Printed verbatim and with much gratitude from the Burlington (VT) Area History Facebook Page, overseen by Bob Blanchard.
This month marks the 75th anniversary of the crash of a bomber into Camel’s Hump during World War II. Many may know of this incident, but may not know all the details. It’s a pretty amazing story of survival and the human spirit.
On October 16, 1944 B-24 bomber on a training mission with a crew of ten crashed into Camel’s Hump about 100 feet from the summit. Nine of the crew were killed instantly, but 18 year old PFC James Wilson, a gunner who had been sleeping in the back of the plane, survived, although badly injured.
An Army plane had spotted the wreckage the following afternoon, but the Army search team was given the wrong coordinates. The local Civil Air Patrol (CAP) leader pointed this out, but the major leading the Army team told him that the army knew what it was doing and that the CAP was off the case. The army did not think anyone could have survived, and their main interest was retrieving sensitive equipment and codebooks.
As the army team headed up the wrong side of the mountain, The CAP leader had his son pull several other CAP cadets out of Waterbury high school, and with a local dentist as their guide, they started up the right side of the mountain. Near the summit they found the plane and heard Wilson respond to their calls. He had been lying outside the wreck for 41 hours when they found him. The temperature was in the low 20s and there was snow on the ground. They were completed unequipped to help him. They gave him the only food they had, a sandwich one of the boys had brought, and they melted snow to make water for him. Having no blankets, they wrapped him in a parachute and some canvas found in the wreckage. It had been warm that day down in the valley and even the rescuers themselves were not dressed for the weather at the summit.
Two cadets headed back down for help while the others stayed with Wilson. It would be another 22 hours before they got him off Camel’s Hump. He would survive, but would lose both hands and feet due to frostbite. He was the first of two soldiers in World War II to undergo such radical amputation.
But James Wilson did not let this slow him down. He quickly adjusted to his artificial limbs, learning to walk and feed himself. A high school dropout, he returned to his home state of Florida, finished high school, then graduated from the University of Florida. Three days after graduation he married, and the couple honeymooned in the Champlain Valley. They then moved to Colorado where he went to law school, and began practicing law in Denver.
He spent much of his life as an advocate for disabled veterans. A Philadelphia newspaper had set up a $100,000 trust fund for him after the crash. He donated that and other contributions he received to disabled veterans groups. He returned to Vermont numerous times, meeting with his rescuers, visiting Camel’s Hump, and going through the Free Press archives for articles about the rescue. In 1989 he returned to dedicate a memorial plaque to his fellow airmen lost at Camel’s Hump. He passed away in January of 2001 at age 75. His death was the lead story in the Burlington Free Press the next day. In 2014, on the 70th anniversary of the rescue, the last two living rescuers were honored by the Vermont legislature. James Wilson’s two children attended the ceremony.
The loss of Wilson’s B-24 was unfortunately a typical day in the training of aircrew during the war. Every day from Pearl Harbor to VJ Day, an average of ten young men died in training crashes before they ever left the U.S., a total of over 15,000. That’s not even counting wounded survivors like James Wilson. Flying was still relatively new, planes often had mechanical problems, and of course, were manned by young trainees. Planes lacked basic features like pressurization and heat. Wilson’s plane almost certainly crashed because the pilot had dropped below his recommended altitude of 8,000 to 4,000 in order to escape the extreme cold at the higher altitude.
You can still see a wing and part of the fuselage on Camel’s Hump. The rest of the wreckage has been taken off the mountain by scavengers and souvenir hunters.