Her father and uncle both flew bombers during World War II, but war stories were not common during Christina Maree Reynolds Price’s childhood.
“My dad really didn’t talk about his experiences in the war,” Reynolds Price said of her late father, Lt. Col. John Robert Reynolds, a 1942 Camas High School graduate. Reynolds had been training to fly B-29s in the Pacific Theater when his older brother, Arthur Joseph Reynolds, 24, was killed on Nov. 10, 1943, in a horrific crash in Europe that claimed the lives 13 airmen, plus four civilians and a horse on the ground.
“The loss of his brother was very painful for him,” Reynolds Price said. “He had night terrors for years. I would hear him yelling in the bedroom, and his eyes were open, but he wasn’t there. The war was a very painful subject for him.”
Then, in the early 1990s, Reynolds Price took her father to see the movie “Memphis Belle,” about the last combat mission of a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber based in England.
“I had no idea what he had gone through on those missions until we saw the movie,” Reynolds Price said. “After the movie, I started getting bits of information from him, here and there.”
John and Arthur Reynolds grew up in Camas after their parents, Joseph and Mary Reynolds, emigrated from Canada in 1926 in search of a better life.
“My dad’s family couldn’t find work in Canada, and they were very, very poor,” Reynolds Price said. “Friends sponsored my father’s family, and eventually they came to Camas and both of my dad’s parents got jobs at the (paper) mill.”
Joseph and Mary Reynolds later owned a general store. John Reynolds used to tell his children stories about how he and Arthur spent hot summer days jumping into local swimming holes and dreaming of their future.
An international mystery
John Reynolds was devastated by the death of his only brother and, after the war, spent many years trying to find out more about the crash.
“Before he died, (my father) told me he was convinced that Arthur had been testing a new type of radar and that the crash may have been the result of sabotage,” Reynolds Price said. But he died without ever discovering the details.
Unbeknownst to John Reynolds, other people around the world also were working to solve the mystery of what caused Arthur’s plane to go down in a farmer’s field on that fateful November day in 1943.
A few months ago, Reynolds Price’s sister, Susan Reynolds Sherman, received a message from a woman in Florida asking if she might be related to Arthur Reynolds. Wendy Rust of Miami had also been researching the 1943 crash. Her father, Col. Robert W. Rust, had known Arthur’s co-pilot, 23-year-old John “Jack” Russell of Baldwin, N.Y.
While researching Jack Russell’s short life and the crash that caused his death, Wendy Rust met Steve Andrews, a military history buff from Norfolk, England, who helped her crack open the mystery of the doomed B-17 Flying Fortress nicknamed “Stinky.” Andrews also knew Clive Stevens, a World War II aviation historian who can see the crash site from property he owns in Brome, Suffolk, England.
Soon, the trio of researchers would discover something John Reynold had suspected all along: There was more to the B-17 crash than military officials were letting on. As it turned out, the plane Arthur Reynolds and Jack Russell were piloting was the first U.S. B-17 Flying Fortress to carry H2S radar pathfinder equipment — technology first used by the Royal Air Force to identify targets on the ground for nighttime and overcast bombing missions.
“It was a new, secret technology the British had,” Andrews said, “and this plane, ‘Stinky,’ outfitted in the spring or summer of 1943, was the first American plane to have that radar technology.”
After reading now-declassified documents that John Reynolds would have loved to see during his lifetime, the research team began to believe that this new technology likely contributed to the crash.
Plane caught fire
On the day of the crash, Andrews said, “Jack and Arthur’s mission had been scrubbed (canceled), and they were heading back to their home base, more than likely looking forward to some rest and relaxation in London or Cambridge.”
Records indicate that the plane caught fire shortly after takeoff. “Normally, they would go to higher levels and parachute out,” Andrews said, “but the fire was so intense, they were struggling to control the plane.”
The airmen were likely aiming for the nearest runway, the under-construction Eye Airfield. “They were literally minutes away from landing,” Andrews said. But the plane was engulfed in fire, and Andrews said the crew was likely overwhelmed.
“There was an old country house (now the site of a hotel), and there was a row of trees,” Andrews said. “They probably clipped those trees, bounced on the road and hit the road workers and went into the field.”
That knowledge, for him, hits hard.
“They were so close. Just minutes from safety,” Andrews said. “They were all so young and fresh-faced … and you do get invested in their stories. They all say they weren’t heroes, even though they are in our eyes. But, at the time, they were just doing what they thought was right. Your heart goes out to them, to the sacrifices they made.”
The research team is planning to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the plane crash on Nov. 10 with the unveiling of a memorial monument at the crash site.
To learn more about the crash, or to donate to the B-17 Crash Memorial Project, visit gofundme.com/f/brome-b17f-crash-memorial-fundraiser.