C-119 Crash Outside Huntingdon, Tennessee
February 26, 1954




It was a warm winter day in West Tennessee, with temperatures in the 50s and winds of about 8-10 MPH out of the south. Some people were working outside; Mr. Homer Demoss, who lived a few blocks west of the Carroll County Courthouse, was working in his garden with a team of mules. T.W. Woods, a US Naval Aviation veteran who had served as an aerial engineer, was working in a field just west of town about 200 yards to the left (facing toward town) of the bridge on US 70 over Beaver Creek, a tributary of West Tennessee's South Fork of the Obion River. Ernest Smith, an Army Air Forces veteran who had become an aerial gunner on B-17s and B-24s after washing out of pilot training, was about 1/2 block from the northwest corner of the courthouse, along with Maurice Bunn, standing on a ladder in the back of his truck. Royal Crider, a bombardier in the Air Force Reserve in Memphis who had also washed out of pilot training, was working in the Post Office just south of the Courthouse on Court Square. William West, an Air Force Reserve navigator, was standing back of the funeral home about two blocks east of the courthouse where Huntingdon Mayor Robert Murray was trying a case. Huntingdon police chief George Hobbs was west of town on US 70 headed back toward town. Other witnesses were at various points around the vicinity of the courthouse. I myself was about twenty miles away at Lavinia Elementary School in the southwest corner of the county no doubt waiting impatiently for the bell to ring. I was a third grade student and had just turned eight the previous November. Other kids all over the county and in Huntingdon were in their own schools gathering up their things to get ready to board the bus when the school bell rang in a few minutes. It was Friday afternoon and everyone was looking forward to two days of no school. No one had any inkling of the horrible tragedy that was about to take place in the skies over Huntingdon.

Earlier that day US Air Force 1st Lieutenant Jack Jenkins and his crew, all of whom were new to the Air Force and to flying, took off from their base at Lawson Air Force Base adjacent to Ft. Benning, Georgia on what was supposed to be a local training flight. Lt. Jenkins' orders were to spend an hour practicing maximum performance landings there at Lawson then to proceed to Brookley Air Force Base at Montgomery, Alabama to fly ten practice ground controlled radar approaches (GCA). Upon their completion he was to proceed to Columbus, Georgia airport and practice Variable Omni Range (VOR) approaches to finish up the six hour training flight. Lt. Jenkins never accomplished any of the assigned tasks - instead, he took his crew in their nearly brand new C-119G - the airplane only had 110 hours on it - and proceeded northwest to his hometown of Huntingdon, Tennessee to buzz the town. It turned out that he had done the same thing two weeks before, on February 9.

Lt. Jenkins, who was known to his family and friends as Jackie, had grown up around Huntingdon and graduated from Huntingdon High School, probably in 1946 or 47 since he is reported to have graduated from Bethel College, a Presbyterian school in nearby McKenzie in 1951. While he was in college the Korean War broke out and Jack Jenkins joined the Air Force. He applied for pilot training, which he completed on June 21, 1952 and was rated as a US Air Force pilot and commissioned as an officer. He was assigned to the 314th Troop Carrier Group at Ashiya, Japan where he spent the next year flying as a copilot on C-119 Flying Boxcar transports on missions into and over Korea. Upon completion of his overseas tour, he returned to the United States and was assigned to the 777th Troop Carrier Squadron, one of three squadrons of the 464th Troop Carrier Wing at Lawson Field. The 464th had been a bomber group during World War II flying B-24 Liberators from its base in Italy. The unit deactivated after the war then reactivated at Lawson Field as a troop carrier group in February, 1953. Lt. Jenkins joined the 777th in August. Although he was an experienced pilot, he had less than the required 1,000 hours for assignment as an aircraft commander. Upon reaching that milestone, he was upgraded and assigned as a first pilot, or aircraft commander, on the C-119 in January, 1954.

On the day of the crash, Lt. Jenkins was flying with an inexperienced crew. His copilot only had a little over 400 hours, of which only about 50 was in the C-119. The flight engineer was equally inexperienced, with only a little over 50 logged hours. The second engineer was brand new to flying status. Lt. Jenkins himself had logged 1,188 hours, most of it on combat missions in Korea where the Flying Boxcars, as the C-119s were commonly called, were heavily involved in delivering cargo to remote airfields and dropping by parachute. All four of the crewmembers were in their early to mid twenties - Lt. Jenkins was 24. During the subsequent investigation Lt. Jenkins was identified as an exceptional pilot with sound judgement - and had shown no indications that he would do what he did that tragic day.  (He had made a similar flight two weeks before but his crew hadn't reported it to anyone. In those days there was no air traffic control system as there is today and no way of tracking an aircraft's flightpath. He was flying with a different set of crewmembers on the fateful day.) The events of that day can only be explained by youthful exuberance and the desire to make an impression on the folks back home. He did, but not in the manner he had expected.



The above diagram depicts the sequence of events as reported in the statements of the witnessess - the yellow line depicts the airplane's approximate path, although it may have actually been a bit more to the south. The red lines and points sequenced A to G represent an arc 1,750 feet from the court house, the distance the airplane covered after it started coming apart until it impacted the ground. Lt. Jenkins approached Court Square from the south and passed over it at an altitude estimated to be 100-200'. (One witness puts his path a block or two to the east, but its not supported by other witnesses.) After passing over the courthouse, he began a "tight" right hand 270-degree turn which brought him back toward the courthouse on a generally westerly heading. While making the turn, he evidently deliberately passed over or close to Huntingdon High School.  One witness reported that he was traveling from Northeast to Southwest. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly where the fuselage came over the courthouse although the location of a piece of the  right wing on top of the building indicates the path was somewhat to the south of the building. The wing span of a C-119 is 109 feet and the courthouse is 110 feet long (south to north.) Each witness saw the events from a different angle. One, a post office worker, said the fuselage was over the street between the post office and the courthouse. As he approached the courthouse - the airplane evidently came over the bank on the opposite side of the street - he began a steep climbing turn to the right but, as soon as he did so, both wings failed. A tearing of metal sound was heard by witnesses, followed by a "whoosing" sound as fuel streamed out of the right wing and caught fire, probably from contact with the engine exhaust. It is believed that Lt. Jenkins applied full power as he started the pullup and that the engines continued to run at full power all the way to the impact point west of town. After the wings failed, pieces of the airplane kept falling off along a path 1,200' long and 600' wide - the final accident report says the stream of debris was 1,700' long. The right wing failed in three places and the first pieces were found on top of the courthouse. Other pieces were found on the courthouse lawn and in the street. Some pieces were just north of Main Street/US 70. All of those pieces were from the airplane's right wing, which indicates the actual path was further to the south. The horizontal stabilizer fell into the street 400 feet west of the courthouse lawn and landed on top of two trucks. The left boom fell off and came to rest 700 feet from the courthouse. The outer section of the left wing, which failed and folded backyard along the left boom shortly after it failed, was found 1,000 feet to the west. (Some local people, including school children who passed through on busses later in the day, believed they saw blood scattered all over this area. Since the crewmembers died on impact 750' further to the southwest, they most likely saw hydraulic fluid which streamed out when the left wing and boom seperated. The Air Force used Mil 5606 hydraulic fliud, which is bright red in color. There was a general state of hysteria and confusion in Huntingdon after the crash, and except for a few men with military aviation experience, few people realized what they were seeing.)  One witness stated that when the boom came off, the airplane "shunted," meaning it changed direction, and the boom "slipped off to the left." Burning fuel fell on the garden where Mr. Homer DeMoss and a hired hand were working and they were burned so badly they had to be hospitalized. A team of mules was plowing in his garden when the flaming liquid fell on them. They had to be destroyed. Both wings, the horizontal stabilizer and the left boom had come off of the airplane but the fuselage and cockpit remained intact along with the right boom until the airplane impacted in a field 1,750' from where it began coming apart. The entire sequence of events occured in just a few seconds. The USAF investigators believed the failing airplane inscribed a parabolic, an arc, meaning that it was gaining altitude for about the first 1/2 of the flight, then started losing it, as it made its fiery journey to where it came to earth. However, T.W. Wood, who was closest to the impact point, reported that it maintained about the same altitude until it was about 100 yards from where it finally struck the ground. The airplane was diving at about a 60-degree angle at the time of impact and both engines were running, possibly at full power.
CrashSite.jpg

The above image depicts the most likely location of the impact point based on the 1,750 foot measurement given in the accident report. Due to Beaver Creek's northwest/southeast orientation, the measurement does not allow for an impact point further north. For instance, immediately north of the US 70/Main Street bridge 1,750 feet would be right in the middle of the creek. Measurements of the initial impact point from the creek bank place it 110', with the debris field extending to the left on an angle for approximately 300'. Considering the effect of momentum, the debris field extended along the aircraft's line of flight at the time it impacted the ground.







The abovediagram shows the impact point at 110 feet from Beaver Creek, which runs in a northwesterly direction just to the west of Huntingdon. The bank of the creek is depicted on the right, with the impact point 110' from it in a straight line. After impact, the wreckage continued in a southwesterly direction. Three bodies were found at a point 43' from the point of initial impact and the fourth was in the ditch. The main wreckage rolled into a drainage ditch - the accident report relates that it was "nearly demolished." This ditch was deep enough that the cockpit and top of the fuselage are not visible in the photograph of the debri field. Parts of the airplane, including the bottom and sides of the cargo compartment, came to rest about 100 feet from the drainage ditch and 51 feet from where the right boom and part of the right wing came to rest. The left landing gear came to rest 240 feet from the center of the ditch. The total spread of the wreckage from the impact point is approximately 300-342 feet. (The total shown in the diagram is 342 feet, but there is an angle involved.

The above aerial photo shows the wreckage along the drainage ditch. The lines in the photograph are probably the remnants of corn rows.
The above photo is of the impact point looking in a westerly direction. Note the higher terrain in the background at the edge of the bottom. In 1954 Highway 77 around the west side of Huntingdon south of US 70 had yet to be built. The photographer was facing away from Beaver Creek, which was right behind him, looking in a westerly direction. The object in the foreground is a propeller blade - it dug into the ground. Immediately behind it is the left engine nacelle. Note the small white building in the background to the right of the nacelle. It's the service building for a radio tower that was located in the field. It may not be there now. Due to the distance from the camera and its small diameter, the tower itself isn't visible.The larger object to the left is part of the fuselage or cargo compartment. Note the figures behind and to the left of it for perspective. The photograph was no doubt taken with a wide angle lens. The debris field is several hundred feet and the hills in the background are over a quarter mile away.

HuntingdonTopo.jpg

Above is the Huntingdon segment of the Palmer Shelter topographic map of the area. Note the location of the radio tower. There was a small white building - small square adjacent to the circle representing the antenna - at the base. 





The above photograph is of the area as it is today (April, 2008.) The large building on the left is Walmart. Point A is the most logical place for the impact point to have been - and is where I have always remembered it as being. The only place north of US 70 where it could possibly have been would have been at Point D, but if the airplane impacted there, some of the wreckage would have been in US 70 and the debris field would have been strewn across it. T.W. Wood was working in the field left of the bridge (North) at approximately 200 yards from it (600') as reported in his statement. He saw the airplane from the time it started coming apart over the courthouse until it crashed, but makes no mention of the crash site being close to his immediate area. A plot of the position using a line 110' from Beaver Creek and 1,750 feet from the courthouse places the impact point at this position. (Plotting a position on a map is very simple - draw a parallel line a specified distance from a known reference line, in this case 110' from the creek, then construct an arc using the known distance from another known reference point, in this case 1,750' from the courthouse, and where the two lines intersect is the point you're looking for - the impact point of the remainder of the C-119.) The plot does not allow an impact point north of US 70 at all; the intersection point is in the vicinity of Point A as shown on the map.





The above picture is of the plot of the crash site, using information from the accident report. The biege line represents a line running parallel to Beaver Creer. The blue vectors represent 1,750 feet from the courthouse, with the red line from the courthouse to the biege line intersecting with the parallel line. The crash site has to be at or near this point. The orange line is a direct line from US 70 to the crash point, a distance of just over 500 feet. This plot was made using a closer view of the crash site to make the measurements from the creek bed.

The accident and the sight of the wreckage when I went up there the next day with my family made an impression on me that has been with me for all of my life. Every time I passed by the area on the way into Huntingdon I thought about it. As it turns out, nine years later I became a member of the 464th Troop Carrier Wing, the unit to which Lt. Jenkins and his crew were assigned. I was not aware of this, however, until I found some information on the Internet. I had always thought the airplane was from Sewart AFB near Nashville. I also had thought that the accident was caused by a stall, but it turns out it was actually caused by structural failure. He was reportedly going around 250 MPH when he came over the courthouse on his last pass, far in excess of the maximum manuevering speed (Va) at which a pilot can safely execute an abrupt maneuver. It was a real tragedy, and it didn't have to happen.
AccidentScenario.jpg

After considering the information regarding pieces of debris and where they were found in relation to the courthouse, I realized it is possible to determine the airplanes approximate path based on where they were found and plotted them as shown above. Specific locations are given for the pieces of wing found in the vicinity of the courthouse, on top of the Colonial Tea Room and in the Electric Company parking lot as well as the horizontal stabilizer, which landed on the street. Distances are given for the clam shell doors, which fell 100' past the horizontal stabilizer 100' apart, the left boom and the left outer wing - which actually folded back along the boom when the airplane started coming apart over the courthouse but didn't come disconnected from the rest of the wing for at least another 1,000 feet. When considering where the pieces fell, it is important to remember two things - that all of the pieces around the courthouse, the Colonial Tea Room and Carroll County Electric were from the right wing and that there was a strong wind from the south which would have caused them to drift north of the actual flight path. How far they drifted would depend on how high the airplane was when they came off - at least one witness estimated it reached 255 feet altitude. Because the pieces were aluminum and, in the case of the horizontal stabilizer was an air foil, they would not fall straight to earth but would come down in an erratic manner like a falling leaf. The clam shell doors were large pieces made primarily of aluminum and would have floated down in the same manner. The pieces are identified by red markers marked in sequence A to K. The debris field was 600' wide and 1,700 feet long.

Somehow in recent years many people seem to have gotten the idea that the crash site was in the field behind Walmart. It was definitely on that side of town - remember that there was no Walmart in 1954, it wasn't built until around 2000 - but the distances measured from the point where the airplane started coming apart (over the street on the east side of Court Square) do not allow for an impact point on the north side of 70. Beaver Creek runs from southeast to northwest on the west side of Huntingdon and a distance of 1,750 feet from east of the courthouse falls on the southeast side of the highway (which is where I have always remembered seeing the wreckage.) While the location of the impact point isn't generally important, it would be in the event students or reasearchers decided to perfrom archaelogical excavations. Fortunately, the accident report provides this location in terms of measurements from known references and it can be plotted. Although all pieces of wreckage that could be found were retrieved by the Air Force, it is likely that some small pieces such as screws, nuts, washers, etc. are probably still there, although they're no doubt buried under almost sixty years of sediment. (Unfortunately, memory is far less reliable than we would like to believe. This accident took place almost 59 years ago.)

There seem to have been a lot of rumors that were spread after the crash. One is that Jenkins had told people that he was going to "take the flag off of the courthouse." The intial report was that the airplane struck a flag pole, but it turned out to be in error. For that matter, the question is even if there was a flag pole on top of the courthouse in 1954. It's not there now but is on the grounds on the west side of the building. (Regarding directions, the courthouse actually is constructed on a northwest-southeast line. There is also a significant magnetic variation in West Tennessee, meaning that West on a compass is actually about 267 degrees in relation to True North.) All of the witnesses interviewed by Air Force investigators agreed that the airplane didn't strike anything before it started coming apart.) Another rumor is that Jenkins was actually standing in the back of the airplane when it came over Huntingdon. Well, considering that the C-119G is equipped with large clamshell doors at the back of the cargo compartment, how anyone on the ground could see someone standing in the back is beyond my comprehension. It is possible that the crew in the cockpit might have been visible, especially when the airplane was in a bank, but not anyone in the rear. There is no doubt that the clamshell doors were installed because they were found on the ground in the debris field. C-119s were flown without the clamshell doors on airdrop missions and its possible they weren't installed on the first flight, but unlikely since it was early February and he flew over 300 miles to reach Huntingdon. People who knew him have said that Jenkins was a "daredevil" which may very well be true. Some have also said that he was taken out of fighters and put into transports but his record doesn't indicate this. His record indicated that he completed Air Force pilot training in June, 1952 and went almost immediately to Japan to his first assignment with the 314th Troop Carrier Group. It is very possible that his recklessness had been suppressed prior to his upgrade to first pilot because he had always flown as a copilot and was under another pilot's supervision. Another rumor is that he was engaged to a girl who was still going to high school, which I find a bit hard to swallow since he was 24 years old and had been out of high school for almost seven years. One witness mentioned that he was engaged to one of the girls' at the high school's older sister. Some believed he flew over the school to impress a girl, but while he no doubt intended to fly over or close to the school, it would have been hard for an airplane that size to make a circle to the east and not pass over it.  He was supposed to have flown over the school at that particular time because he knew the girl would be outside in some kind of sports or cheerleading practice - but the accident occured in February. The temperature that day was in the low 50s.

A newspaper account was published right after the crash that stated that the airplane hit a house after passing over the courthouse. This report turned out to be false, however. It also stated that it sheared off a flag pole, but this report was also untrue according to the witnesses interviewed by USAF flight safety investigators the following day.

It's important to understand how aircraft accident investigations are conducted. First, all wreckage must be secured by law enforcement to prevent people from looting and to insure that the wreckage remains where it fell until investigators can make note of the position. Precise measurements are taken using surveying equipment and placed onto a diagram and/or map. In this case, the accident report refers to a map of the debris but it was not included in the packet I received from the people who obtained the report from the Air Force and offered it for sale. Statements are taken from witnesses to the accident, including from crew and passengers if there are survivors. In the case of the Huntingdon crash, a number of statements were taken, with the majority taken from men with military aviation experience. All were from men who actually saw the airplane start coming apart over the courthouse and/or saw the final impact. Accident reports and other documents  are stored on microfilm. Also, it is important to understand that the sole purpose of the investigation is to determine what happened and why in order to prevent future occurences. In this case, the intent of the accident investigation was to determine what caused it, which turned out to be structural failure due to the pilot exceeding published airspeed limitations. All available pieces of wreckage were retrieved by Air Force personnel from Sewart AFB, Tennessee at Smyrna, and taken there and reassembled so they could be studied by experts including aeronautical engineers. Military accident reports are classified as "Special Handling Required" and are not released to the general public. However, in the 1960s the Department of Defense allowed the public release of accident reports through 1955. Accident reports since then may be obtained by filing a Freedom of Information request.

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Links and Sources:

USAF Accident Report

Newspaper Account published immediately after the accident.

Legal Case of suit filed on behalf of Homer Demoss


C-119 Page - Nothing specific to the Huntingdon crash, but a good source to learn more about the airplanes and their mission.

Bing Birdseye Map of area as it is today.





Published September 23, 2011
Updated July 2, 2012