Elgin pilot a ‘hero,’ says man who uncovered plane’s 1941 wreckage
By Dave Gathman firstname.lastname@example.org December 17, 2012 9:06PM
P-38 Lightning WWII Fighter.
Updated: January 19, 2013 6:07AM
ELGIN — The Elgin Area Historical Society might put together some kind of exhibit about Alfred Voss Jr., the Army Air Corps fighter pilot from Elgin who was killed in a plane crash just two months before the United States entered World War II.
And in shedding more light on the fatal accident, the man who found some remains of Voss’s plane buried in a Michigan farm field last month said the young aviator should be seen as a hero for essentially test-piloting a dangerous new model of fighter plane.
Voss, 23, was killed Oct. 15, 1941, when his P-38 Lightning went into an uncontrollable dive from 10,000 feet near Richmond, Mich. He bailed out but his parachute somehow separated from his body and he was killed in a freefall to the ground.
“Al Voss really was a pre-World War II hero,” said Jim Clary, a 73-year-old Air Force veteran from St. Clair, Mich., who heard about the crash while growing up and went out with his brother Ben — an 88-year-old World War II veteran — and two other men to search the wreck site with a metal detector. Though the bulk of the plane had been carried away soon after the crash, and Voss’s body had been returned to Elgin for burial in Bluff City Cemetery, the searchers found several metal pieces of the plane still in the ground.
“At the time, these P-38s were damn near experimental,” Clary said. “According to his records, he flew some early models of the Lightning that had a defect that caused them to go into what is called a ‘compressibility stall,’ which caused a steep dive the pilot couldn’t pull out of.
“Only 13 of the original experimental XP-38s were built, and Voss flew two of them. The one he crashed in had only 60 hours of flying time.”
Clary said it remains unclear how Voss’s parachute came loose. But because of the Lightning’s unusual twin-tail, twin-boom design, Clary said, “it was an extremely difficult type of plane to bail out of. He may have been struck by one of the tails or even one of the propellers as he was leaving the cockpit. When they found the body, one of his legs was missing.”
Clary said Voss’s parents and brother are now dead, and he left no wife or children. Clary said he has spoken with the pilot’s closest surviving relatives, two cousins who now live outside the Elgin area, and they said that “his parents wanted nothing to do with a military funeral. No playing Taps or anything like that.”
Clary said he will send some of the plane pieces and Michigan newspaper stories about the crash to Elgin Area Historical Society.
EAHS Director Liz Marston said society leaders are trying to decide how to display those materials. “If we’re going to do some sort of interpretive board about Elgin veterans at the expanded Veterans Memorial (behind Gail Borden Public Library), maybe it could be part of that,” she said.
Accidental plane crashes were far from rare during Voss’s era. The U.S. Army Air Forces lost 14,903 people killed in 52,651 aircraft accidents between 1941 and 1945. But the Lightning finally was made safer to fly and became one of the era’s most prominent fighter planes.
The historical society used to close its museum for a month each winter but no longer does that. Old Main’s series of exhibits about Elgin’s periods of growth was completed last year. But Marston said that over the next few weeks, the staff will work on changes to the exhibits about the Elgin National Watch Co. and the Art Deco design movement. The revamped displays will be dedicated during a program on March 17, 2013.