A Cold War drama played out more than half a century ago during a blizzard, changing the lives of those who risked death to became part of it — and even some who hadn’t even been born.
It influenced the way America defends itself, and a movie was made about it — by the grandson of the pilot whose B-52 bomber crashed into the hills of Garrett County, carrying two nine-megaton hydrogen bombs.
Flight B-1-4, code-named Buzz One Four, lost its tail assembly during a terrible storm and plummeted into the side of Savage Mountain near Grantsville on Jan. 13, 1964. Three members of the five-man crew died in the crash or succumbed later to exposure.
Although it happened at night, many of our residents turned out to search for, help rescue and provide care and shelter for the surviving crew members.
The bombs were recovered virtually intact. They weren’t armed, so there was never any danger that they would explode. They were the most powerful weapons America had, carrying payloads equivalent to nine million tons of TNT. By comparison, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima was equivalent to about 15,000 tons of TNT.
A few months after the crash, thousands came to attend the dedication of a memorial to the crew.
Maj. Robert Lee Payne and and T/Sgt. Melvin F. Wooten bailed out, but died of injuries and exposure, and Maj. Robert Townley’s remains were found in the aircraft. Maj. Thomas McCormick, the pilot, and Capt. Parker “Mack” Peedin, the co-pilot, ejected and survived, but have since passed away.
McCormick’s grandson, Matt McCormick, made a documentary film about the crash, “Buzz One Four Impact,” that was screened at the Palace Theatre in Frostburg during July 2017.
Renee Green, the film’s executive producer, said the way the citizens reacted to the crash and still remember the crew and family members of “Buzz One Four” as a story of courage, integrity and honor.
The documentary features numerous interviews of local citizens discussing the crash. They talk about the rescue and recovery and the impact it has had on their lives.
Northern Garrett High School senior Aaron Cuppett was inspired to create a monument to the flight crew during a visit to the Grantsville Community Museum, where there is a display commemorating the incident. (See: “Teen builds memorial to B-52 crew ...,” May 25, 2019, Times-New, Page 1A.)
It would become his Eagle Scout project, and after seeking out the various monuments already in existence found that many of them were on private property and difficult to access, so he decided to put his on public land where people could get to it.
The community and members of Scout Troop 460 cleared the area, and more than 40 people and organizations funded the project and donated the use of heavy machinery needed to set the monument’s stones in place. The work took about a year.
Cuppett’s mother, Yvonne Cuppett, told our reporter Brandon Glass that, “The community involvement was just phenomenal. Everyone was excited about it.”
The crash on Big Savage Mountain wasn’t an isolated incident. It was one of a number of similar accidents involving the giant bombers.
America’s greatest and most-enduring warplane was built with a fatal flaw, a structural weakness in the tail section of an aircraft that was designed to fly at 50,000 feet, but not at low levels.
After a series of crashes, subsequent changes that were made to the B-52 made it one of the safest, most reliable, successful and longest-serving airplanes ever made in America or anywhere else.
The Stratofortress entered the U.S. Air Force inventory in 1955 and has continued to undergo upgrades. The last of 744 built was delivered in 1962. Fifty-eight are still flying, and the Air Force indicates the bomber’s lifespan could continue until 2050.
B-52 crew members take pride in flying an airplane that in many cases is older than their parents. Some of them refer to it affectionately as the BUFF: Big Ugly Fat Fellow.
The crash also helped to demonstrate to our military the risks posed by flying nuclear-armed aircraft around the country. At the time, America’s Cold War deterrence program dictated that a dozen bombers be aloft, carrying nuclear bombs, around the clock.
Many of us remember what happened that night and how we responded to it. We consider it a source of pride because it shows what kind of people live in our part of the world.
Three of America’s young men died, helping to keep our country safe. The lives of two others were saved by some of those they were helping to protect ... and who will never forget them.