Debris of Elgin pilot’s aircraft found 71 years after his death
By Dave Gathman firstname.lastname@example.org November 19, 2012 8:54PM
The Elgin Daily Courier-News from 1941 of Alfred Voss Jr. of Elgin, who was an Air Corps fighter pilot that was killed in a plane crash in Michigan on Oct. 15, 1941, just before we entered World War II. A few days ago, a group of treasure hunters in Michigan found pieces of his plane.
Updated: December 21, 2012 6:06AM
ELGIN — Seventy-one years after he endured the horror of being ripped out of his parachute harness and plunging 10,000 feet to his death, pieces of the World War II fighter plane flown by Elgin’s Alfred Voss Jr. have been found by treasure hunters in a Michigan farm field.
The lead headline of The Courier-News for Oct. 15, 1941 — less than two months before Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor brought United States into World War II — shouted, “Lt. Alfred Voss Killed In Plane Crash.” He was 23 years old.
Early that morning, the paper reported, Voss had been flying a P-38 Lightning out of Selfridge Field air base near Richmond, Mich., when — for unknown reasons — it began to plunge toward the ground from two miles up. When the young Elginite was unable to correct the dive, he bailed out and pulled the ripcord on his parachute.
But for some reason — perhaps because he had strapped on the chute improperly, or maybe because the dive was so fast — when the chute opened, his body jerked free from the parachute harness and continued in a free fall. The plane, parachute and pilot all hit the ground separately, the parachute drifting into the St. Clair River, the plane and Voss’ body in farm fields a quarter-mile apart.
A follow-up Courier-News story the next day said Voss’s body was being returned to Elgin, a funeral would be held on Oct. 18 at Wait-Ross-Allanson Funeral Church, and the Army Air Corps did not plan to investigate why the crash happened.
“Tiny bits of wreckage were scattered over a wide area and the plane’s engines were buried 8 feet deep,” The Courier-News reported. The plane also burned.
Digging for history
Jim Clary of St. Clair, Mich., with his brother Ben — an 88-year-old World War II veteran — and two other men used metal detectors to search the wreck site earlier this month in Casco Township just east of Richmond. They uncovered several shards of the plane about 8 inches down in the soil of what is still a farm field.
Jim Clary told Michigan newspapers that he had lived in Richmond as a boy and remembered hearing accounts of the 1941 crash. To figure out where the plane ended up, he said, he studied copies of investigation documents, old news articles and Google Earth, and talked to a 92-year-old woman who witnessed the crash.
Clary and his partners plan to give the largest artifacts to a museum at what is now called Selfridge Air National Guard Base, where Voss’ 94th Pursuit Squadron had been stationed in 1941.
According to the 1941 Courier-News, Voss was the son of a well-known local athlete, Alfred “Ziggy” Voss Sr.
Alfred Jr., whom people called ”Al,” also made a mark in athletics. According to the Elgin High School yearbook of 1935, he was on Elgin High’s varsity football, basketball, baseball and track teams. After graduating from EHS in 1935, he earned a bachelor’s degree from what was then called the Illinois State Normal University in Normal, and was named an all-conference end for the ISNU football team.
Voss graduated from college in June 1940 and enlisted in the Army Air Corps three months later, hoping to become a fighter pilot as the nation drifted toward entering World War II. He had earned his wings in San Antonio, Texas, the summer before he died. Air Corps officials told The Courier-News that Voss’ 215 hours of flight training had included night-flying and flying in formation at 120 mph 10 feet from adjacent planes.
The P-38 Lightning he flew in Michigan was an unusual design. The pilot and guns sat in a bathtub-like pod connected to nothing but the wings. The plane was powered by two engines, and a boom extending behind each engine connected to the plane’s tail, creating a slot-like shape to the fuselage. Japanese pilots would call the P-38 “the fork-tailed devil.”
Lightnings were known for their high speed and long range but were more expensive and less maneuverable than single-engine fighters such as the Mustang and Hellcat.
That week’s editions of The Courier-News were filled with other war news. Two days after the crash, a German U-boat torpedoed the American destroyer Kearny, killing at least 10 sailors. Tensions were rising between Japan and the United States. In Europe, German armies were closing in on Moscow in a campaign that an Associated Press writer accurately called “the biggest battle in history.”
But everyday life went on in the Elgin area, too. On the day of Voss’ funeral, one news story told about Elgin’s plans to celebrate Halloween. Three St. Charles residents had been injured when their car crashed into the side of a train on Route 25. The Crocker Theater was showing “Sun Valley Serenade,” featuring the Glenn Miller Orchestra, while Julian “Ham” Gromer was screening the color travelogue “Hawaiian Paradise” at First Evangelical Church.
The Michigan search may remind readers of how in 2006 a team of Defense Department archaeologists were able to find the remains of Elgin fighter pilot James Meagher, who had been listed as “missing in action” since his P-47 Thunderbolt disappeared during a mission in 1944. Using German Luftwaffe records and testimony from French witnesses, the team dug in a farm field in northern France and was able to find pieces of Meagher’s P-47, plus bones and teeth that in 2009 they finally were able to confirm as having come from Meagher. It took two more years to track down his next of kin, a daughter still living in Elgin, and notify her.
Meagher’s remains were returned to Illinois in August 2011 and buried in a Gilberts cemetery with military honors.
The Associated Press
contributed to this story.