29 October 2009

Tragedy & Irony in the Death of Ben Zumwalt

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about Isaac and Elver Zumwalt. They were laid to rest in Nichols Cemetery, Ingram, Kerr County, Texas. Also located in Nichols Cemetery is a granite marker memorializing the son of Isaac and Elver pictured here. His name was Ruben F. Zumwalt. I had found Ruben and his parents in 1920 and 1930 Kerr County, TX census records, leading me to believe Ruben had been born about 1914-5. According to his stone, however, "Ben" was born 21 June 1919. His death date was listed as 20 May 1943.

The picture of Ben on his memorial, as well as his year of death, led me to search the World War II Honor List of Dead. Sure enough, I found him. TSgt Ben F. Zumwalt from Kerr County, Texas "died, non-battle." I assumed he died of sickness or something like that. I was not prepared for what I found next.

A casual search of Ancestry's Historical Newspaper Collection resulted in an article from the San Antonio Light (Texas) dated 21 May 1943:

2 Texans Die In Chicago Plane Crash
The public relations office of the Fort Worth army air field Friday had disclosed the names of the nine crew members and of one of three passengers aboard a B-24 army bomber which crashed into the world's largest illuminating gas storage tank at Chicago Thursday.

Bodies in the wreckage were consumed in a blaze which destroyed the 500-foot tank surmounted by a 50-foot air beacon.

The bomber, groping its way at only 100 feet altitude through unfavorable weather, smashed into the tank filled with 18,000,000 cubic feet of illuminating gas, causing an explosion that rocked southwest Chicago.

HEAT INTENSE.
Flames shot hundreds of feet. They were followed by a dense pall of smoke which spread over the region as tar used for sealing the tank burned and smoldered.

The tank, except for about 100 feet at the base, was demolished. Huge pieces of steel plate, some of them as big as the front of a two-story house, were hurled 100 yards or more.

The heat was so intense that temperatures rose for nearly a mile away. Windows in some of the homes in the sparsely settled section were too hot to touch.

HEAVIEST TOLL.
...The toll of 12 dead was the greatest in any plane disaster in the Chicago area.

The flight was in charge of Capt. James R. Gilcrease of Fort Worth, commanding officer of the 1014th squadron and a flight instructor.

Others of the crew:
Second Lieut. David S. Alter, an instructor from Pittsburgh, Pa., who was married about six weeks ago. His widow resides in Fort Worth.

First Lieut. Harry B. Messick Jr., of Indianapolis, who was in charge of navigation section of the field's ground school and navigator for the flight. His wife resides in Fort Worth.

TWO TEXANS
Second Lieuts. Frederick L. Dutl of Wadsworth, Ohio, and John C. Wallace, son of Mrs. Henrietta Wallace, of Luling, student officers.

Pfc. Nick Lonebar of Wierton, W.Va.; Sgt. Arthur A. Huber of Queens, N.Y.; Staff Sgt. Norman W. Yutzy, Canton, Ohio, and Technical Sgt. Ben F. Zumwalt of Ingram, Texas, aerial engineers.

The identified passenger was Capt. A. W. Lent of Hamilton field, Calif...

That was certainly a tragedy. Here is the irony from a Dallas Morning News (Texas) article dated 26 February 1942, less than 15 months before Ben's death:

Reads Own Obituary, Enjoys It, Too, Writes Pearl Harbor Survivor
KERRVILLE, Texas, Feb. 25 -- How it feels to read your own obituary in your home-town newspaper is described in a letter received here from Ruben Zumwalt, Kerr county youth attached to the Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii. In mid-December official report from Washington to Zumwalt's parents said he had died as a result of the Jap attack on Dec. 7. The young man's obituary was published locally before mail from him definitely established that he was still alive, and that the government report was in error.

Upon reading the obituary published here, young Zumwalt wrote back, telling his feelings. "I could not help grinning a little when I read it, and enjoyed it immensely," he wrote. "Realizing that it is a rare thing for a man to have the opportunity of reading his own obituary, I thought you might like to know I appreciated it." In closing he said he hoped the obituary wouldn't have to be reprinted "for a long, long time to come."

3 comments:

Laurie said...

What a horrendous death. As you say, how ironic that he had read his own obituary some months before!
Laurie

Anonymous said...

I appreciate that you noted this tragedy - I just stumbled on your write-up.
Benjamin was my great-uncle, my grandmothers favorite brother. Your facts are a little mixed-up. I can understand the confusion though. There were two brothers - Benjamin "Ben"(b. 1919), and Reuben (b. 1914). Both were named after ancestors.
My grandmother always spoke fondly of Ben. Sadly, he wasn't even supposed to be on the plane that day - he took another man's seat on the plane. He was going to visit my grandmother.
Reuben, on the other hand, did survive the war and passed away in 1995!
Both men were buried in the Nichols cemetery.
Reuben's Grave Stone
Ben's Grave Stone

M Fly

Stephanie Lincecum said...

Thank-you very much for the correction and information!

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