Before he knew what had happened, Richard L. Pompeo was hanging upside down suspended by his safety belt in the cockpit of a crashed airplane.
“We were about 800 feet when the engine died,” the Mount Holly Springs man recalled in a transcript of a radio interview. “The first thought I had was wondering about the danger of landing so we cut the master switch and turned off all the electrical devices and lowered the flaps.”
As flight engineer, Pompeo had confidence in Lt. Col. Harold H. Carr, an Army Air Corps pilot. He believed the officer capable of making a safe landing on a frozen stretch of the Sheenjek River in northeast Alaska.
It was Jan. 17, 1942, and his first brush with danger in World War II. He would not be so lucky when, almost two years later on Dec. 21, 1943, he was forced to bail out of a Liberator bomb and was never seen again.
In December, The Sentinel reported on Pompeo’s disappearance. Today, all that remains of Pompeo are the documents, photographs, mementos and letters that have been handed down to his nephew, David Myers of Newville, who provided The Sentinel with more information about his uncle.
What follows is a reconstruction of the life of Pompeo based on material The Sentinel borrowed from Myers. It is only a snapshot of a young life cut tragically short.
Richard Laverne Pompeo was born at 11:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 1921, in Carlisle. According to his birth certificate, he was the son of Joseph Pompeo, 28, a native of Italy, and Anna Myers, 20, a native of Mount Holly Springs. The couple had two other children and was living in the first block of East South Street in Carlisle.
Later Richard moved with his family to Harrisburg where they lived in an Italian neighborhood, according to an email written by his sister, Helen Sowers, in September 2004.
“His dad got a job in Carlisle at the Cohan Typewriter Company so he moved the family to Boiling Springs,” Sowers said. “We didn’t stay there long. We made one final move to Mount Holly Springs. Since the Depression was going on, some of the children had to spend their school years at the Scotland School.”
Joseph Pompeo was exposed to gas during World War I, David Myers said in a January 2018 interview. The wartime injury made his children eligible for enrollment in what was then the Pennsylvania Soldiers’ Orphan School, but later became the Scotland School for Veterans’ Children.
On June 8, 1939, the school newspaper The Scotland Courier published student profiles of the graduating class. The story on Richard Pompeo mentioned how he enrolled in the school on Aug. 30, 1927:
“A little red-haired youngster made his first appearance at Scotland. This little fellow was to become a six-footer before he left.”
The friend of many, Pompeo acquired the nickname “Piz” and spent only three years in the little line of cadets before he was transferred to the big line because of his rapid growth. In the eighth grade, Pompeo was voted the most outstanding student of his class and was awarded the American Legion Medal for courage, honor, service, leadership and scholarship.
A tenor, he was one of 36 boys on the school choir that won a state championship in Norristown in April 1939. As a basketball player, Pompeo scored 56 points in his senior year to help his team achieve a record of 13 wins with only three losses. A football player, he was invited to the annual banquet on Dec. 2, 1938 where he collected autographs from other boys on the team.
Pompeo was also the drum major of the cadet band. His scrapbook has a clipping of a Public Opinion newspaper photograph showing his participation in a ribbon cutting ceremony for a portion of the Lincoln Highway.
Described by his sister, Helen, as a “happy-go-lucky type guy,” Pompeo never married, but was well liked by the ladies. His scrapbook includes a dance card from the school New Year’s Eve Dance on Dec. 31, 1938. Even though she was not his original date, a “Mary Louise” danced with Pompeo a total of six times that evening.
Though popular with the ladies, Pompeo may have been shy. The scrapbook has a clipping titled “Campus cranks by the Stool Pigeon.” It appears to be a collection of snippets of gossip from around the Scotland campus.
One snippet told the story of how a female student was fixing Pompeo’s coat one day. As she worked, she had the coat sleeves positioned for easy access. The girl remarked to another student “This is the only way I could get Dick’s arms around my neck.”
A “B” student, Pompeo achieved straight A’s in the military studies course his senior year. He was one of only five 1939 Scotland School graduates to win an appointment to the Army Air Corps technical school at Chanute Field in Illinois. The timing of his basic training meant that Pompeo missed his graduation ceremony from the Scotland School that June.
“At the time you had to get to basic training on your own,” Helen recalled in the email. “Richard hitchhiked to Chicago from Mount Holly Springs. Dad gave him a small gun to take with him since mother said it was not safe to hitch. We got a lot of letters from Richard while he was in Alaska.”
When he was promoted to corporal on Aug. 21, 1941, Pompeo was assigned to the 32nd Material Squadron of the 23rd Air Base Group. It was during his stint with this unit that Pompeo endured his first mishap in the wilderness in January 1942.
On Jan. 17, 1942, the two men were already having an eventful day. A mercy mission to retrieve stranded airmen had turned into a disaster when their plane became lost in the bad weather and ran out of gas after nine hours aloft.
“As we landed, we rolled about 40 feet and the right wheel struck a stump buried in the snow and the impact turned us over onto our back,” Pompeo told a radio announcer following the ordeal. “It all happened so fast.”
They were upside down for only a short time before they loosened their safety belts and crawled out. It was about 2:28 p.m. in the middle of a wilderness near the Arctic Circle.
“The first thing we did was to look around the surroundings to see if we could recognize any landmarks,” Pompeo said. “Not being able to do so we took a look over the plane to determine the extent of the damage. First thing we noticed ... was that the acid from the battery was dripping down into the cabin, so we immediately removed the battery from the plane.”
The rest of that first day was spent removing equipment from the plane, checking supplies and packing up necessities for the eventual hike back to civilization.
“We gathered up a lot of wood and built a big bonfire to signal our whereabouts,” Pompeo recalled. “Then we spread our red wing covers over the snow. The first two nights we slept in the plane. We melted snow for water and cooked our meals over a blow pot, which at the same time heated the cabin to keep us warm.”
The third day, they started down river in the hope of crossing paths with trappers. Sure enough, they found help that included an Indian guide and a dog sled team. Pompeo and Carr managed to reach safety at Fort Yukon after traveling about 130 miles over the course of six days. One night they slept in the open with temperatures down to 20 below zero.
Less than a month after this ordeal, he was promoted to sergeant on Feb. 1, 1942 while assigned to the Cold Weather Testing Detachment of the Army Air Corps at Ladd Field near Fairbanks. Three months later, Pompeo was promoted to staff sergeant on May 1, 1942. Sometime later, he was promoted two more times to master sergeant – the rank he held at the time of his disappearance.
On Dec. 21, 1943, his plane crashed in a fireball and only one of that five-man crew walked out of the wilderness. It was not Richard L. Pompeo. His body was never found.
“She always waited,” David Myers said of his grandmother, Anna Pompeo. “She always thought they would find him someday and he would walk through the door. There was always that possibility.”
The military conducted an extensive search of the Charley River headwaters, but Pompeo had vanished without a trace. On Dec. 22, 1944, Anna Pompeo received a letter from the War Department declaring “a presumptive finding of death” in the case of her 22-year-old son.
Though he served only four years, Pompeo made his mark in the military. The Army Air Corps issued him a posthumous Legion of Merit for his “outstanding ability and untiring efforts in inspiring and teaching enlisted men under his supervision.” Pompeo’s leadership helped to form the highly trained enlisted maintenance unit needed to test aircraft under extreme arctic conditions, according to the citation.
The military would name a building in honor of Richard Pompeo at Ladd Field. Later known as Building 1001, this structure stood on the grounds of present-day Fort Wainwright when David Myers visited the Army post back in 2005.
In September 2004, the Pompeo family of Cumberland County was contacted by Douglas Beckstead, the park historian for the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve in Fairbanks. Beckstead was researching for a book on the Dec. 21, 1943 crash and was looking for background information on Richard and the other crewmen. He wanted to bring closure to the families.
Eventually Beckstead got connected with David Myers who visited the crash site in June 2005 and saw the nearby ravine where his uncle Richard may have landed. It is believed that either the shock of his parachute deploying or the rough landing may have knocked Pompeo’s glasses loose.
Pompeo had thick glasses without which he couldn’t see well. This would have made it harder for him to survive the extreme weather conditions and treacherous terrain of that region of Alaska. The ravine had jagged rocks and was covered with a layer of thick underbrush at the time of Myers’ visit.
Beckstead died before he could finish his book, but he helped relatives reconnect with the past. “Doug really did the families a great service,” Myers said. “In my mind, it will always be an unanswered question.”