Tragedy in a P-47

Looking at some of the civilian planes and the visitors to such events as Langley Day, it should be obvious that the aviation world at least was preparing for the conflict that became World War II. By the time that war started, Chet was for the most part out of aviation, back in Chicago running the family business, and getting himself back into the yachting scene that his father left forty years earlier. But others would take to the skies in conflict. World War II was a major leap forward in the role of aviation in warfare, especially for the United States, which stayed out of conflicts such as the Spanish Civil War, the Japanese invasion of China and Italy’s conquest of Ethiopia. For some, however, the “wings of flight” in wartime would end in tragedy, and this is a story of that kind.

Don Gaston Shofner was born 17 September 1921 and grew up in west central Arkansas, where his father worked for the Missouri Pacific Railroad.

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Gaston (as he was called, in good Southern tradition) and my mother Vernell on a maintenance car.

He graduated from Morrilton High School in 1939, and went on to attend Ouachita College in Arkadelphia, AR (later the alma mater of Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.) While there he was in the ROTC and obtained his pilot’s license. After two years there, in 1941, he joined the Army Air Corps.

He received his pre-flight training at Williams Field, AZ, and after that his primary and basic training at the Cal-Aero Flight Academy in Ontario, CA. He went on for further training at Luke Field, AZ, receiving his commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Army Air Corps on 27 August 1942.

Gaston was underwhelmed with the “generic” kinds of services that the Army Air Corps’ chaplains conducted, and went to a Baptist church whenever the opportunity presented itself. In a letter to “Uncle Mac,” a minister back home, he said “…I can truthfully say that I have no fear of death because I have my trust in the Lord. He is my leader and I know that he is able to keep me as he sees fit. When death comes to me today, tomorrow or in the future I am ready to meet my God.”

Upon receiving his commission as a 2nd Lieutenant, Gaston was assigned to the 88th Fighter Squadron in Farmingdale, NY (later to move to Mitchel Field.) There he flew the P-47 Thunderbolt, a major step up and one he was, as always, thrilled to take on.

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The P-47, this one at the Tennessee Museum of Aviation. Of the thousands built, only seven are operational today, and two of them are in the museum in Sevierville, TN.

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Gaston’s squadron. Identified by number:
  1. Robert J. Becker
  2. Amel Boldman
  3. Grover Spaulding
  4. Broadfoot
  5. Burns
  6. Drury
  7. McLaughlin
  8. Earl Pollard
  9. Owen R. Allred. He perished in yet another crash into Long Island Sound 23 August 1947; it was the search for his crash that helped to find the wreckage of Gaston’s plane.
  10. Hunt
  11. Raruntine
  12. Grinnan
  13. Klumf
  1. Haviland
  2. Eigher
  3. Hamilton
  4. McChesney
  5. Shofner
  6. Masten
  7. Pappert
  8. Rockwell
  9. Randall
  10. Schlagel
  11. Morgan
  12. “Muff” (dog)

Below: the 88th in action. You can see Gaston about 1:05 into the video, shooting at the skeet/trap range. My thanks to Robin Adair for posting this; my efforts to document American history from a family perspective pale besides his.

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Possibly the last photo of Gaston ever taken, shortly before the crash.

The 88th Squadron eventually saw service in the India-Burma theatre of war. Gaston, however, never made it there. On 15 April 1943, he took off from Mitchel Field in a P-47 and achieved an altitude of about 4,000 ft. About 0730 his plane exploded over Northport Bay and fell into Long Island Sound, soon sinking to the bottom.

The plane sank before the body could be immediately recovered. (More about the fate of the plane is below.) The Army Air Corps was unenthusiastic about looking for it, but Gaston’s family (especially his mother) was persistent. In June 1943 the family travelled all the way from Arkansas to New York, and actually went out with the Army on Long Island Sound to look for it. Their determination paid off: the body was found on 22 June, and brought back to Morrilton.

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Out on Long Island Sound, Gaston’s father Pem Shofner, my mother Vernell and Gaston’s mother Ina. Coming to the coast was a new experience for Gaston’s parents. My mother didn’t know it at the time, but she was to spend a great deal of time on the water when she married into a yachting family.

The “ship” was not recovered, and so the cause of the explosion was not determined. Theories such as sabotage and mechanical failure were floated at the time.  The most probable cause of the explosion is that, because of a leak between the fuel pump and the carburettor, petrol had gathered in the accessory section behind the engine.  The petrol was ignited by the hot exhaust manifold and blew the engine off of the front of the plane.  Gaston was doubtless either killed instantly or upon impact into Long Island Sound.

At 1500 27 June 1943 Don Gaston Shofner’s funeral took place at Bethel Baptist Church in Morrilton, Arkansas, and he was laid to rest in Elmwood Cemetary on the other side of town. His family never recovered from his death. Unlike him, they were not ready for his passing, and the effects of his loss transcended generations.

Gaston’s mother preserved the following, which appeared in the Arkansas Gazette, submitted by another mother who lost a son on a “routine” flight:

The Last Flight

Oh! His wings were bright and shining
As he soared into the skies
On his lips the song of freedom
And God’s beauty in his eyesBrave and loyal in the service
Of the flag he bore on high,
He gave his life to keep it flying
And such herores never die.So another name is graven
On the shield of freedom’s light
There to live and shine forever
Showing us the truth and right.
Time may dim our grief and sorrow,
But our love for him will stay
Bright through all the years before us,
And we’ll miss him every day.Yes he knows we will remember
And he smiles with love and pride
When to heaven comes our whisper
Thank you son–for us you died.Oh! his wings are bright and shining
And no clouds are in the skies
As he hears the songs of angels
And God’s beauty fills his eyes.

Finding the Wreckage

As noted above, the Army lacked the enthusiasm for finding either the body or the wreckage.  Part of that was due to the demands of war, but another part of it was the knowledge that the P-47 had “issues.”  As Gaston’s squadron’s history noted about the crash:

April 15 – Lt. Shofner’s plane crashed into the Sound near Northport and his body was not recovered. Although Lt. Schlagel was with him in a two ship element, he was unable to see the exact spot on the water where the plane disappeared until the Coast Guard arrived. So another pilot has been lost through the faulty and untrustworthy P-47. In all the 88th has lost 5 pilots killed in accidents, to say nothing of the dozens of bad accidents and cracked up planes.

The wreckage was originally discovered in 1988 but at the time it was not connected with Gaston’s P-47.  It was left to the persistence of another searcher who “connected the dots” of Gaston’s plane.  Robert Contreras, who has made it his mission to find the plane wreckage and remains of Maj. Allred, came upon the fateful P-47 in early 2014, as part of his search for Major Allred.  I am deeply grateful to him for furnishing much of the information in this section and elsewhere on this page.

A video of the wreckage.

I urge everyone who visits here to support Bob Contreras’ effort to find Major Allred.  The closure for family, friends and country cannot be measured or really verbalised.