1942 train collision revisited

It was early in the morning of Saturday, November 14, 1942. Mike, a friend of the family’s, had been having his usual early morning coffee at the Colonial on South St. At exactly 5:35 a.m., he heard a heavy, rumbling, bumping sound on the railroad tracks running right down the middle of South Street right out in front of the cafe. It was the sound of two freight trains slowly colliding head on.

It was still dark. He ran outside to see what aid he could render. Since the wreck was within shouting distance of both the police and the fire stations, there was precious little he could do that the trained professionals who were already on the job were in process of doing.

Mike phoned my dad right away because he knew that the buses, especially the one for the Republic Steel run, would have to be rerouted to get south of the wreck. Dad ran the local bus company.

There was a bit of a hubbub at my home with some excited talking on the phone, as my dad gave instructions and learned more news. It was sleep-in day – Saturday. After a while the whole family was up, and Dad told my sister and me that there had been a railroad accident downtown and that maybe we would want to see it.

Maybe? Of course we would!

Mom made sure we were all bundled up, and my sister and I hopped into dad’s company car. My sister was supposed to be going to her catechism class at Emmanuel Lutheran, but this was really important. Dad dropped us off near South and Main where we were under the watchful eye of one of the bus drivers and went on to work.

It was one of those typical cold, fall Saturday mornings with steel-gray clouds in the sky. The scene of the accident was on the Erie Railroad tracks on South Street right near the Erie Railroad passenger station at the Main SW crossing where the double tracks went into a single track for several hundred feet. What a setup for disaster! Those two freight trains that Mike had heard colliding, either didn’t get a signal or ignored it, and crashed head on into each other. All three of the crew of the westbound steam engine were slightly injured. The two steam engines didn’t look too badly damaged and just sat there hissing steam all over the place.

It was fascinating! Right in front of the Erie station on the east bound train was a splintered wooden box car with a knock-down assemblage of a P-39 Bell Airacobra fighter aircraft inside that had been pretty badly damaged. As a young military airplane fanatic, this was an absolute revelation for me! Right before my eyes was the real thing! It was exactly like my Aircraft Spotters’ Guide had described it! The wings had been secured parallel to the fuselage and were a bit crushed. A workman on the job joked around with us kids and tried to ride the nose wheel around like it was a unicycle, much to the delight of his young audience.

The damaged plane was painted in a spinach and sand camouflage and had British roundels on the wings and fuselage. The plane may have been bound for some East Coast port so that it could be shipped to the British Isles. I wondered why such a valuable and precious aircraft wasn’t cordoned off and surrounded and guarded by G-Men.

Finally, we grew tired and cold, so we walked up to Strouss-Hirshberg’s to catch the eastbound Perkinswood bus for home.

Surprisingly, at school Monday, my second-grade teacher didn’t even mention the train wreck, so I kept the news of my experience mostly to myself so that I could share it with my classmates during play period. Just think! Up close, I had seen a real, honest-to-goodness fighter plane!

Editor’s note: Some of the data in this column was gleaned from microfilm of the afternoon Tribune dated Nov. 14, 1942, courtesy of local historian Bob Smith. Mumford, of Warren, is a community columnist. Contact him at columns@trib today.com