When planes collided over Teaneck

When planes collided over Teaneck

Walking tour will highlight town’s almost-forgotten World War II story

News of the crash made its way over the Hudson; the tabloid New York Daily News covered the story.
News of the crash made its way over the Hudson; the tabloid New York Daily News covered the story.

May 1942 was an extraordinarily tense time in the eastern United States.

We had gone to war in Europe in December of 1941. Although the full extent of the systematic murder of the continent’s Jews, and the Nazis’ plan to exterminate all of them, the full scope of the evil, wasn’t clear yet, we were starting to learn about the mass murders. Details began to seep out.

German submarines had begun to threaten American ships; some were attacked off the coast of New Jersey. “They were visible from the beaches; you could see the smoke from the ships as they sank,” Daniel Z. Levin of Teaneck said.

On the morning of May 24, 1942 — a Sunday — “less than six months after Pearl Harbor, when aerial attacks were on people’s minds” — five planes took off from Newark Airport, Dr. Levin reported. They were fighter planes, one-seaters, “with machine guns in the wings and a stronger gun in the nose,” he said.

The pilots, from the U.S. Army Air Corps (because there wasn’t a stand-alone Air Force yet; that didn’t happen until after World War II) were on a routine flight, practicing a pattern — the Lufberry —that had been used during World War I but hadn’t proven to be particularly effective, Dr. Levin said. They moved forward in a circle, advancing slowly. “They’re all at the same altitude, and because they’re in a circle, each pilot can watch the other’s blind spot,” Dr. Levin said.

That day, one of the five planes had mechanical difficulties, so the pilot returned to the base, he continued.

The pilots appeared to have been assigned to the exercise in alphabetical order; four of them had last names beginning with the letter B, and the name of the last one — the one who returned to the base — started with C.

As the exercise continued, the reason the Lufberry maneuver didn’t work too well became clear.

One of the pilots, Lewis Bowen, who was 21 years old, “got out of the circle,” Dr. Levin said. “It started to get a little oval. He was at a different altitude; he was in the Number 4 position, and he tried to catch up. But he bumped into the Number 2 pilot” — 26-year-old Meade Browne — “but he was coming in at an angle, and he couldn’t see what was under his plane. His own wing was blocking his view.”

After Bowen clipped Browne’s plane, “they both lost control of the airplanes and started to spin down. Browne ejected. Bowen tried; he pulled at the ejection seat, but it didn’t work, so he jumped out, and he manually pulled a lever to push over the parachute canopy.”

Eventually he got it to work.

Dr. Daniel Z. Levin

Both men survived, and so did everyone on the ground. Bowen hurt his ankle, but that was the extent of the injuries.

People who saw the planes collide, or saw them fall, or their pilots parachute out, or saw the fires on the ground, assumed that the Germans had come — but they were wrong.

Curiosity about what had happened died down pretty quickly once it was clear that there was no enemy involved.

Dr. Levin was curious about what really had happened. He soon learned that the Army Air Corps had classified its own findings about the crash for more than 50 years.

Some background about Dr. Levin — he is an academic, but as a historian he’s an amateur, albeit a highly skilled and engaged one. He earned his doctorate, in organizational behavior, from Northwestern University; now he teaches management at Rutgers business school in Newark, where he specializes in researching and teaching about the growing field of networking. He’s a former president of Congregation Beth Sholom.

Dr. Levin also is a serious walker. He’s lived in Teaneck since 1998, and in that time he’s explored the township and discovered oddities that he’s been able to understand using his research skills.

On Sunday, May 21, at 11, Dr. Levin will lead a walking tour of some of the places singed by the plane crash. (See box.)

A few years ago, one of his Teaneck friends, Dr. Benjamin Sommer, gave him a book by township historian Larry Robertson, who has lived in Teaneck all his life, Dr. Levin said. The book detailed walking tours of Teaneck.

That’s where Dr. Levin first heard about the planes colliding. He decided to learn as much as he could about it.

He got in touch with Mr. Robertson, who was able to give him a great deal of information. He found reports of the crash in the local newspaper, then called the Bergen Evening Record, as well as in one of the tabloids from across the river, the New York Daily News. He was able to get now-declassified government records, which included statements from the pilots and the board that investigated the crash. He worked with a reference librarian, the website newspapers.com (which holds an absolute treasure trove of information), records in Teaneck’s tax assessor’s office, and other sources.

But “I am not a pilot,” he said. When it came to the crash itself, he wasn’t able to understand everything he read.

So as a networker, doing what comes naturally, he wrote to TeaneckShuls, the group that connects much of Jewish Teaneck. Most of it is requests for rides or local services or invitations for people to pick up objects that need new homes, but some requests can be more esoteric.

“Do you (or someone you know) know someone who would be willing to help me understand a declassified Air Force collision report from WWII?” his post began.

The Bergen Evening Record shows part of the crash site.

One reply it drew was “Best question of all time on TeaneckShuls (I’m new though) LOL,” which is fair, but it also got Dr. Levin connected to two people who could help him decipher the reports. “One is a Vietnam-era pilot and the other is a flight instructor,” he said.

The reports of the crash are inconsistent, Dr. Levin said.

“According to the newspapers, Browne either landed near where Bowen did, or he landed in a field about a mile from the Teaneck armory.”

This is where it gets complicated. The stories in the newspapers and the government reports do not agree.

“According to the newspaper reports, Browne either landed near where Bowen landed, or in a field about a mile from the Teaneck armory, in the meadows or the swamp,” Dr. Levin said. “The incident report said he landed in the meadows. According to Larry, he landed on the lawn of the Teaneck armory, which at the time was a full-time federalized military installation. An army camp, where new recruits went for training. Those recruits included sentries who were new to their responsibilities.

“I found newspaper accounts from a few weeks earlier about an incident where a local resident took a shortcut, and either he didn’t hear the sentry telling him to stop, or he just didn’t stop,” Dr. Levin said. (Or, of course, the sentry was too startled to say anything.) “So the sentry shot him. It was a teenager. He was taken to Holy Name. The newspaper account didn’t say that he died, but it did say that he had major surgery.

“So I am sure that the people in town were on edge.”

Larry Robertson thinks that most likely Browne landed right in front of the armory, and the Air Force covered that up. “The armory now is an innocuous place — my son played soccer there — but then it was being guarded by new soldiers,” Dr. Levin said. “They didn’t even have bullets yet. Just bayonets. They were still being trained. They heard a loud bang.

“According to Larry’s reports, one of the machine guns in the wing of Browne’s plane got stuck in the on position. It was firing 50-calibre incendiary bullets, which can go through concrete. They’re armor-piercing bullets. They hit 42 houses. No one was hit” — which is an extraordinary thing — “but someone in his kitchen had a coffee cup shot out of his hand.

“This wasn’t mentioned in the newspaper accounts. There was nothing about bullets in the incident reports — but those reports were just what the pilots said, and maybe they didn’t know. The reports were about what happened in the air, and were less interested in the damage,” although, Dr. Levin added, the Air Corps did “write out checks to a number of residents for repairs. But there was no mention of the bullets.

“Larry said that he saw fire department records that showed that the department went around with two ladder trucks and put tar paper on people’s roofs so they wouldn’t leak.

“There were no two-way radios at the armory, but they heard a bang and then continuous machine gun fire, and columns of smoke from the wreckage. The air raid sirens went off.

“The crash happened over the intersection of Teaneck Road and State Street, two miles up in the air,” Dr. Levin said. “There are all the sirens going off, all the apparatus speeding somewhere — and then out of the sky comes a man in a black uniform. He comes down in a parachute.” That was not a Nazi, just Meade Browne.

This all happened at 8:43 in the morning. “At least one person was on his way to church, another to play golf,” Dr. Levin said. “He was in his driveway. According to the Bergen Record, many people who did not see what happened but heard the roar assumed that the long-rumored Axis invasion finally had begun.

“The sentries at the armory thought that it was a German paratrooper who had landed, so they ran over with fixed bayonets and kept trying to stab him.” They weren’t very good with bayonets either. They kept missing. “And he kept rolling on the ground, yelling things that only an American would know — who won which game of the World Series, who New Jersey’s senators were — kept trying to make them believe that he was an American. Finally, a master sergeant came out and stopped it.

“That part of the story was suppressed at that time,” Dr. Levin continued. “Browne’s report said that an Englewood policeman picked him up after he landed in a field” — most likely that field was over the line that divided Teaneck from Englewood. “I asked Larry how he knew the story about the armory and the bayonets and the attempting stabbing, and he said that retired policemen and firemen and ambulance drivers told him that story.”

Then there was Bowen’s story, as Mr. Robertson heard it and retold it to Dr. Levin. “He came down in the Teaneck High School football field right next to Route 4,” Dr. Levin said. He was on the ground, but the part of his parachute that was supposed to keep it deflated, or allow him to get it off immediately, didn’t work quite right. The parachute didn’t exactly re-inflate, Dr. Levin said, but the wind caught it, “and blew him into Route 4.” The Jersey barriers that now separate the east and westbound lanes had not yet been put in, “so he blew all the way across Route 4, from the south to the north side of it,” Dr. Levin said. “Then he hit his head on the curb.

“There was a bus coming in from the city, and there was a student nurse on the bus who was coming home from her shift in a hospital in the city,” he continued. “She saw him lying on the ground, and she realized that he was going to lose his airway.” He’d stop breathing, and then he’d die, and she could fix it. “So she demanded to be let off the bus.

“The driver pointed to the signs above his seat, which prohibited talking to the driver and said that passengers could get off only at designated stops. And she told the driver that he would be on the ground next to the pilot if he didn’t let her off right then, right here.”

He did. “She saved the pilot’s life,” Dr. Levin said.

That story isn’t in the incident report, he added. “The official story is that he landed in the backyard of a house on Julia Street, and that a little girl chatted with him and said that he was very nice.

“Browne’s plane landed on a garage at a house on the corner of Cherry Street and Queen Anne Road. The owner was an innkeeper; it was a Catholic family with two daughters and a son. Both daughters later became nuns. All three kids were walking to church, maybe a few blocks away on Teaneck Road” — probably St. Anastasia — when they heard the bangs and roars. “The older daughter kept going, but the two younger ones turned around to see what was going on. They saw their detached garage in flames. Their parents were in the kitchen. But luckily the fire department had had an air raid drill one week before the crash, coincidentally just a block away from where the plane landed, so that really helped them be ready.”

There were two cars inside the garage, Dr. Levin said. Both were destroyed.

“On the other side of Queen Anne Road, a family’s housekeeper was hanging draperies on the clothesline in the backyard when she heard a noise coming from the front. She went out to check — and a part of the plane landed where she had been standing.”

There were many other reports of damage; other stories of near misses and astonishing luck.

Eight years later, in 1950, the mother of that family, whose house had been hit by one of the planes in 1942, called her daughter to say, “It happened again.”

Against all odds, her house had been hit by another plane.

“There was another airplane crash, on the intersection of Queen Anne and Cherry Lane,” Dr. Levin said. This time it was a small plane that had just taken off from Teterboro Airport; this time the pilot was killed, although no one else, either in the air or on the ground, died. “But it was at the same place,” Dr. Levin said. That was where Browne’s plane landed.

Teaneck was not the bustling hub of homegrown Nazi sympathizers that neighboring Englewood was — there was no Charles Lindbergh equivalent in Teaneck, no Morrow family for the fascist airman to marry into — but it had its own Bund sympathizers. There were reports of “a parade on Cedar Lane when Germany conquered France,” Dr. Levin said. “And the head of the German-American Bund, Fritz Kuhn, lived in a house in New Milford for a couple of years, until he was sent to prison for fraud. For defrauding the Bund. But they still loved him.”

Dr. Levin will tell these and other surprising, nearly forgotten local stories on May 21 — including the surprising end to the pilots’ stories, and he welcomes everyone interested in walking and listening to join him.

Who: Dr. Daniel Z. Levin

What: Will lead a walking tour of places of historic interest in Teaneck, including the streets where the planes crashed in 1942.

When: On Sunday, May 21, at 11.

Where: The tour begins at the northeast corner of Votee Park — the corner of Court Street and Queen Anne Road — and circles back to end there.

How long: It’s a three-mile walk; people are welcome to join for part or all of it.

How much: It’s free.

For more information about the route or to say you’re coming: Email Dr. Levin at dzlevin@gmail.com

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