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Thick eyeglasses may provide insight as to why Master Sgt. Richard L. Pompeo vanished without a trace.

The Mount Holly Springs man was last seen alive on Dec. 21, 1943, when he was forced to parachute out of a B-24 Liberator bomber that had developed engine trouble over the Alaskan wilderness.

The remains of three crewmates have since been recovered, and the wreckage is now part of the landscape of the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve east of Fairbanks.

Co-pilot Lt. Leon Crane survived his parachute jump from the plane and the harsh winter weather to walk out of the bush 84 days later in March 1944. Crane saw Pompeo’s chute deploy as the crew chief drifted to earth.

Prior mishap

What happened next? Nobody knows. But it was not the first time the son of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Pompeo was involved in an aircraft mishap. The Sentinel in September 1944 published wire service articles on Richard receiving the Legion of Merit for outstanding service while assigned to the Army Air Force cold weather testing detachment at Ladd Field in Alaska.

Specifically, Pompeo was recognized for his work teaching enlisted men under his supervision. “[This] contributed materially to the creation of a highly trained ... aircraft maintenance unit necessary to testing operations under extreme Arctic conditions,” one article reads.

Another article quoted Col. H.H. Carr who worked with Pompeo from the beginning of the testing project that was established in the summer of 1940. That winter, there were no hangars on the airfield so Pompeo and others toiled often in high winds while the temperatures sank to 15 degrees below zero and colder.

On Jan. 17, 1942, Pompeo was a corporal assigned to accompany Carr on a mission to retrieve fellow pilots who were injured when they were forced to crash-land their planes.

“The ceiling was only a few hundred feet off the ground, so Carr climbed to 8,000 feet to avoid hitting mountain peaks,” the article reads. “The plane’s radio failed and they were lost, having been blown 50 miles off their course by a 50-miles-an hour wind.”

When the plane ran out of gas, it was forced down on a frozen river. The fuselage struck a snow-covered tree stump, flipping the aircraft onto its back. Carr and Pompeo escaped unhurt.

“The next day they packed their sleeping bags with snowshoes, food, [a] gun and a parachute for shelter and started walking down the river,” the story reads. “After traveling two miles of the stream, they met Jones E. Henry, a trapper. They returned to the plane for more equipment and then went 14 miles to Henry’s cabin on the Solmon River.”

Carr sprained a knee during their travels, but received medical care from the natives. This allowed Carr to walk after resting four days. Meanwhile, the two airmen secured a guide named Isaac Tritt, who was an American Indian and Henry’s partner.

Lost glasses?

Almost two years had gone by between that first mishap in January 1942 and the second mishap in December 1943 that probably claimed the life of Richard Pompeo.

The master sergeant was the crew chief of the Liberator bomber that took off from Ladd Field to record what happened to propellers at high-altitude in the subarctic. He was one of two people to bail out of the plane before it crashed into a mountaintop.

Looking back, Carr shared a memory from the earlier misadventure that could explain the fate of Pompeo. He had noticed how the missing man always walked close behind Tritt on the trail leading out from the wilderness.

“Pompeo wore thick lensed spectacles and although he never mentioned it, Carr believes Pompeo could see only poorly when wearing them and almost not at all without them,” the September story reads.

“He [Carr] thinks often of Pompeo hitting the ground in his parachute [that December], his spectacles lost in the jerk of the chute’s opening, blindly stumbling through the bitter cold, trackless wilderness, not fortunate enough in the time of his greatest peril to chance upon an Indian or a trapper.”

This is pure speculation since no one knows what happened to Pompeo after he jumped from the B-24. There has been no trace of his remains.

December crash

Much of the written record on the December 1943 crash focused on the sole survivor, Lt. Crane. Russ Vander Lugt wrote a story on the ill-fated mission that was published in the News-Miner, a daily newspaper in Fairbanks, on Nov. 8, 2010.

“While climbing through 23,000 feet, the crew suddenly found themselves flying in the clouds,” Lugt wrote. “According to Maj. Richard Reigle, officer in charge of the post-crash investigation, the crew experienced failure of the pilot-static instruments followed by mechanical failure in the number one engine.

“An unusual altitude, spin and high rate of descent followed,” the story goes on to explain. “In an attempt to correct the spiraling plane, the pilots broke both elevator actuator tubes, which exacerbated their dire situations. Pilot-in-command, 2nd Lt. Harold Hoskin, ordered the crew to bail out. Only two crew members managed to secure parachutes and get one in time: co-pilot Crane and crew chief Master Sgt. Richard Pompeo.

The National Park Service published a different version of the crash at www.nps.gov.

“At 25,000 feet, one of the plane’s four engines malfunctioned and the aircraft suddenly began to spiral out of control. Although Crane and pilot Lt. Harold Hoskins struggled with the controls, they could not right the aircraft. Buffeted by high winds and crushing centrifugal force, they sounded the alarm to abandon ship. In the chaos, Lt. Crane managed to don a parachute before leaping through the open bomb bay doors. He later recalled ... the huge blob of red flame when his plane struck the mountainside.”

In his write-up, Lugt mentioned the crash site and the obstacles recovery teams faced.

“The B-24 crashed near the headwaters of the Charley River, a tributary of the Yukon,” the story reads. “No radio contact or distress calls were successfully accomplished during the uncontrolled descent. After aerial search and rescue efforts covered nearly 40,000 square miles over the course of six days with no positive results, all aboard were presumed dead.”

Lugt wrote that, upon impact, the plane burst into flames. “Crane had no time to assist his comrades or retrieve emergency gear. Crane was unable to link up with Pompeo. The last glimpse of the crew chief was an open chute floating over a mountain ridge about a mile away. His body was never found.”

To survive, Crane had to tolerate hip deep snow and temperatures down to minus 60 degrees in an unforgiving wilderness where there was only three hours of sunlight a day.

In October 1944, Crane led a recovery team to retrieve the remains of his crewmen. While they were able to find Lt. James Sibert and Sgt. Ralph Wenz, there was no trace of either Pompeo or Hoskins.

The Park Service article mentions how a team from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command traveled to the wreckage site in 2006 where they found bone fragments later confirmed to be those of Hoskin. His remains were returned to his family for burial with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

The Sentinel, in its research, used the library and archives at the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center. While the name “Richard Pompeo” did not appear on the computer database, there was a record of him on a roster of dead and missing from World War II.

Pompeo had a seven-digit serial number – a format that indicates that he was a regular Army soldier who entered the service prior to World War II when the serial number picked up an additional number to account for the millions of men drafted into the Army to fight Germany, Italy and Japan.

Email Joseph Cress at jcress@cumberlink.com.

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News Reporter

History and education reporter for The Sentinel.