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VIDEO: American relatives join Skye community to remember 75th anniversary of air disaster

Descendants of a Second World War pilot, tragically killed alongside eight on Skye, joined members of the local community yesterday to mark 75 years since the disaster.

Pilot Lieutenant Paul Overfield Jnr was in charge of the B-17 Flying Fortress on March 3, 1945, when the aircraft foud itself in difficult in heavy fog over Beinn Edra by Staffin.

None of the nine US air force crew members on board that night survived the crash that followed.

Local men from the Staffin community leapt into action on witnessing the aftermath of the accident, with extensive efforts made to rescue the stricken crew as flames and smoke billowed into the air from the peak.

Yesterday, a poignant memorial service, exactly 75 years on from that fateful day, was led by former navy chaplain, Reverend Rory MacLeod.

Around 40 members of the local community turned out to pay their respects to the men who made the ultimate sacrifice aboard the B-17 aircraft.

Rev MacLeod said the day was both “poignant and significant,” continuing: “It was on this day, 75 years ago, that an American military plane, carrying nine young men, crashed into the highest part of the Trotternish Ridge, Beinn Edra.

“It was a journey that was never completed and it was devastating for nine families across the United States.

A memorial service took place yesterday at the Staffin War Memorial on Skye in memory of the nine American airmen who died when their aircraft crashed in mist on Beinn Edra 75 years ago to the day. Doug Overfield with his wife Barb from the USA during the service.<br />Picture by Sandy McCook

“Their loss still painfully resonates with their loved ones to this day.

“The major loss of life also had a profound effect on the Staffin community.

“It affected the local men who went up on that hillside to help and it affected their families.

“It affected all the generations who have come after that, as the horror of that day has been passed from generation to generation.

“These were bright and capable young men who sacrificed their futures.”

Rev MacLeod added: “This loss of life was felt just as keenly in Staffin, Skye and the rest of the UK 75 years ago.

“Families in Stenscholl, Clachan and Valtos suffered exactly like those airmen’s mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, fiancés and girlfriends.

“We remember the life of the crew and those of our own men listed on the war memorial here in Staffin.”

The nine crew members on board that night were Pilot Lieutenant Paul M Overfield, co-pilot Lieutenant Leroy E Cagle, navigator Lieutenant Charles K Jeanblanc, radio operator Corporal Arthur W Kopp Jr and gunners Corporal Harold D Blue, Corporal John H Vaughan, Corporal Harold A Fahselt, Corporal George S Aldrich and Corporal Carter D Wilkinson.

Representing Lieutenant Overfield at the memorial was Doug Overfield who travelled across the Atlantic Ocean from Arizona to pay homage to his cousin, alongside his wife Barb.

Mr Overfield was also given his own unique keepsake, as a local man handed him a piece of debris recovered from the aircraft.

Five years ago, the names of the men who perished that night were unveiled on the war memorial alongside other men who lost their lives during the years of conflict – but Lieutenant Overfield’s family were unaware of that event taking place.

Local schoolchildren from the nearby Bun Sgoil Stafainn also joined in the commemorative service of remembrance.

Pupils sang Gaelic Psalm 16, before primary seven pupil Willow Ferguson read aloud the poem Beinn Edra, which pays homage to the nine fallen men.

Family members and those involved in the remembrance event then gathered at the Columba 1400 Centre for refreshments, before later visiting the Skye and Lochalsh Archive Centre in Portree to learn more of the events of that fateful night, which occurred only months before the end of the Second World War.

Yesterday’s commemorative event was organised by Staffin Community Trust with the aid of Staffin Community Council.

What happened that night

On the morning of March 3, 1945, the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress aircraft departed Iceland.

It had stopping to refuel on its voyage from the United States to Wales, carrying nine American crew members.

At about 1.45pm that day, the aircraft passed over Flodigarry Island in Staffin Bay, still true to its flight path to Wales.

The weather was misty and drizzly as the plane passed above the village, in the north of Skye, and soon became even worse.

Tragedy struck when, amidst increasingly thick fog, the pilots failed to see the tallest peak on the Trotternish Ridge in time.

The giant aircraft failed to clear the ridge and crashed into the hillside.

Flames and smoke could be seen billowing from the peak of Beinn Edra, prompting many locals to leap into action as they sought to assist the crew, who they believed would have sustained extensive injuries in the disaster.

Sadly, none of the nine crew members on board survived.

Amongst the wreckage, fishing poles and bicycles were discovered. It is thought they were to have been gifts for families back home in the US.

Reverend MacLeod, who led yesterday’s service, said it had been a “shocking and tragic end for these airmen, whose lives were cruelly extinguished thousands of miles from home, on a Scottish island hillside.”

The community of Staffin continues to remember the men each remembrance day, with a plaque unveiled on the side of the war memorial in the village on the 70th anniversary.

The plaque states simply, in Gaelic, Gan Cuimhneachadh – Remembering Them.

The family

Travelling over 4,750 miles, Doug Overfield and his wife Barb stood proudly next to the war memorial in Staffin yesterday taking a moment to ponder the sacrifice undertaken by the nine men, including Mr Overfield’s cousin.

The family of Lieutenant Paul Overfield jun were largely unaware of the events that led to his death all those years ago, however, a portrait of the pilot hung proudly in the family home.

Mr Overfield said it was “an honour” to be there and thanked the community of Staffin and the north Skye area for keeping the memory of the nine crew members alive.

“We have truly been taken aback by the kindness of the community that they are so forthcoming just in coming here today,” he said.

“Just this morning I met two people who were eight-years-old who witnessed the crash and smelled the kerosene. For us that brings it very much alive.

“There was so much pain involved. Let alone losing Paul, his mother Esther lost her brother 13 months earlier, and I think that the pain was so much that they didn’t talk.

“I knew he was killed in the war, I knew he was killed in Scotland, but I didn’t know any details.”

 Doug Overfield and his wife Barb. Picture by Sandy McCook

Mr Overfield decided to do a search of his cousin’s name online and was surprised with the abundance of information that returned from Staffin.

He added: “We contemplated coming then. I thought we need to go and we thought we maybe didn’t want to come at this time of year, but I wanted to come for this.

“I feel the sacrifice now. Before I understood it, but now I feel it.

“It’s unbelievable that the community have kept this alive, and so strong.

“You don’t feel it is an obligation they have to do – they want to. They remember it.

“It’s wonderful. I just love the Scottish people. It has been very enlightening.”