Dartmoor Explorations

A collection of walks, discoveries, insights and pictures of exploring Dartmoor National Park

West Okement Valley – Crash site of US Navy PB4Y-1 Liberator 63926 (from squadron VB-110)

On 28th December 1943, US Navy PB4Y-1 Liberator 63926 of VB-110 squadron crashed in West Okement Valley. The aircraft came down between the Slipper Stones and Steng-a-Tor on the west side of the valley, opposite the south end of Black-a-Tor copse, sadly with the loss of all 10 crew member on board. Over 80 years later, some of the wreckage from the aircraft is still strewn from near the top of the ridge, down the hill virtually to the river. Much of the wreckage was removed in the 1960’s (due to some complaints from various Dartmoor conservationists) but as can seen from the photographs in this post, quite a lot remains and is an extremely sad reminder of this tragic event. In 1973 the Devon Aircraft Research and Recovery Team examined the crash site an further pieces were found. The Liberator crash happened only 3 days after the B-17 (Flying Fortress) bomber crashed only a mile or so to the west at Tigers Marsh. Whenever the author visits the two site locations time is always taken for remembrance and reflection.

The aircraft had taken off that morning from Dunkeswell (near Honiton, East Devon) along with 14 others of Air Wing 7, their target being eleven enemy destroyers in the Bay of Biscay. The mission had failed to locate the destroyers and on the return journey, the bomber was contacted by another bomber, warning of enemy aircraft. Two Dornier 17 long-range fighters appeared and shots were exchanged but it seems no strikes were made on either side. The two bombers then started their return to base independently. The weather was poor with very low cloud cover and navigation had to be made by “dead reckoning”.

At 22:15, flying control and Dunkeswell received a message from the pilot Lieutenant William Parish to advise their estimated time of arrival as 22:20. However, minutes later the aircraft struck the hill above the valley. It is reported that it must of hit the hill (at approx. 540m above sea level) at a shallow angle ploughing a furrow for a quarter of a mile before going over the edge of the ridge descending down the steep side of the valley. Investigations later revealed that for some unexplained reason PB4Y-1 63926 still had a full bomb load on board.

The fact that Lieutenant William W. Parish advised Dunkeswell they were 5 minutes from the arriving suggests he must have thought they were only 15 miles away. The reality is they were probably three times that distance away. William Parish, one of the most experienced pilots in the squadron, had probably thought they had already crossed Dartmoor. Transcripts of the last radio message from the bomber show that no serious problems were reported simply a few ‘slight ones‘. The poor weather conditions (low cloud) near to Dartmoor’s highest peak would have been a major factor in the unfortunate crash.

The ten crew members are commemorated on a plaque on the ridge above the valley. The crew of PB4Y-1 63926 / B-5 E were: Lieutenant William W. Parish (Pilot), Ensign Donald M. Lyons (Co-pilot), Ensign Roger. W. Lovelace, Jr. (Navigator), Aircraft Machinist’s Mate 2nd Class Arthur. J. Stork (Flight Engineer), Aircraft Machinist’s Mate 2nd Class John E. Shaffer (Flight Engineer), Radioman 2nd Class Leo M. Davenport (Radio operator), Radioman 3rd Class John F. Benson (Radio operator), Aircraft Machinist’s Mate 3rd Class Alfred J. Roddy, Jr. (Gunner), Aircraft Machinist’s Mate 3rd Class Charles. A. Reynard (Ordnance Operator) and Aircraft Machinist’s Mate 3rd Class Dwight E. Nash (Gunner).

Bibliography

  1. Dartmoor Air Crashes – Aircraft lost in World War Two (Pages 88-93) by Robert Jones (2015)
0. Map
Sketch map showing the location of the wreckage of the crashed Liberator and its associated memorial. The post include grid references on how to find these items. A good guide as to the general location is the south end of Black-a-Tor copse and the line of range poles which lead up towards Steng-a-Tor
1. Black-a-Tor Copse
View of the West Okement Valley from between the Slipper Stones and Steng-a-Tor, the extent of Black-a-Tor copse beyond the river evident
2. West Okement Valley
The West Okement river. The steep slopes of the valley evident. The unfortunate Liberator appears to have first hit the top of the ridge (Top right of picture) before descending down into the valley with debris reaching as far as the river.
3. Google Map 1
Google Earth view of the memorial and wreckage locations (looking south east). The Liberator, most likely first hit the ridge near where the memorial is now located before plunging into the valley. Therefore, in all likelihood it was travelling in an south west to north east direction.
3. Google Map 2
Google Earth view of the memorial and wreckage locations (looking north west).
3. Steng-a-Tor
Steng-a-Tor (aka Stinka Tor) is located a short distance to the south east of the memorial plaque. There was a military exercise taking place on the day the photograph was taken
4. New Plaque 1
This memorial plaque was installed in May 2022. The stone (along with one at Tigers Marsh for the Flying Fortress crash) was brought to the location by a Royal Navy Commando helicopter. The timing of the installation was to enable formally dedication of the stone(s) ahead of the 80th anniversary of the crashes.
4. New Plaque 2
The memorial stone is located at SX56570 88327. It replaced an aluminium memorial plaque which was located in the valley next to one of the areas of wreckage.
5. Liberator Picture 1
The PB4Y-1 was an American Navy adaption of the B-24 Liberator and 63926 belonged to US Navy unit VB-110, a fixed wing bomber squadron. The picture above was taken in 1943 over the Cornish coast.
6. Top Section 1
The upper most pieces of wreckage left behind after the clearance of much of the wreckage in the 1960s and 1973. This wreckage can be located at SX56721 88472
6. Top Section 2
This picture of the uppermost wreckage gives a good indication of the steepness of the valley leading to the West Okement river below.
7. Middle Sections 1
Various sections of wreckage. The author is sure most people will realise that a licence to excavate or recover remains from a military aircraft crash site must be first obtained from the Ministry of Defence.
8. Liberator Picture 2
The PB4Y-1 was used for patrol-bombing. It used four 14-cylinder Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp radial engines, part of one which can still be found amongst the wreckage.
9. Middle Sections 2
More wreckage further down the hillside can be found at SX56783 88528 and SX56785 88528
10. Original Plaque
The original aluminium memorial plaque, which was replaced by the stone memorial at the top of the ridge in May 2022. This plaque has been removed (circa May 2022)
11. Engine Section a
The original memorial plaque was placed alongside one of the four 14-cylinder Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp radial engines.
11. Engine Section b
A later picture of one of the four 14-cylinder Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp radial engines (without memorial plaque). Apparently during the 1973 search for more wreckage, one of the Pratt and Whitney engines found has been restored. In September 1985, seventeen air crew veterans of the 7th US Feet Air Wing along with their families came to Devon. As part of their visit they visited an exhibition (which was organised in Okehampton Museum), part of which was the restored bomber engine. Source: Legendary Dartmoor website
12. Letterbox
A Dartmoor Letterbox site can be found near to where the engine remains are located.
13. Third Section
Wreckage close to the West Okement river
14. Section by river
The last section of wreckage (of four located by the author) can be found close to the river. There is an unrelated inscribed boulder (‘OPB’) nearby.
15. OPB 1
The ‘OPB’ inscribed boulder, which stands for Okehampton Parish Bounds
15. OPB 2
The ‘OPB’ inscribed boulder can be found at SX56854 88602
16. Slipper Stones a
Slipper Stones towards the north end of the valley
16. Slipper Stones b
The Slipper Stones on the hillside
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