I haven’t posted in a while because I have a couple of drafts to finish and I’ve been trying to keep the blog in neat chronological order.
However, today was a particularly meaningful day for me so I don’t mind waiving my rule to tell you about it.
It’s quite a long post (that may be a bit serious in parts) but hopefully it’s still a vaguely interesting thing to read…
Today I had planned to drive down to Portree where they hold a Remembrance Sunday service in the main square. Like most people, I always try to do something to acknowledge the day; it’s only a small amount of time to spend on reflection and it’s something that I think is important.
In the end I decided to pay my respects at a place closer to home that I’d heard of but never visited before.
I live on the Trotternish Peninsula and behind my house there stands a series of cliff-like rock formations that make up the Trotternish Ridge, a kind of backbone to this part of the island. The tallest part of this is Beinn Edra (a ‘Ben’ means a mountain peak. Like Ben Nevis, Ben Lomond and so on).
Towards the very end of WWII, on the 3rd March 1945, an American B-17 ‘Flying Fortress’ was flying over the Hebrides en-route from America to Italy. As it reached Skye it was caught in a thick fog and flew low to gain visibility. This is when it collided with the craggy rocks near the summit of Beinn Edra. All nine members of the crew were killed, eight of them instantly.
The remains of the plane have been left relatively untouched at the crash site on the slope of the hill facing towards Staffin. This is partly due to the fact that the area is only accessible via the East side over remote, boggy moorland.
I scoured the few blogs and websites that mentioned walking up to the site, saving their photos as location references. There are no paths and without an OS map or GPS co-ordinates I only half expected to find it. Also, as I left at 1pm (which only left me three or four hours of daylight to find it and get back) I didn’t have time to do much searching if I veered off-track.
I parked outside a farm in the hamlet of Maligar and began walking West across the heather.
The ascent was indeed as arduous as the websites had mentioned. Car-sized hillocks of peat were criss-crossed by wet bog. At some points the grass was solid but then with the next step it gave way to liquid and found myself in water past my knees. Heather covered holes which I slipped down often.
I cursed myself for not fuelling-up properly before I set out; I’d only had a couple of cups of tea and I felt noticeably weaker for it. A silly mistake, especially when I didn’t have time to take a break and catch my breath.
But as I stumbled over the bogs I thought of the crofters back in 1945 who had raced up the moor to try to help the crew of the B-17. Then I thought of the other people of WWII who were fighting on foot across wet ground that may have not been dissimilar to this.
With that, the attempt to get to the Beinn Edra crash site gained a little bit of meaning in itself; the physical effort I put in became a kind of small personal thank you.
Eventually I neared the craggy top of the hill and I started seeing the formations that matched those in the pictures saved on my phone. I scanned the hill but only saw rocks.
Still, this was definitely the right place, I just needed to get higher. I forgot about my tiredness and shortness of breath as I concentrated on getting to the site.
Suddenly, right in front of me there was (something which I now know to be) an engine supercharger; a corroded but generally intact part of plane machinery.
I crouched down and put out my hand to touch it. As my fingers touched the cold metal I burst into tears.
I don’t know why, it’s only a lump of scrap, after all. Maybe it had something to do with the way it had been misshapen by obvious force. Maybe it was its unnaturalness on the hillside. But it was almost instinctive and I know for certain that I wont have been the only visitor to have responded in this way.
From there I began to see the other fragments. Everywhere.
Huge bits and tiny pieces. Initially camouflaged amidst the rocks they now appeared in all shapes and sizes. I now understand the officials you see on the news wandering aimlessly through crash sites; here is no centre to pick through, the remains are literally scattered everywhere.
With this, a kind of sicky feeling dawns on you as you realise the level of violence an impact must have to do this. The only mercy here is that such a massive impact would have meant death was swift.
Most of us have only, thankfully, experienced crash sites on tv. Reporters and eye-witnesses seem to always describe the wreckage as ‘crumpled’ or ‘twisted’. Today I learnt that this is entirely accurate.
The remnants are unsettling, I think, because their odd shapes are a visual memento of savage force overpowering a familiarly strong material. Their crushed and bent bodies reminded me of those soft metallic pie/tart cases which you can scrunch in your fist when you’re finished with them.
All in all, it was a moving place to visit, moreso than I had anticipated. Somehow the age of the incident had not softened the power of the crash site. Perhaps it’s because there was so much of the wreckage still there. Perhaps it was something to do seeing it on Remembrance Day…
There’s also a memorial plaque up there, simple but smart. I’m glad that there is something other than twisted metal as a reminder of the aircraft and its crew. I put my paper poppy through a hole on the post to show that someone had been up to pay their respects.
I noticed a few other poppy remnants as I climbed up to an engine just under the rock face.
As I got closer I saw that someone had attached a small wooden cross to it. It was greying with age and whatever had been tied to the middle had weathered away leaving only string. I wondered who had left it and what it had said.
Reaching for my notepad I wrote out a few appropriate lines of one of the few Remembrance poems I know, one by Dylan Thomas called ‘Death Shall Have No Dominion’, and tucked it in behind the cross. Being on paper it would quickly disintegrate but for the moment it was my little tribute.
With the sun dipping behind the hills it was time to turn back; I couldn’t risk trying to cross the boggy moor in the dark.
Just before I left I took some pictures of the wreckage against the backdrop of the rosy, sun-tinted landscape. There was something strange, wrong almost, about the juxtaposition of something so sad and tragic against something so pretty. It’s a cruel outcome where the crew never even saw it, they only experienced its savagery.
But still, there’s a peace up here that I hope does the airmen justice. The entire crash site is a memorial that today had a tranquility which belied it’s tragic history. It was a special, heartbreaking place to visit and the men who lost their lives there will certainly be remembered in my mind for many years to come.
In Memory Of:
Paul M. Overfield (pilot)
Leroy E. Cagle (co-pilot)
Charles K. Jeanblanc (navigator)
Arthur W. Kopp (radio operator)
Harold D. Blue (engineer)
John H. Vaughan (gunner)
Harold A. Fahselt (gunner)
George S. Aldrich (gunner)
Carter D. Wilkinson (gunner)
To anyone who would like to know more about the accident and the people who tried to help please take a look at this archive page from Remembering Scotland At War:
(Beinn Edra accounts start about halfway down the page with the first article titled: ‘Tubaist Bheinn Eadra/This Terrible Accident Happened’)
Just a final note: As I walked back down to the car I crossed a section of the moor covered with rusty-looking grass. Under the deep pink of the sky the whole landscape looked a deep red colour; a Remembrance poppy field red. As I stopped to find my camera a flock of tiny songbirds swooped over me and followed the curve of the slope behind towards the crash site. A fitting, fleeting memorial I thought to the men who lived and died in the skies.