routes close to Soviet airfields in an effort at deterrence.
The plane encountered severe wind turbulence over southwestern Pennsylvania. The vertical fin, which had developed a pattern of failure in such conditions in other B-52 craft, was shorn off, causing the crew to bail out in the storm. The pilot, Major Thomas McCormick, and co-pilot, Captain Parker C. “Mack” Peedin, ejected and survived; the navigator, Major Robert L. Payne, and gunner, Technical Sergeant Melvin D. Wooten, ejected and survived the crash but died of exposure before they could be found; the radar navigator, Major Robert E. Townley, was unable to eject and went down with the plane.
Grantsville area residents mobilized in sub-zero weather and deep snow to assist the air and ground rescue teams in a five-day effort to rescue and recover the crew members of Buzz One Four.
From where he landed, Major McCormick was able to take a compass reading on distant lights, shelter overnight, and wade two miles through the snow the next day to reach a farmhouse on Route 40. Captain Peedin sheltered for two nights and was able to signal a search plane.
Major Payne was found on the third day of searching in Savage River State Forest, three miles from where he had landed. He had frozen to death at the edge of Poplar Lick Run. It took the local search party six hours to drag him by makeshift sled over the rough terrain to the road. He is memorialized by a marble monument dedicated July 4, 1964, on the site where he was found, 2 ½ miles down an ORV trail from New Germany Road.
Major Townley was recovered from the wreckage of the plane near Pine Swamp Road west of Barton. He is memorialized with a marble monument at the crash site, dedicated on July 4, 1965. Both the Payne and Townley monuments had deteriorated over the years, due to weathering and vandalism.
Sergeant Wooten came down injured but alive in a meadow known as the Dye Factory Field near Salisbury, Pennsylvania. Although he was 200 yards beyond a line of houses, in the darkness he freed himself from his parachute and crawled toward the lights of town, his access blocked by the Casselman River, where he died. He was found four days after the crash. Wooten is memorialized by a granite monument in West Salisbury, Pennsylvania, dedicated on September 27, 1964.
Shortly after the crash the Pentagon had given assurance that the nuclear warheads had been designed with safeguards to prevent accidental detonation. Ray Giconi, owner of the local quarry, took two dump trucks and a huge fork lift to the site and gently placed each bomb in a truck lined with mattresses from a boys’ camp.
On July 4, 1964, a granite monument was installed by the Mountain District of the American Legion, Department of Maryland, at Little Crossings in Grantsville. Still in good condition, it is dedicated in memory of, and tribute to, the crew and, “to the citizens of this area who gave their time and their energy and their skill, for more than five days in sub-zero weather and deep snow, to assist the air and ground rescue teams in recovering the victims” of the crash.
For a detailed account of the Buzz One Four story, see “Bomber Down” by David Wood, Newhouse News Service, published in the Washington Post Magazine, August 8, 1999. The article, crew biographies and photo gallery of conservation and repair of the Townley and Payne monuments are found at http://buzzonefour.org/.