Friday, Oct. 17, 2003 | 11:06 a.m.
This weekend's dedication of a historical marker for the crews of two B-29 bombers that collided midair in 1945 will allow a Las Vegas man the chance to reunite with the only other survivor of the crash.
"For me it's not really about the dedication, but about the chance to see the only other person to get out of that alive all these years later," said Earl Wischmeier, a retired Air Force master sergeant, who will be traveling to Weatherford, Texas, to remember the 18 men who died in the training accident on Aug. 17, 1945.
Wischmeier, 83, a gunner, and co-pilot Edwin F. Smith, 80, of Glasgow, Ky., were the only ones to make it out of their B-29 after a second bomber collided with the wing of their plane. Fuel was in the wing and the other bomber hit one of the plane's engines.
Wischmeier, who retired to Las Vegas after 23 years with the Army Air Corps and the Air Force, said it took him some time to come to terms with being one of only two survivors of the collision.
"You think about it a lot at first, but then you just figure that the good Lord wasn't ready for you then," he said.
On Saturday the Parker County Historical Society will dedicate a pewter marker to the crews of the planes in Weatherford, a town of about 10,000, 60 miles west of Dallas.
For Smith, Saturday's ceremony and seeing Wischmeier again for the first time in nearly 60 years mark a chance to put his memories of the accident away for good.
"I'm glad that they are doing this for the families, and I hope that this brings some closure for them and for me," Smith said. "It's been something that bothers me emotionally.
"I'm always asked to talk about what happened in church or at the Rotary club, but something just rolls up inside of me and I can't. I hope this closes it and puts it behind me."
Wischmeier, who trained to be a gunner at the Las Vegas Army Air Base, now as Nellis Air Force Base, says it was a strange combination of luck and God's will that allowed him to survive the collision, and Smith doesn't disagree.
"I was able to climb out the co-pilot window, but he had no way out," Smith said from his Kentucky real estate office. "It's just miraculous that he survived. There's just no way that old boy should still be here."
Wischmeier and Smith's B-29 and its crew were slated to head to the Pacific theater of World War II, after the simulated bombing run on Aug. 17, 1945. The crew took off from Clovis, N.M., not knowing that another B-29 on a training mission out of Alamogordo, N.M., was also performing simulated bombing runs that night.
Wischmeier, who normally manned the four .50-caliber machine guns located on a turret that dimpled out from the top of the B-29, was instead manning the left gunner position, where he could wedge down and keep an eye on an oil leak in one of the engines.
"That was probably the first thing that saved my life, because I was wedged down there real good, and it kept my neck from snapping when we collided," Wischmeier said. "Then everything was just a fireball."
Wischmeier didn't have his parachute on, but a chute some how found its way to him and with the heat of the fire weakening the Plexiglas turret he was able to break through to the open air.
"My chute just kind of came right to me," Wischmeier said. "It could have gone anywhere, but it came to me."
Wischmeier landed in a tree with a broken leg and third-degree burns, but he still managed to run from the crash site to get away from the exploding fuel.
"I was running on pure adrenaline, and when that fuel exploded it sent me flying right into a cornfield," Wischmeier said.
He made it to a farmhouse before collapsing only to later awaken in a hospital bed.
Smith faced his own set of obstacles in escaping the burning plane as it spun out of control toward the ground.
"I got hung up halfway out the window and couldn't get out," Smith said. "I was trying to get back inside to ride it down when I snagged my ripcord and my parachute pulled me the rest of the way out."
Smith hit the tail of the plane breaking his shoulder and also suffered a broken leg and other injuries. Smith was discharged from the military and later went to work for the IRS before getting into real estate.
Smith did try to track down Wischmeier over the years, sending a letter to what he thought was his Las Vegas address, and calling what he thought was his phone number, but the two never connected.
"He tracked me down one time on the phone, but whoever he talked to must have misunderstood him because they told him I was dead," Wischmeier said. "Well, now I get to go down and see Ed in person."