Rescuers of lone ’44 Army plane crash survivor honored
By WILSON RING
The Associated Press | June 21,2014
Photo courtesy of University of Vermont
Rescuers reach the base of Camels Hump carrying James Wilson, a 19-year-old Army airman who survived a plane crash on the mountain in Vermont in 1944. The only surviving rescuers were honored Friday at the State House in Montpelier.
MONTPELIER — The two remaining rescuers of a man stranded by the 1944 crash of an Army bomber on one of Vermont’s most recognizable mountains reconnected Friday with the children of the man whose life they saved in a ceremony at the State House.
Peter Mason and Rolland Lafayette were presented with the state police’s search and rescue award during the organization’s annual promotion and award ceremony in the House chamber.
Both were high school students and members of the Civil Air Patrol when they were pulled out of class to look for the wreckage of a B-24 bomber that had crashed on Camels Hump, the mountain featured on Vermont’s commemorative quarter.
James Wilson, then a 19-year-old crew member, had been sleeping in the back of the plane when it clipped the 4,083-foot mountain during a routine night training mission. He was the only survivor of the 10-man crew.
It took 41 hours for the first rescuers to arrive. It was mid-October, and there was snow just below the summit.
“We got there about sundown. We looked and saw the wreckage. We were mulling around wondering what to do,” said Mason, 86, a retired scientist from Pasadena, California.
“Jimmy Wilson gave a call, which was a wonderful thing because he was very badly hurt and couldn’t help himself,” Mason said.
It was Mason’s father, the wing commander of the Vermont Civil Air Patrol, who pulled five cadets out of Waterbury High School to help in the search. The rescuers used parachutes and other items they pulled from the plane to keep Wilson warm. They melted snow with their hands to give him something to drink, according to a history of the rescue written by Brian Lindner, of Waterbury, who has researched the crash extensively.
“None of the cadets were dressed or equipped to spend the night on the mountain, let alone care for a severely injured airman, yet they did the best they could and it proved to be enough to save Wilson,” said the commendation that was read before Mason and Lafayette were presented the award on behalf of the entire group.
“There were five of us kids, teenagers,” Lafayette said. “The adult that was with us didn’t make it up to the hump.”
He told of climbing the mountain and searching the wreckage.
“We started hollering, hello, hello, hello.” And then they heard Wilson yelling, Lafayette said.
The ceremony was an opportunity for the rescuers to catch up with Wilson’s two children, Polly and Jeff, and some of the descendants of the other rescuers.
“We wouldn’t be here,” Polly Wilson, of Denver, told Lafayette, now 85, a retired educator and businessman who still lives in Waterbury.
James Wilson, who grew up in Florida, lost both hands and feet after the crash. He hadn’t finished high school before joining the Army, but he went on to become a lawyer in Denver, where he lived and worked until he died in 2000 at age 75, said Polly Wilson, who has visited the Camels Hump crash site numerous times over the years.
“There’s no question, Jim dies if they don’t find him. He would not have made it another night,” said Polly Wilson’s husband, Randy.
“It’s an amazing story,” he said. “My projection is that he was living his life for the other nine guys.”