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Simple twist of fate ends in tragedy for navy pilot

April 3, 2014

HOPKINTON – It was the last thing Clifford Albert Langworthy expected to see as he drove toward Alton, a little after eleven o’clock in the morning on Dec. 13, 1945; a plane spinning around in the sky then disappearing somewhere among the hills up ahead. He watched the blue expanse above him, waiting to see the plane turn back up toward the clouds. However, what he saw instead was a plume of dark smoke rising in the distance.

Stepping on the gas, the 42-year-old Westerly farmer drove on for 25 miles before reaching the farm of 66-year-old Walter Clinton James on the Bradford-Hopkinton Road in the village of Tomaquag. There, he met up with Walter’s 34-year-old son, Harold, and told him that it appeared a plane had just gone down about a quarter of a mile from there. The location was the property of 50-year-old Italian dairy farmer Peter Panciera and was one of the mostly densely forested areas of Washington County.

The two men quickly pushed through the branches and thickets that covered the large acreage until they came to a horrific scene. A Curtiss SB2C-4 Helldiver lay shattered on the ground. Only the tail section of the plane was intact, the rest of the machine scattered over an area of more than a hundred feet.

Trees in the vicinity of the crash lay uprooted and, within the smoldering debris that was the forepart of the plane, were the bodies of two men. Langworthy and James hurried toward the men and dragged them from the burning wreckage, smothering the flames that leapt about their clothing with snow they scooped up from the wintry ground.

It had been half an hour since Langworthy had seen the plane crash and, by this time, nearly all the gas and oil in the engine had been expended in its assistance with the inferno. When the base radio received a call that a plane had gone down, crash crews were immediately sent out to the site. However the thickly wooded miles they needed to trek in order to get to the scene, prevented them from arriving until nearly an hour after the crash. Both of the men from the Hellcat were dead and, for one of them, it was the result of an unlucky turn of events.

Kenneth W. Barnes was a torpedo pilot in the Navy’s VX-1, an experimental squadron which flew twenty-six different types of aircraft. He had been assigned to Quonset Naval Base.

Charles Otmar Henninger was a 28-year-old resident of Sumner, Iowa, also assigned to Quonset. Married for six years to Geneva Kathleen Holm, he had been employed as a railway bus driver before enlisting in the Navy as an aviation ordinance man. He had one son, Ronald, who was born in 1940 and his wife was eight months pregnant with their second child.

On that fateful day, Barnes was going to take fellow torpedo pilot, Gordon Barnett, for his first flight in a Curtiss SB2C Helldiver, a plane that Barnes himself had only flown twice before.

As the two men were dressing for the flight, Henninger leaned into the room. “My wife is having a baby next month,” he said. “I need one more hour of flight time in order to receive my flight pay.” As the Helldiver was the only plane scheduled to fly that day, Barnett agreed to let Henninger take his place.

Barnes and Henninger climbed into the plane, a carrier-based dive bomber produced for World War II. A little over 36 feet in length, with a wingspan of nearly 50 feet, the plane was fitted with wing racks for eight five-inch rockets or one thousand pounds of bombs. There were 2,045 of the Helldivers built.

Barnes attempted an aerial maneuver at 1,400 feet, known as a flat quarter gunnery run but was unsuccessful. When he made his second attempt, he turned too tight and the plane began to spin. He was able to stop the spin, but not the dive that followed, resulting in the plane crashing nose-down at a forty-five degree angle into a rocky ledge on the remote farm. The plane caught fire on impact.

Henninger was buried on Dec. 17 in Waterloo, Iowa at Faith United Church of Christ Cemetery. Twenty-six days after his death, his wife gave birth to a daughter, Charlene Audrey Henninger. The baby died the following day.

Barnes left a widow named Dotty and their three-month-old son, Kenny.
The day after the crash, about 2,500 pounds of material was removed from the wreck, with the remains of the engine disposed of in a large crater that was dug near the scene.

Much thanks to Larry Webster and Ed James for information provided.

Kelly Sullivan is a freelance history and features writer for Southern Rhode Island Newspapers.

Southern Rhode Island Newspapers
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