An Ann Arbor couple can rest easy tonight after several days of grief as their son, pilot and ex-football star Tom Harmon, has been discovered to be safe after over a week of being lost in the South American jungle.
Lt. Thomas Harmon, former All-American halfback player for the University of Michigan, had been missing since his plane crashed in French Guiana on April 8. After parachuting into the jungle, Harmon found the wreckage of his B-25 Mitchell, a bomber named “Old 98” (the number on his jersey from his football days). The wreckage contained the bodies of two crewmates.
Harmon wandered through the jungle for four days, surviving by drinking swamp water and eating rations, before meeting natives who guided him to a settlement. From there, Harmon made his way to a U.S. Army base at the Dutch Guiana port, tired but in good condition. He phoned his parents from there, telling them, “I’m not hurt.”
Rose Harmon, his mother, wept from happiness. “I had almost given up hope last night,” she said. “I was so blue, and everything seemed so hopeless.”
During Harmon’s disappearance, his parents, Rose and Louis, held onto hope that he was still alive after receiving a terse telegram from the War Department that expressed “deep regret” that Harmon had not been heard from since April 8. Their hope was not in vain as they celebrated his safety today.
So far Harmon is the only member recovered from the crash. Five of his crewmates are still listed as missing. They are:
Second Lt. Edwin J. Wolf, navigator.
Second Lt. Frederick O. Weiting.
Sgt. Leonard D. Gunnels.
SSG. Bernard R. Cross.
SSG James F. Goodwin.
Unfortunately, the two crewmembers who perished in the crash are not the only airmen to die in such a way. They are just two lives of thousands that have been lost in plane crashes, according to the War Department. The department revealed earlier this month that over 1,700 deaths resulted from flying accidents in Army airplanes in a nine-month period from January through September last year. The department pointed out that despite the total number of fatalities, that nine-month period was 10 percent safer for fliers than the last 10 years, from 1930 through 1939.
Those high airplane accident numbers have been dropping, the War Department reported, attributing the dip in accidents to their intensified Army Air Force safety campaign. Despite these claims, planes have still been going down and servicemen have continued to lose their lives. Harmon’s is not the only plane crash to go against the drop in accidents that the War Department are reporting. In November 1942, a B-17 bomber with a 12-man crew crashed into a Greenland ice cap. They were finally recovered earlier this month after five months of rescue attempts. Five of the crew died while waiting, and the remaining seven were finally saved in April by Colonel Brent Balchen, a noted Arctic explorer and experienced aviator.
The plane originally crashed during a search for another plane that had been reported overdue. That plane was never found, and the second plane crashed over the West Coast of Greenland. Balchen flew over the wreckage periodically and dropped supplies, which allowed the men to survive.
The Greenland crash and Harmon’s crash stand as reminders that while the War Department is reporting much lower numbers now than last year, the skies can be a dangerous place, even without enemy fire.
“Army Crashes Kill 1700 In 9 Months: Army Plane Crashes Kill 1700.” The Washington Post. April 1, 1943. Pg 1.
“Harmon, Football Star, Safe, After Bomber Crash in Jungle; Learns Harmon Has Been Saved.” The Washington Post. April 18, 1943. Pg 1.
“7 AIRMEN RESCUED FROM ARCTIC TRAP: Balchen, in Three Flights to Greenland Ice Cap, Helps Save Crew of Bomber; Task Takes Five Months And Lives of Five Men Are Lost Before Survivors of Lost Fortress Are Brought Home.” New York Times. May 4, 1943. Pg 9.
“Harmon, Michigan Grid Star, Missing in South America: Named All-American in 1939 and 1940; Won Wings Last Year Football Star Tom Harmon Missing.” The Washington Post. April 13, 1943. Pg 1.
“Harmon, After Crash in Jungle, Found 2 of Crew Dead in Plane.” The Washington Post. April 20, 1943. Pg 3.