June Shirley was 20 years old the day the plane crashed in her back yard.
The B-24 had been causing a stir in town, circling and buzzing low over the rooftops. People heard it and ventured out of their businesses and homes to take a look, that July day in 1944.
“We watched it circle and then I thought, ‘Oh, that’s close to where I live,’” said Shirley, who was known back then as June Cates.
Minutes later the unthinkable happened. The wing of the bomber clipped a roof. Parts of the aircraft broke off and scattered, but the fuselage plowed along for another 300 feet through the neighborhood, finally smashing into the home of Shirley’s neighbors. The catastrophe narrowly missed Shirley’s mother, who had been canning peaches in the kitchen, Shirley said.
Three airmen died in the crash. Another three, plus a few people on the ground, were injured but survived. Shirley’s brother, Everett, 15, and sister, Beverly, 13, helped pull the pilot and crew members out and away from the plane, she said.
The Merriam plane crash — crystallized in the memories of longtime Merriam residents — was remembered Saturday with a marker just south of the Cinemark movie theater in Merriam Town Center. The marker is near a park bench alongside Antioch Road.
The marker is due largely to the efforts of Myra Jenks, former president of Historic Merriam. Jenks, 91, has been working on a plaque for the site for almost two decades.
The B-24 Liberator bomber’s flight originated in Lincoln, Neb. It was to be a last chance for the youthful crew to put the plane through its paces — one final training mission before heading to England to take up the Allied cause.
Mike Gadow, then 13, had just come in for lunch after a morning riding bikes. He got news of the crash from a radio bulletin, he said. “Then we looked out and saw a big plume of smoke. It was tragic.”
The memory was terrible, but not terrible enough to deter Gadow, now of Overland Park, from joining the Air Force and becoming an airline pilot. “It was one of those things,” he said. “A guy made a mistake. He got too low.”
Jenks, who was 21 at the time, was at work at a sporting goods store in downtown Kansas City when the plane crashed sometime in the noon hour. By the time her bus got her home at five, the neighborhood was full of smoke and debris. However the home where she was staying was not close enough to have been damaged.
Since then, a lot of the old neighborhood has been flattened to make way for the shopping center. The exact spot the plane went down is somewhere nearer the middle of the center, as far as anyone can tell.
Jenks, a longtime president of the now disbanded historical society, has wanted to get a marker up for years. She tried in the 1990s, while working on commemorating the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II.
But it didn’t turn out to be easy. The plane crash still haunted the pilot, 2nd Lt. Kenneth Keech, who survived. Fingers had been pointed in the aftermath of the crash. There was conjecture that Keech and the crew, in their 20s, had been goofing off, taking unnecessary chances. The Army prosecuted and sentenced Keech, but he did not end up serving any time.
Shortly before the plaque was to have gone up, Jenks learned that the former pilot and his family were against the idea because of the pain and suffering the crash caused the community.
So Jenks canceled the order for the marker and dropped the idea. She took it up again after Keech died and his family relented. But her project was delayed several more times while she recovered from a broken hip and cancer, she said.
“I finally said this is the last thing. I’m going to get this done,” she said. With the help of former mayor Irene French and City Councilwoman Nancy Hupp, Jenks wrote and promoted a book on the history of Merriam. She used $1,000 of the proceeds from that book to pay for the plaque.
All that was worth it to memorialize a crash that happened 70 years ago, she said. “I know it’s late, but there were still three boys in their 20s who died in it.”