On Oct. 3, 1942, a U.S. B-17 Flying Fortress - moving into place for the air war in Europe - lost its way in cloud cover and became separated from six other bombers en route from Newfoundland to Prestwick Airport in Scotland.

At 11:10 a.m., the airplane crashed in the mist on Orra Mountain, about 40 miles northwest of Belfast, Northern Ireland. Eight of the 10 airmen died, including Cpl. John "Jack" Gibson from Duluth.

Thanks largely to the efforts of a semiretired Irish dairy farmer who lives near the mountain and a Hermantown man dedicated to documenting aviation history, a monument on that hilltop now pays tribute to Gibson and his fellow airmen.

The Irishman is Eamonn McBride, a 72-year-old with a melodic brogue whose ancestral farm home is across a valley from where crash took place.

The Hermantown man was Alvin Grady, retired after a 31-year military career, who had a collection of military helmets and a passion for military history.

Almost forgotten

In a telephone interview last week, McBride said he had known about the B-17 crash all of his life. But when chatting with other local history buffs a few years back, he learned they knew nothing about it.

"If they had crashed over Germany, they would have been remembered," McBride said of the B-17 crew. "Just because they crashed in a mountain in Northern Ireland, they would be forgotten."

They shouldn't be forgotten, McBride and his friends agreed. And they realized that the 70th anniversary of the crash was approaching.

McBride and the others placed a wreath at the crash site on Oct. 3, 2012 - exactly 70 years after the plane went down. Alan Millar, senior reporter for the weekly Ballymoney Chronicle in nearby Ballymoney, Northern Ireland, wrote several articles about the commemoration.

'Something in common'

It might have ended there, except for Grady, who was engaged in a monumental effort to chronicle Duluth aviators of World War II. But he had found little about Cpl. John "Jack" Gibson until he happened upon Millar's stories about the crash online.

"Eamonn McBride and I have something in common," Grady wrote in an email to Millar after reading the reporter's stories. "We both believe that these young men, who served and were killed during WWII, deserve to be remembered."

That opened a string of correspondence between Grady and his new contacts in Ireland. Grady shared the information he had about Gibson. A Duluth Herald story dated Oct. 8, 1942, reported that Gibson had died "as the result of an airplane accident somewhere in the British Isles."

Gibson, who was single, was the son of Mr. and Mrs. Samuel E. Gibson of 417 N. 59th Ave. W., the Herald reported. He was born almost exactly a century ago - June 8, 1915 - and had graduated from Denfeld High School, where he was a forward on the basketball team and junior class vice-president.

"Curly, red hair, pleasing grin, and lots of friends who admire him," read a verse with his senior photo in the 1933 Denfeld Oracle yearbook.

Gibson graduated from Duluth Junior College and had completed one year at the University of Minnesota before enlisting in the Army Air Corps 10 days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He was 27 when he died.

Gibson and the others originally were buried in the Belfast area. But in 1948, his remains were returned to his family and buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Virginia.

"It really devastated (his parents)," said Gibson's grandnephew Reid Gibson of Connecticut, a grandson of one of John Gibson's brothers. "It became something that the family struggled with and didn't talk about."

Reid Gibson had some photos and other personal effects of his great-uncle but said he never knew much about his story until Grady located him and shared his research.

Learning about his great-uncle and the crash that took his life has made him more appreciative of the sacrifices of military members and their families, Reid Gibson said. He said he plans to donate some of his great-uncle's items to Veterans' Memorial Hall in Duluth.

No longer forgotten

Grady kept at it, unearthing information about the other men aboard that plane and channeling it to the Ballymoney Chronicle. The co-pilot, Capt. Dale L. Lasselle, had been a football star at the University of Oregon. A passenger, Capt. George C. Wassell, was a doctor. The gunner, Sgt. Robert James Vaughan, had been an assistant hotel manager in San Francisco. The navigator, Lt. Robert Allen, had been married for just three weeks when the crash occurred.

In an email to the News Tribune, Millar said he reveled in seeing the story come to life.

"For me, it was amazing to have these 'names' of unknown and forgotten Americans suddenly get faces, identities and personalities," Millar wrote.

Others were attempting to learn more about the crash itself.

The U.S. War Department had convened an inquiry into the crash, and it issued a report just two days after the crash occurred. But for years, the material was considered classified information.

Declassified report

Within the past couple of years, Dr. John Johnston of Ballymoney learned about the crash from Tommy Murdock, whose father, William Murdock, drove the ambulance that took the surviving crew members to the hospital, Johnston wrote in an email to the News Tribune.

Johnston obtained the declassified findings of the U.S. inquiry from an Irish historian who had researched war-related air crashes in his country. Johnston shared the report with Millar, who passed it along to the News Tribune.

The report, compiled from examining the crash site and interviewing the two survivors, concluded that the back left side of the aircraft first struck the northwest side of Orra Mountain, about 30 feet below its crest. It then skipped about 100 feet over a gully before again crashing into the hillside. It burst into flames, and its right wing and all four engines were torn off.

Five of the airmen were thrown clear and five - including John Gibson - remained in the wreckage, the report stated. One in each group survived, including Pfc. Norman E. Wickes, who like Gibson was a radio operator.

"Though injured, (Wickes) attempted to rescue Corp. John Gibson, but Gibson was pinned in from the waist down and could not be pulled clear," the report stated.

Fundraising

Observance of the crash might have ended with the wreath-laying on the 70th anniversary. But Grady had other ideas. On Jan. 1, 2013, he sent a money order for 100 British pounds ($155) to Barbara Laverty, one of the people involved in laying the wreath.

"The Ballymoney Chronicle articles may have stirred up enough interest, which could eventually result in a stone memorial or plaque being erected at the top of Orra," Grady wrote. "I should like to contribute to that cause."

Laverty, McBride, Johnston, Murdock and others began a fundraising effort, with Laverty as secretary. In December 2013, they received 7,900 pounds ($12,231) in lottery money. All told, 8,650 pounds were raised, Laverty wrote to the News Tribune.

Last Sept. 8, the board with authority for the crash site - the Moyle District Council - approved a monument license so that the memorial could be put in place. The next day, it was installed just below the summit and adjacent to a walking path called Moyle Way, Johnston wrote.

A luncheon commemorating the memorial's placement took place at a nearby hotel. Grady was invited, but he sent his regrets to Laverty via email. He explained that a recent operation had made him temporarily unfit to travel. "Hopefully, I can make the trip in late spring (or) early summer of 2015," he wrote.

Slieve an Orra

Family members of the other survivor, Cpl. Leon Rivers Harrison, were able to attend.

"Isn't it right that we here in Ireland do something to recognize those brave young airmen and their supreme sacrifice?" Johnston said in remarks he delivered at the luncheon and shared with the News Tribune.

Then the group trekked up Orra Mountain - also known as Slieve an Orra - to the monument site. The monument, which lists the B-17's crew members, was made from Antrim basalt quarried just a few miles away, Millar wrote in an email.

Slieve an Orra - it means "Hill of Battle" - is about 1,600 feet high, Millar wrote. It's near the northern end of the Antrim Hills, a low, rounded series of hills running north from Belfast - and not far from where legend says St. Patrick banished snakes from Ireland.

"It was a great moment when Leon Harrison (Jr.), together with his family, stood on the top of Orra and were able to see where his father had crashed and the memorial to all 10 airmen," Laverty wrote.

McBride said he hopes other Americans, and particularly people with ties to the 10 airmen, will visit as well. Reid Gibson said he hopes to make the trip to Northern Ireland, climb Slieve an Orra and see the memorial that honors his great-uncle.

'Al's passion was history'

But Grady won't get to see it. He died on Jan. 29 at age 69.

Grady had been ill with cancer for a couple of years but never complained or let on that something was wrong, said his friend, Noel Allard of Park Rapids, Minn.

Allard knew Grady through the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame, which Allard chairs. Grady arranged to have the plaques for Hall of Fame inductees displayed in the old Duluth International Airport terminal, Allard said, and he served on the group's board.

"Al's passion was history, particularly aviation history," Allard said.

Born in Ely, England, in 1945, Grady was raised in Nashville, Tenn., and after joining the Air Force in 1967, he was assigned to what then was the Duluth Air Force Base. He met Duluth native Rose Ann Anderson, and they married in 1970.

After a 31-year military career, Grady worked in facilities management for the Duluth schools and then as director of finance at the airport before retiring in 2005.

Grady's interest in military history led him to start collecting military helmets during their travels, Rose Ann Grady said. "The whole downstairs is full of them," she said.

He started in on the history of Duluth airmen in World War II about a decade ago, his widow said. His "Duluth Airmen of World War II" grew to 1,800 pages and three volumes.

Eight of its pages are devoted to Gibson.

Grady's research led him to that desolate hilltop in Ireland and to new friends who appreciated his work.

"But for him our efforts would have come to very little," Johnston wrote.

And although they never met in person, Grady and McBride seemed to have a kinship when it came to uncovering history.

"Once we started and got every wee bit of information, you look for more, and you look for more," McBride said.

 

Learn about Slieve an Orra (Orra Mountain) and the airmen’s memorial at slieveanorrausairmen.com.

The three volumes of Alvin Grady’s “Duluth Airmen of World War II” are available through the reference desk at the main branch of the Duluth Public Library.