Lt Vance C. Harney

Lt Vance C. Harney
Pilot of Mustang P51-D Aircraft AAF No 44-14836
of the USAAF, 8th Air Force, 356 Fighter Group, 359 Fighter Squadron

He Lost His Life in a Crash in a Biggleswade Field
on 16th January 1945

8th Airforce

359 Fighter Squadron
359th Fighter Squadron

P51

Lt Vance C. Harney

Robert Blau, a cousin of the late Vance Harney, contacted the Biggleswade History Society Archivist who researched locally available sources in 2006.  In December 2007 Robert provided more information that he had discovered and visited Biggleswade from the USA to see the possible crash site and to see where the eyewitnesses had lived.

Lt. Vance C. Harney, Service Number 0-716122, was a member of the 359th Fighter Squadron of the 356th Fighter Group USAAF based at RAF Martlesham Heath, Suffolk. The airfield here opened in May 1943 and was first used by the United States Army Air Force Eighth Air Force 356th Fighter Group, arriving from RAF Goxhill on 5th October 1943. The group was under the command of the 67th Fighter Wing of the VIII Fighter Command. Aircraft of the 356th were identified by a magenta and blue diamond pattern around their cowling.

This is a report from Eddie Malo who had been a member of A Group, codename Farmhouse:
“I was in the same squadron but completed my combat tour before Vance arrived in the squadron.  I do have a little info about Vance that has appeared in our Fighter Group Book. Lt Vance C. Harney started combat missions in Nov. 1944 and was killed in action on Jan. 16,1945; he had completed 21 combat missions.  On Jan 16 Maj. Strait led an escort which took off at 0932 and landfall came near Egmond.  While over the Zuider Zee, Lt. Vance C. Harney (359th) turned for home with engine trouble.  He made it across the Channel but then crashed near Biggleswade.

The 359th diarist stated “Shortly after crossing the Zuider Zee, Lt. Harney motioned to Capt. Bruner that he was returning to base and in sign language indicated he did not want escort. He was killed in a crash near Biggleswade. It is believed his radio was out and that he crashed while trying to get below the low clouds. At the time he turned back the fighters had not yet been warned of weather conditions in England”  The rest of the group made R/V at 1045 near Egmond and the bombers went to Strasbourg and Magdeburg.  Escort was ended at 1345 in the Landau-Metz area and, due to bad weather, most of the pilots landed at Ghent, Cambrai, Merville, Beauvais, Tille, Laonl Couvron, Laon Athies, and Cambrai/Niergnies. Lt. Ray (st) flipped on landing after hitting a snowdrift but he was unharmed.
(1 lost) Line-up:
359th: Bruner, Harney, Cornett, Oliver, Hale, Murtishaw, Kirschner, Bennett, Gohsler, Wieland, Nielsen, Meade, Brearley, Lawrence, Blewett, Hildebrand J.Brown, Crum, Carr, Traupe,
360th: Ellingson, Jones, Thomas, Switzer Childers, Ciocehi, Carlson, Gatlin, Barnhart, Dunn, Ceraolo, Rensch 361st: Strait, Cochran, Whitmore, Ray, Burley, Jarvis, Hallmark, Bowers, Morgan, Higginbotham, Lindsay, Whitson, Epley, Jett, Campbell, Burdick, Baylor, Cox, Bomberger, Wallace Ashby, Nystrom (relays), Beck, Baskin(spares)”

Note: Vance had survived, without injury, a previous aircraft crash which was a landing accident, at Stansted, on 12th November 1944 in P-47D Thunderbolt No 42-26309.

 From: Bedfordshire & Luton Archives & Record Service  [Mike Strange]

This is a verbatim report from the incoming messages in the Records of Incidents to the County Control of the Air Raid Precautions (ARP) Wardens. Document Reference WW2/AR/CO/2
IN MESSAGES
1415  East Beds 16.1.45 Immediate report.  Crashed aircraft:
Fighter/Bomber crashed at Kingsfield, Spreadeagle Farm, Biggleswade M/R 84/6563 at 1345.  NFS, Police and RAF Fire Tender on way.  More details to follow.
1435  East Beds Crashed machine is American Fighter, make not known.  Pilot killed and body extracted.  RAF, NFS, Police and CD on spot.
1503  East Beds   Crashed Aircraft Report
Re my 1415 hours.  Machine believed to be a Mustang is a total wreck.  Pilot killed. Identity Vance C. Harvey 356 Fighter Group 359 Squadron.  Body taken to RAF mortuary Tempsford.  RAF in charge.
[NFS = National Fire Service; CD = Civil defence]


Eyewitness Reports

There were two eyewitness reports taken on 17th January 1945 by Captain Walter Baumgarten of the US Medical Corps and were submitted to the accident review board:

Arthur Edward Robinson, aged 35, 10 Potton Road, Biggleswade
At about 1.50 p.m. on Tuesday, 16th January, 1945, I was working brussel picking in Kings Field, Eagle Farm, Biggleswade, when I heard a roaring noise and on looking up saw a fighter aeroplane break through the clouds which were very low.  It was roaring down at a terrific speed, and a slight trail of smoke could be seen.  Just before hitting the ground it made a right angle turn (bank) and burst into flames on crashing.  From when I first heard the roar of the plane until it crashed was about 5, 6 or 7 seconds.  This statement has been read over to me and it is true.

Jacob John Pope, aged 50, 19 Drove Road, Biggleswade (recorded at 10 a.m.)
At about 1.50 p.m. on Tuesday 16th January, 1945,I was riding my cycle along Drove Road, Biggleswade, when I saw a fighter aircraft cross over Drove Road proceeding in an easterly direction.  The aircraft, which was about 200 – 300 feet high, was making a much noisier sound than usual but continued and from the rear part of the plane a bright red glow, appearing about a foot long, was visible.  It was travelling very fast and in a straight line.  The engine noise was like a very harsh buzzing.  When I had travelled a further 30 yards I saw the plane had crashed in flames.  The engine had not stopped before this.  The weather was very hazy and patchy, the plane appearing and disappearing in its flight.

P51 Crash P51 Crash P51 Crash

USAAF Photographs taken very shortly after the crash


Accident Review Board

The Accident Review Board of 25th January 1945 was signed off by Lt Col William J. Kennedy, Maj James N. Wood and Maj Richard A Rann; they determined:
On 16th January 1945, 2nd Lt Vance C. Harney took off with a group on an operational mission in P-51D-10,  AAF No 44-14836, at 09:21 hours.  While over enemy territory on the continent the flight leader states that Lt. Harney came up alongside of his plane and started making signs with his hands which he took to indicate that his radio was out and that he was returning to the base.  The flight leader asked by means of signs whether or not Lt Harney wanted anyone to accompany him and he motioned that he did not.  He then left the group and started home alone.

While the group was on the mission the bases over England became closed in due to adverse weather conditions and the group was notified to land on the continent, which they did.

At approximately 1500 hours we were notified by AAF Station 122 that one of our planes had crashed near Biggleswade and that the accident had proved fatal for the pilot who had been identified as Lt Harney.

From what little information we were able to obtain from the witnesses to the accident, and the weather conditions at the time, it is believed by this board that the plane spun through overcast and crashed.
Responsibility:          100% undetermined – no facts available.
Recommendations:   None.
Instrument Time for the last six months on the trainer was 9:30 [hours] and for the past thirty days 1:00 [hours].


Return Home

Vance was initially buried in the U.S. cemetery in Cambridge but his body was later exhumed and transported to his home-land in Park County, Indiana in December 1948.

Vance’s Indiana Home in 2006

Vance’s name is recorded on the 356th Fighter Group USAAF Memorial at Martlesham Heath, see  here.

The 356th Fighter Group Roll of Honour can be found here.

 


We have now received from a Society member a copy of Sheet 84 of the Second War Revision map of 1940.  This is one inch to one statute mile so the 4-digit reference is not of sufficient resolution to help identify the crash location.

However, close examination of the reports and visual assessment gave some hope that the crash location had been identified. On Saturday, 12th January 2008 we inspected the location and carried out a surface metal detection survey.  Due to the area being in agricultural use, and along a fence line, many responses were found that turned out to be fencing staples, pieces of wire and various bits of iron scrap. We suspect this will remain unsolved but Lt Vance Harney will continue to be remembered in Biggleswade and we thank those brave young men for their efforts during the War; they were not in vain.

This incident was not reported in the Biggleswade Chronicle newspaper at the time due to reporting restrictions.