In the middle of World War II, a mid-sized high school in a not especially wealthy section of Grand Rapids, Mich., decided to raise money to “buy an airplane” for the war effort.
As part of the U.S. War Department’s campaign to fund the war through sales of war bonds, a high school or a civic group could “purchase” an airplane, a tank, a landing craft or other piece of military equipment, and it would be named in honor of the fund-raisers if enough bonds were sold.
The students and faculty of South High in Grand Rapids spearheaded a drive in their community and raised more than $375,000 in a few months. In today’s dollars, the equivalent would be more than $5 million. That was enough to fund one of the more expensive items on the War Department’s wish list, a B-17 “Flying Fortress.”
Until the past year, no one knew what had happened to the B-17 bomber, christened the “Spirit of South High,” that had been funded by their efforts.
Had it been shot down over Europe or in the Pacific Theater, or simply relegated to the scrap heap after the war?
Seventy years later, it was discovered that the “Spirit of South High” had actually crashed on a training flight very near Mabry Mill in rural Patrick County on October 1, 1944. (The more widely-known crash of a B-24 bomber on Bull Mountain in March of the same year had claimed all 11 crew members.)
The Patrick County Historical Society & Museum is sponsoring a special program by the author of the book on this remarkable World War II story at 2:30 p.m. on March 12, at the Stuart site of Patrick Henry Community College, off Wood Brothers Drive in uptown Stuart.
Author Sandra Warren, now living in Nebo, N.C., but originally from Michigan, attended South High School in Grand Rapids. Through tireless research and dozens of interviews, Warren, the author of several fiction and non-fiction books already, decided to write the story of her high school’s incredible efforts to help fund equipment for the war and to explain what happened to the airplane and its crew.
“Remarkably, she was able to track down the 99-year-old pilot, interview dozens of people concerning the plane, and, with help from several local people, find the actual crash site,” said John Reynolds, secretary of the Patrick County Historical Society..
Meadows of Dan native Aaron McAlexander, who was about six years old at the time, nabbed a piece of the wreckage the day after it crashed. He recently donated this “fuel valve” from the B-17 to the Patrick County Historical Museum.
Reynolds happened to find a metal object near the crash site (a pig pen at the time) that turned out to be an electrical plug from the B-17.
Meadows of Dan resident Vera Barnard Seigler was a child at the time and described vividly the arrival of Captain Arval Streadbeck, the pilot who was the last to bail out of the plane, at her family’s home.
Several other residents who were there or saw the crash site included Arlie Burnett, Arlie Dalton, and Ruth Jean Bolt, among others.
Warren’s recently published book entitled “We Bought a WWII Bomber: The Untold Story of a Michigan High School, a B-17 Bomber & the Blue Ridge Parkway” was the result of her research.
Warren has given programs on the story to groups in Michigan and at the largest retirement community in Florida. Donald M. Goldstein, retired Air Force officer and author or co-author of 21 books and 50 articles on World War II, praised her efforts
The program on the bomber is free and open to the public. Call the Patrick County Historical Museum at 276-694-2840 or 957-2506 for more information.