Nebraska town remembers fatal World War II plane crashes

Melvin Klein miraculously survived. His family journeyed to Milligan, Neb., for the memorial ceremony.

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Minnie Klein and her daughter, Andrea Greer, visit the memorial markers in Milligan, Neb.

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WESTON - Mom and daughter live next door to each other on top of one of rural Oregon's quiet hills. It's a simple life for Minnie Klein and her daughter and husband, Andrea and Lynn Greer, but it wasn't always.

Oct. 25, 1943, is a day the family will remember forever. At the time, the late Melvin Klein was a second lieutenant in the Air Force and loved to fly.

"My husband's first love was flying," Minnie said.

It was this love that took him into the air as a copilot of a B-24 Liberator that afternoon from an air base in Fairmont, Neb. It was routine formation training, but Melvin was not scheduled to be on the flight. During lunch his commanding officer asked him to fill in for the scheduled copilot who was unable to make the flight because of an illness. Melvin agreed.

As the flight began, Melvin was repeatedly hit on the back of his legs by the straps of the parachute under his seat. Out of frustration he buckled the loose straps around his ankles.

Though he didn't realize at the time, this act would be the difference between life and death a few minutes later.

Formation training included practice of a diamond shape created by four planes. When one pilot began to drift out of formation, training requires another plane fill its place to keep the formation tight. As the back plane began to move to the empty position, the drifting plane corrected and moved toward the same spot and the planes collided in mid-air.

With the crash came an explosion that sent Melvin through the plane's windshield, knocking him unconscious, and sending him into a free fall. As he fell, he went through a cloud. The precipitation woke him up. More startling than the cold water on his face was the fast approaching ground. Realizing he had a parachute on his ankles, he reached for the pack, struggling to get it around at least one shoulder. Melvin was able to pull the rip cord moments before he hit the ground.

Thanks to the parachute, bruising was his only injury, though he was in shock. Returning to his feet, he began walking toward the road to find a ride to the nearest government building, which happened to be the Milligan, Neb., Post Office. He waited there to be picked up by someone from the base.

Out of the 18 crew members in the colliding planes, Melvin was the only survivor.

The following year, two other crashes happened near Milligan, killing nine of the 14 crew members.

Nearly 67 years later, a committee of seven Milligan residents decided to commemorate those who were in the crashes. The committee has been working for the past year to raise money to create a memorial book and three memorial markers on Highway 41 near the north edge of Milligan. It also began making phone calls to the families of those involved in the crashes, asking for their input to the book and their attendance for the memorial on Aug. 14.

For Milligan, with a population of less than 300, the response for the memorial was incredible, with nearly 600 people at the ceremony.

"I've done a lot of things, but this had to be the most rewarding project that I've ever worked on," Milligan Memorial Committee member Shirley Brunkow said.

For Brunkow, contacting relatives was an emotional project. Many relatives couldn't believe a small community like Milligan would do anything like this.

For Melvin's family, this memorial was extremely meaningful and emotional. Families were taken to the crash sites, and met the families of other crew members from the same flights. The ceremony included a 21-gun salute and a rendition of Taps in honor of the crew members and their families.

"A lot of people think that if people don't perish overseas, they aren't true heros," Greer said. "The people of Milligan realized that these men were just as much heroes as the men who die overseas."

Melvin continued his career in the military, retiring as a colonel before being diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease. He died Sept. 3, 1993 and is buried at the Blue Mountain Cemetery in Walla Walla. It's been decades since the crashes, but for this Oregon family, the impact is still large and thanks to the community of Milligan, it will be remembered.

Jennifer Jorgenson can be reached at jenniferjorgenson@wwub.com.

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