Wartime deaths in fiery crash still vivid at 50-year memorialBy Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 28, 2000
It’s usually sunny at Keawa‘ula Beach, but yesterday three dozen friends, relatives and military personnel sat solemn in the rain to pay tribute to five men involved in a nearly forgotten tragedy there 50 years ago to the day.
While people everywhere remember those who fought and died at Pearl Harbor when America entered World War II, few are familiar with those who fell at the start of the Korean War, sometimes called "the forgotten war."
Such an event occurred on Nov. 27, 1950, at Keawa‘ula, also known as Yokohama Bay Beach. Shortly after noon, a Navy Patrol Squadron Four P2V Neptune long-range aircraft stationed at Barber’s Point was about to embark on a routine training mission off O‘ahu’s Ka‘ena Point. Pilot Jess Linn and co-pilot James Clampet were at the controls. Also aboard were flight engineer Frank Zitkovitch, radioman Malcolm Farris and ordnance man Harold Neely.
The crew was ready, the engines were running, and the aircraft, equipped with 16 wing rockets, had been checked out and given the OK. But because of a scheduling mix-up, before the plane took off, Clampet received word that he was to relieve the duty officer.
Junior pilot George Irelan voluntarily took Clampet’s place. Irelan was excited about flying with Linn, an experienced pilot who, along with Adm. Richard Byrd, had charted the Antarctic during Operation Highjump in the 1940s.
No one knows exactly what happened at 1:21 p.m. Newspaper accounts of the day indicated that structural damage caused the aircraft to loose its starboard wing. But many familiar with the crash believe one of the fired rockets malfunctioned, causing the right wing to tear loose.
What is known is that on the first target-firing run, the bomber lost its wing, rolled downward clockwise and disintegrated with a tremendous ball of flame as it crashed into the ocean.
None of the crew ever was found. After an extensive week-long search, the men, along with most of the aircraft, remained part of the sea.
The few human remains that were found were buried together in one casket in a joint service at the National Cemetery in Chattanooga, Tenn., on Jan. 19, 1951.
"These things tend to get forgotten except by those directly involved," said Dave Hutton, Navy operations officer for the Patrol Force Commander at Kane‘ohe. "Naval aviation was not as safe a business at that time as it is today."
Yesterday’s tribute was organized by Linn’s cousin and O‘ahu resident Keith Johnson.
Some who hoped to attend, such as Linn’s brother Bob, couldn’t make it for health and personal reasons.
"I feel bad about Jess because he was a friend," recalled original co-pilot Clampet, who spoke by phone from his home in Oak Harbor, Wash.
"But I feel more guilty, worse, about Irelan, because I was the guy who asked him if he wanted to go. He jumped at the chance. Didn’t even change into his flight suit. Everybody wanted to fly with Jess."
Like Clampet, Robert Lynch, Linn’s usual navigator, remembers being disappointed about the last-minute schedule change that day.
"I would have been on that plane had it not been for the scheduling conflict," said Lynch, who spoke at yesterday’s tribute.
But on that day, Lynch received his order change earlier than Clampet, and never boarded the plane. While Lynch understands Clampet’s feelings, he agrees that any junior pilot willingly would have flown with Linn.
"A Jess Linn doesn’t come along very often," said Lynch, who explained that Linn was generous about letting co-pilots fly the plane and fire rockets. "He would share the flight time, which was somewhat unusual. He was a good instructor. He gave us a chance."
Irelan’s older brother, Richard, also spoke briefly to those gathered at on the beach.
"I remember that day" he started out, and then became too choked up to continue. "It’s very difficult for me to talk about. My brother and I were close."
Irelan presented the casket flag that was used in the joint services in Chattanooga to the Navy. That flag will be be displayed at the Commander Patrol and Reconnaissance Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet Headquarters in Kane‘ohe.
Although the occasion yesterday was wet, the spirits of those present were not dampened.
"I thought it was wonderful," said a soaked but smiling Judy Jones, Linn’s niece.
At the end of the ceremony a Navy plane from Patrol Squadron 4, stationed these days at Kane‘ohe, flew over and dropped a marker on the exact location of the crash, about two miles off the beach at Ka‘ena Point.