Those local books that show up from time to time: A B-25 odyssey

Written by Bob Hoover on .



The filmmakers snuck "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" into town Nov. 23, then fled with it after one showing. It might never surface again (for good reason, says PG film critic Barbara Vancheri) – just like another Mystery of Pittsburgh.

The story is widely known. A World War II vintage bomber, the twin-engine Mitchell B-25, on an Air Force mission from Las Vegas to Harrisburg, ditched in the Monongahela River Jan. 31, 1956 at 4:20 p.m. between the Homestead Grays (then Homestead High Level) and the Glenwood bridges. As the old plane floated downstream toward the South Side in the winter gloom, it sank. Four passengers were rescued and two drowned. The air temperature was 26 degrees, the current swift and the river, then a chemically polluted open sewer, carrying its share of debris.

The bodies washed up months later, one at the parking wharf at Wood Street in May, the other in April near the site of the old Brady Street Bridge, South Side end.

Despite river searches, the B-25 was never found and, officially, stays in the Mon mud forever. Even a diving team of experts came up empty in a search of the Mon site in October. The B-25 Recovery Team thought it found some debris, but nothing from a plane. The river water was cloudy with silt and the bottom a junkyard of, well, junk. Good reasons why it is lost and probably will never be found.

Little remembered is that a DC-3 airliner with G.I.s going home for Christmas splashed down in the Mon near Glassport Dec. 22, 1954, also running out of gas. Ten men died. Yet the plane, another WWII-era two-engine craft about the same size as a B-25, was found soon after sinking and recovered from the river.

Now, an interesting little book published by a husband-wife team in Apollo calling itself Closson Press, has published "The Incident That Could Have Killed Pittsburgh" by the late Robert H. Johns, shown here in a 1981 photo taken at the old Pittsburgh Press during an interview. He died on Dec. 22, 1991.

Editing the book is Robert E. Cole. Johns' widow told the Post-Gazette that Investigating the crash became his preoccupation starting in 1976. The Natrona Heights man wrote a manuscript about his hunt – and conspiracy theories that Cole put together for Closson.

"They said he had emphysema, but that's not what it was," Johns' wife said. "He was under a lot of stress." Karen Johns said her husband received many late-night phone calls from people who claimed they witnessed the government spiriting the plane away and occasionally speculated that he might fall victim to an official silencing. "Someone stole our garbage for years. We didn't have to have trash collection," she said.

Get the picture? The conspiracy buffs believe something bad was aboard the B-25 when it ran out of gas, inexplicably. Later the government retrieved the plane secretly and spirited it away. Johns' theory: Two H-bombs were loaded aboard in Detroit en route to Olmstead air base near Harrisburg, but not enough fuel was added to make up for the extra weight. 

Although the B-25 was closing in on Johnstown airport, a "mystery man" aboard ordered the pilot to turn back toward Pittsburgh so they could land at a military base. The fact that there were two airports near the city confused the crew, screwing up the flight path, dooming the plane to the murky Mon.

Quickly, say the buffs, the CIA was called in, salvaged the plane and bombs and then removed the evidence.

Carol Long was the captain of the Expeditor tugboat near the floating plane and aided in the rescue effort. He died in November of last year at 97. His daughter, Cheryl Haberstock, told the Post-Gazette in his obituary her father "saw some wreckage being carted away on barges. But he wouldn't elaborate on the particulars after he received threatening phone calls warning him not to talk about what he had seen.

 ‘He wouldn't talk to anybody about it,’ she said. ‘He was too scared.’ Mrs. Haberstock doesn't believe he was holding back some dark secret. Rather, she said, her father was a simple man who didn't want to become part of a controversy or conflict."

Johns writes how he searched the "morgues" or picture files of the Pittsburgh Press  and the Post-Gazette for copies of its photos on the event, extensively covered by the city’s three papers, and found nothing. To test his claim, I sneezed and coughed my way through the dusty folders and found – nothing. All photos are missing! It turns out, all clippings are gone, too! When I tried the microfilms of newspapers from the time, the film was wound backwards!  Remember that when the PG acquired the Press in 1992, it got the backfiles and photos of the defunct paper. Now, the archives of both are oddly empty of B-25 materials. What’s going on?

Further inquiries will be made.




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