B17 41-24451 crash on Slieveanorra, Co. Antrim

7th March 2018

On 2nd October 1942, American Flying Fortress B17 41-24451 took off from Gander, Newfoundland. The rookie crew would crash on Slieveanorra, Co. Antrim.

On 2nd October 1942, American Flying Fortress B17 41-24451 took off from Gander, Newfoundland. The plane was one of seven from 401st Bombing Squadron, 91st Bomb Group bound either for Prestwick, Scotland or RAF Bassingbourn. The crew was on what was known as a "ferry flight".

Prestwick then was home to a transatlantic ferry terminal. At 1110hrs on the morning of 3rd October 1942, the USAAF plane crashed on Slieveanorra in Co. Antrim. Slieveanorra, also written Slieve an Orra or Orra Mountain comes from the Irish meaning “Hill of Battle”. It’s a 1,600 feet crest at the northern end of the Antrim hills, which run north from Belfast.

Legend has it, the hill is the site of the Battle of Aura. There, Sorley Boy MacDonnell defeated the McQuillans and the O’Neills in the 16th century.

Crash of B17 41-24451

With an inexperienced crew, it was not unheard of for planes to veer off course. In this case, poor weather and unfriendly terrain resulted in B17 41-24451 coming down in boggy ground just below the summit.

Eight of the ten men onboard died when the plane came down about 40 miles northwest of Belfast. The US War Department conducted an inquiry and issued a report on 5th October 1942. For many years, the information it contained remained classified. The report was based on examination of the crash site and eye-witness accounts from the two survivors.

The rear left-hand side of the plane first struck the northwest side of the mountain about 30 feet below the summit. The plane continued for approximately 100 feet across a gully before impacting the hillside. The plane burst into flames and the right wing and all four engines were torn off.

Five of the airmen were thrown clear of the crash. The remaining five stayed trapped in the wreckage. One from each group survived the crash.

Grave of Corporal John Gibson who died on B17 41-24451

A woman tends the grave of Corporal John "Jack" Gibson who was killed when B17 41-24451 crashed on Slieveanorra on 3rd October 1942. Photo taken at Lisnabreeny American Cemetery, Castlereagh, Belfast and published in Duluth News Tribune. Copyright unknown.

Remembering the Slieveanorra Airmen

Last NameFirst Name(s)RankRoleInformation
McLeanJohn A1st LieutenantPilot
LaselleDaleCaptainCo-Pilot
AllenRobert2nd LieutenantNavigator
KoebelLeonard2nd LieutenantBombardier
WassellGeorge CCaptainPassenger/Doctor
GibsonJohnCorporalRadio Operator
VaughanRobert JSergeantGunner
HamblinJustin CPrivatePassenger
WickesNorman EPrivate First ClassRadio OperatorSurvived.
HarrisonLeon RCorporalSurvived.

The injured Wickes attempted to rescue his fellow radio operator John Gibson. The burning wreckage had trapped Gibson and his lower half could not be moved from the waist down. An ambulance driven by Ballymoney man William Murdock brought the surviving crew to a nearby hospital. The eight men killed in the B17 crash were first buried in Belfast City Cemetery. When the new cemetery opened at Lisnabreeny, their bodies were exhumed and reburied in the East Belfast plot.

In 1948, the Lisnabreeny cemetery closed. The men were once again exhumed and moved either to the American Military Cemetery in Cambridge or to their homeland.

Lasting Memorials

Eamonn McBride is a farmer in Co. Antrim. His ancestral dairy farm stands on the opposite side of the valley from the crash site. After chatting to fellow amateur historians, McBride found the story of the crash was not well known.

On 3rd October 2012, the 70th anniversary of the crash, McBride and other laid a wreath at the crash site. Alan Millar of the Ballymoney Chronicle reported on the event.

For me, it was amazing to have these ‘names’ of unknown and forgotten Americans suddenly get faces, identities and personalities.

Alan Millar – Journalist with Ballymoney Chronicle

If they had crashed over Germany, they would have been remembered. Just because they crashed on a mountain in Northern Ireland, they would be forgotten.

Eamonn McBride – 2015

Alvin Grady was an aviation historian from Hermantown, Duluth. He retired after a 31-year military career and collected military helmets. Grady had been collecting the stories of Duluth airmen and had come across Alan Millar’s reports of the wreath laying.

That prompted correspondence between the two.  On 1st January 2013, Grady sent a cheque for £100 to Barbara Laverty, one of those involved in the wreath laying. Grady wished the money to go towards creating some kind of lasting memorial.

Barbara Laverty, Eamonn McBride, and others formed a fundraising group to make the memorial a reality. Calling themselves the Slieveanorra (US) Airmen Memorial Project, they set to work. In December 2013, they received £7,900 from the Lottery Heritage Fund. The money came from Sharing Heritage; a newly available funding programme. The programme’s aims are to preserve and share the history of an area and to make future generations aware of those stories. In total, the group raised £8,650.

On 8th September 2014, Moyle District Council approved a monument license and the following day the memorial was put in place. The basalt stone monument stands on a walking path called the Moyle Way, just beneath the summit of Slieveanorra. The rock itself was quarried only a few miles away. On 10th September a small ceremony was observed on the hill.

Alvin Grady was unable to attend the ceremony in 2014 and although he hoped to one day make the trip, it was not to be. Relatives of survivor Corporal Leon R Harrison stood atop the mountain at the unveiling.

It was a great moment when Leon Harrison Jr, together with his family, stood on the top of Orra and were able to see where his father had crashed and the memorial to all 10 airmen.

Barbara Lavery 2014

Alvin Grady never had the chance to see the Slieveanorra memorial in person. He died on 29th January 2015, aged 69, after a battle with cancer. The memorial on Slieveanorra is a reminder of his dedication to preserving the memory of those airmen who died far from home in October 1942.

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