2017-01-06 / Front Page

Bowl game trip leads to closure from 1944 air crash




By CODY SOSSAMON
Ledger Publisher


Kay H. Rigter is pictured here with some men who were behind the dedication of the bridge. The metal detector hobbyists found a .50 caliber shell with “1943” stamped on it and subsequently petitioned the Tucson City Council to name the bridge in honor of the airmen killed in the Nov. 30, 1944, mid-air collision. At right is a newspaper clipping announcing the death of 19-year-old Pfc. William Thomas Dixon. Bottom photo is of the plaque installed in the bridge that pays tribute to the airmen lost that day. Kay H. Rigter is pictured here with some men who were behind the dedication of the bridge. The metal detector hobbyists found a .50 caliber shell with “1943” stamped on it and subsequently petitioned the Tucson City Council to name the bridge in honor of the airmen killed in the Nov. 30, 1944, mid-air collision. At right is a newspaper clipping announcing the death of 19-year-old Pfc. William Thomas Dixon. Bottom photo is of the plaque installed in the bridge that pays tribute to the airmen lost that day. It’s been 72 years since William Thomas Dixon was killed in an air training accident, but his family recently received some closure, thanks in part to the success of the Clemson Tigers football team.

Dixon was one of 18 airmen killed Nov. 30, 1944, when two B-24s collided during a training mission at Davis- Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Ariz. Dixon’s tragic death was rarely discussed by his sister Treva Hamrick and brothers Archie and Mike, who was only two when the accident occurred.

“She hadn’t really talked about,” said Treva’s daughter Kay H. Rigter during a family gathering Wednesday to hear firsthand what Kay recently discovered.

That’s where the Tigers come in.

Rigter, her husband and some friends traveled to Tucson to see their beloved Tigers play in the Fiesta Bowl and were sightseeing when they drove past Davis-Monthan AFB.

Her mother, Treva, had reminded her that Tucson is where Thomas was killed, so they did a little ‘exploring’ so she could tell her mother and uncles about the place where Thomas died.

And then things really got interesting.

A Google search led her to a television report that had aired a few days earlier about the opening of a new bridge that was to be dedicated to the airmen who died.

She called the reporter and an interview (see link) was scheduled a few minutes later, where she was given the names of some men who were behind the dedication. Rigter met with the hobbyist metal detectors, w

ho are also veterans, the next day. They explained how a .50-caliber cartridge they found stamped with ‘1943’ had led them to petition the Tucson City Council to name the $12.3 million bridge over the Pantano Wash in honor of the deceased airmen.

“What you have done for us is worth a million dollars,” Treva told the men in a phone conversation.

The Airmen Memorial Bridge crosses the wash near the spot where the two planes crashed and was dedicated during a ceremony Thursday.

With her sisters, Linda H. Denton, Carol Ann H. Blackmon, her uncles and their wives, and her mother gathered around a table in Treva’s home in the Grassy Pond community, Kay explained how it all came about.

Others reminisced about Thomas, with Archie adding, “I can’t tell y’all everything that went on when we were young. Not with the media present!”

Archie thought so much of his brother he named his son after him.

Letters from Thomas, a tail-gunner, were read and pictures passed around while the tales were being told. In one of them, Thomas explained how he kept up with what 

was happening back home by reading The Ledger. There were two front page articles in the newspaper about Thomas’ tragic death.

Treva was in school in Gainesville, Ga., training to manage a Western- Union office in Gaffney when Thomas was killed.

“They (school officials) just told me he was sick and I took a train home. My parents met me at the station and told me then that he had died,” she said.

In researching the accident Kay learned there were 24 planes in the formation on a bright, sunny morning and that apparently one of the pilots was blinded by the sunlight and drifted into another plane. They both spun out of control and crashed about 300 yards apart. As a result of the crash, safety procedures such as sunglasses for all pilots and colored lights on the planes were implemented.

Treva said she received a letter from Thomas a few days after he had died with $5 enclosed. “He wrote ‘treat yourself.’ That’s the kind of brother he was, always thinking of others.”

Kay even brought a bag of sand home from the crash site to share with family members.

“I thought I went to see a game, but got so much more,” Kay said of her trip. “It was a blessing and a God thing.”

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The city has passed first reading of an ordinance that would allow a U-haul truck drop off (up to four trucks in the Farmer’s Market parking lot across from the Gaffney Visitors Center. Do you think this is an appropriate spot for such an enterprise?