Horror in the skies over Huntington Beach

June 27, 1943. 10-year-old Vera Silva of Garden Grove didn’t go with her parents and four siblings to the nearby beach to enjoy the summer day. She stayed home to be with and help care for her blind grandmother. By nightfall, when the family had yet to return, her grandmother felt something ominous at happened. “Something is wrong,” she told Vera. “Something is very wrong.” Shortly after, the police arrived at the home.

And that’s when little Vera’s life changed forever.

The Crash

That afternoon, her family, along with their friends, the Borregos, went to the beach right across from where Newland Street meets the Pacific Coast Highway. In 1943, Huntington Beach’s border ended at Beach Boulevard so technically, this was an unincorporated area. Once both families settled on the beach, the two fathers decided to go to the store to get some food so everyone could enjoy a picnic by the water.

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At a nearby air base, a squadron of P-38 fighter planes took off. One of them had engine trouble and separated from the formation. The pilot, Gene Fair, knowing he couldn’t get back to the base, ditched out over the ocean at about 3000 feet and soon landed safely and softly in a Huntington Beach strawberry patch a couple of miles inland. The plane continued traveling offshore where the pilot assumed it would eventually crash harmlessly in the ocean.

Both families on the beach noticed the low-flying plane as did people from the nearby Huntington Beach Pier. It flew overhead but then something went wrong. An unusually strong ocean wind redirected the plane back toward the beach and within seconds, it crashed at the shoreline. There was barely time to run away.

Vera’s sisters, Frances age 6 and Mary age 13, and her two brothers Rueben, 7 and Rudy 8 were all struck by the crash, along with dozens of other victims. The two girls would die within the day. Both boys survived with horrific burns. Two of the Borrego children were also killed.

When the fathers had left the beach to get food, the children had been playing by the water. When they returned, they were being loaded into ambulances.

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The aftermath

It’s the worst air disaster in Huntington Beach history and certainly one of the most horrific mainland accidents of the World War II era. Vera, from that point on in her life, looked after her brothers. Both of them died as young men, never truly recovering from the burns and other complications. Her parents died young as well, brokenhearted. Today, Vera is 83 years old. When she talks about the accident she still gets tears in her eyes. I met with her recently in the clubhouse of a mobile home park on Newland at PCH. This is where Vera’s daughter lives today. And as we all sat around a table, I shared with them that we were near the exact spot where the plane had gone down.

Everybody in the room seemed to grasp just how profound it was that Vera’s daughter Maria has settled where she has, not knowing what had taken place literally just outside her front door.

A witness on the Huntington Beach pier that day wrote, “I was on the beach by the South. I saw the P 38 climbing and it seemed to be under control. When at approximately 2000 feet it nosed straight down. I did not see the pilot parachute as I was too interested in watching the plane. The plane seemed to crash nose first and it burst into flame immediately. At first the plane was headed toward the sea but it turned and circled back and then crashed at the water’s edge.”

Immediately following the horrific crash, HB lifeguards, led by the legendary Bud Higgins, raced to the scene to help.

As the newspapers reported, “49 persons were injured, three of them critically burned, today when a blazing pilotless P-38 Army pursuit plane crashed and exploded in a crowded beach area. The plane was flying over the beach at a medium altitude when a wisp of smoke was seen to emerge from the fuselage. Immediately afterwards, the pilot parachuted off the plane, which continued to dive with throttles apparently wide-open. It smashed into the sands at the water’s edge just south of the Huntington Beach city limits and flaming high-octane gas shot out over the beach and flying debris blanketed the vicinity.”

Remembering history

Vera, at a young age, took care of her brothers. And her parents. Her life as a family matriarch was shaped, inspired and defined by that accident and she took her responsibilities seriously. She also told me her parents never held any grudges or ill will toward the pilot. They simply understood it had been a horrible accident. I think we forget sometimes what Huntington Beach was like during World War II. The Bolsa Chica Gun Club was by then used by the military as an outlook point of the Pacific Ocean had gun mounts that had been installed on the mesa, among other things. You know Brewster’s Ice House? That was originally a meat locker used to keep food on ice for the soldiers down on the beach.

Vera’s daughter Maria reached out to me and asked for help in getting a marker/kiosk installed near the crash site to help commemorate and remember exactly what happened. In addition to honoring the families that were so tragically torn apart on this day, I also think it’s an opportunity to educate people about a vital part of the city’s history: life during wartime.

So now we will begin trying to get it done.

On a bright, warm and breezy day, gazing off toward the spot where her life changed so dramatically on June 27 1943, Vera wipes one more tear. “My family went through a lot. So did the city. Maybe more people can know about this now.”

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Categories: Uncategorized | 10 Comments

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10 thoughts on “Horror in the skies over Huntington Beach

  1. laura gillis

    Beautiful, enlightening story, Chris ~ thank you. I am loving your good work on the new blog. And loving reading you and feeling the inspiration more frequently!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting story… Mary Fitzgerald

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Victoria Adams

    I never heard about this till now. God bless Maria and her family.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I remember my mother showing me clippings frim this tragic accident. Vera Mendez is my cousin as well has my beautiful GOd Mother.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Dawn

    I was born and raised in HB and never knew knew any of this. This would be a great way to enlighten people to a rich and interesting part of the areas history.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. My husband and I were privledged to sit in on the interview. It was amazing and a tear jerker. That are an amazing family.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Vera is a strong inspiring woman. I would like to meet her. Will you keep us posted on the progess of that kiosk being erected?

    Like

  8. Maria Young

    I received this disappointing IM this morning. Does anyone know which law he is referring to?

    “Appreciate your support of a momument, plaque, or kiyos, but this happened 80 years ago, only a handful of HB residents heard of this accident, as it did not happen in Huntington Beach. City limits ended at Beach Blvd & PCH. Not sure if the State of Calif. or Calif. Coastal Commission would allow under current law. HBCC is unlikely to move on this proposal. Sorry.”

    Like

    • Maria–that is simply absurd–to suggest that because it happened a long time ago and not many people know of it is exactly the reason TO acknowledge to. Don’t worry–we will do everything to make this happen.

      Like

  9. Margaret Smith

    Thanks for sharing this important inspirational story as I never heard it before. I agree, there should definitely be a marker.

    Like

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