The Crash of “Milligan’s Rats”

Illustration by Mark Stash.

Originally published in the January/February 2012 edition of “Yates Past,” the Newsletter of the Yates County Genealogical & Historical Society

Saturday afternoon, October 2, 1943, was unusually cold and foggy on Italy Hill, the highest point in Yates County with an elevation of 2,130 feet. A local farmer later said that the fog was “so thick you couldn’t see a cow 10 feet away.”

The quiet of that Saturday afternoon was suddenly shattered around 2:30. Residents in Italy Valley saw a silver Army bomber flying low below the clouds and then heard a loud crash. The crash occurred on Italy Hill, not far from the Jerusalem town line. The airplane had burrowed into a pasture on a farm that had been abandoned for decades, known locally as “the old Isaac Wilcox farm.”

Roads in the area had been long abandoned, and the only way to get to the area was to walk two miles through overgrown brush and waist-high grass. The first people on the scene saw a 1,000-foot-long swath of debris from the point of impact. It was immediately obvious that there were no survivors. The broken bodies of all onboard the plane were thrown clear of the wreckage before it burned.
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According to the Chronicle-Express of October 7, 1943:

About halfway along the path plowed in the peaceful pasture, the one wing broke loose and the fully inflated life raft was thrown clear with fire extinguisher and other equipment intact, bright new manila rope trailing over the side, it rested at ease on the rolling sea of grass, its real mission forever unaccomplished. One motor bounced and rolled some 400 feet from the track made by the sliding bomber; the other was over the hill and out of sight in the opposite direction. Three partially opened chute packs lay in white drifts, their soft silk folds billowing gently in the cold breeze that swept along the desolate hill.
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The plane was a twin-engine Mitchell B-25A Army Air Corps bomber. As was the custom of the time, it had been named by one of its earlier pilots. It was known as “Milligan’s Rats.” The bomber had taken off that morning from Chatham Field near Savannah, Georgia, on a training run with a crew of five. The pilot was 26-year-old Lieutenant Willard Wilder from Rochester, who must have had some say in the flight plan. They landed in Rochester to refuel and pick up a passenger, a Tech Sergeant from Buffalo who had been home on leave to see his mother and was hopping a ride back to Georgia.

They took off from Rochester to begin the return flight to Chatham Field. Lt. Wilder’s parents had a summer home in the Bristol Hills near Canandaigua Lake, and the young pilot brought his plane in low in order to drop a weighted note at his parent’s place. The note, which they received, read, “See you again someday soon. Take good care of yourselves. Goodbye for a while. Love, Bill.” He then dipped his wings in salute and headed south. Milligan’s Rats never regained the altitude they needed. It was estimated that with another 10 feet, the plane would have cleared Italy Hill.

As word of the crash spread, would-be rescuers and curiosity seekers made their way two miles through the brush to see the wreckage. There were also souvenir hunters. Service revolvers of the crewmembers were missing (later turned in to police), as were amounts of ammunition and equipment from the plane. The first officials on the scene were a state trooper from the Penn Yan substation and two other troopers from the Oneida barracks who happened to be visiting in the office when the call came in. They were on the scene just before 5 p.m. and were soon joined by Yates County Sheriff’s deputies. They brought the county coroner in to identify the bodies and clear them to be removed from the scene. Brush and trees were cleared to allow ambulances to the crash site, and the bodies were taken to Thayer Funeral Home in Penn Yan.

The Army was notified and sent in two National Guardsmen to guard the scene of the wreckage for inspectors to look over. They arrived around midnight. The next day, larger crowds came to the scene as word of the crash spread further. The crowds created quite a challenge to the men guarding the wreckage.

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According to the Chronicle-Express:

[They] had their hands full keeping the curious from walking along the tracks plowed by the plane and further confusing evidence which Army officials wished kept intact pending their investigation. No closer than 500 feet were the orders, but the perverse public insisted upon trying to find ways to circumvent this rule. One young man came up from the valley on horseback and was riding happily about the wingtip on the brow of the hill when one of the soldiers first discovered him.

‘Now where in h*** did he come from?’ questioned the disgruntled soldier, explaining that he and his buddy had volunteered for this job of guard duty and after 16 hours on the job with no relief, in the biting autumn wind on a bleak hilltop and no hot food, they were getting rather fed up.

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Sunday night large Army crash trucks arrived from Syracuse, and after cutting some timber, made it to the scene. The investigation was wrapped up on Monday and wreckage removed to Syracuse. The Army also smoothed the area over and planted some pine trees before leaving. The six bodies, which had been taken to Thayer Funeral Home on Saturday evening, were given an honor guard by the local American Legion post until Monday evening. Lt. Wilder’s parents came to Penn Yan to claim their son’s remains, and the other five were taken to the Army airfield in Syracuse to be flown to their respective homes.

In 1992, Clarence Sebring and Buster Brewer of Dundee, accompanied by then-editor of the Dundee Observer, Mary Geo Tomion, ventured back to the crash site. They had gone through quite a lot to identify the exact spot. The pasture of 1943 had become heavily wooded over the years. Using metal detectors, they were able to unearth several small parts from the bomber. The other result of their expedition was a nice story in the December 9, 1992 issue of The Observer.


by Rich MacAlpine