Freeman Field Dig
- Written by Dick Phillips
While several of our members are aware of what the present Freeman Field Research Project is all about, I'm sure that there are several that may be hearing about it for the first time. In the summer of 1945, an ambitious effort was made in the ETO (European Theatre of Operations), to obtain as many German aircraft as possible, selecting the most airworthy examples of each type, to send them to the USA for testing and evaluation. The code name for this project was LUSTY. It was under the command of Col. Harold E. Watson, and the pilots and the men involved became known as Watson's Whizzers. Over several months, they collected whatever aircraft the Luftwaffe had left at overrun airfields and ferried them to ports in France. There they were loaded on board several ships. Among them were the HMS Reaper and the liberty ship, Richard J. Gattling. On arrival at Newark, the crated aircraft were put on railway flat cars and the many tons of spare parts were loaded into box cars for the trip west to Wright Field at Dayton, Ohio. One of the requirements when collecting the German aircraft was that they had to be accompanied by a year's supply of spare parts to support the flight-testing program. This included spare engines, tires, landing gear, control surfaces, instruments and any other parts that could not be readily available at Wright Field. Therefore, many crates of parts came over with the aircraft.
By the time the material was arriving at Wright Field, it had been decided to use Freeman Field, Seymour, Indiana, as the evaluation site. Freeman was about 90 miles northwest of Dayton. Freeman field had been built as a twin engine training field and had been used to train over 4000 pilots in the AT-10 "Wichita". Freeman was also used for a short time as the first training field for the R-4B Sikorsky helicopter. This was a brand new and radical type of aircraft in those days.
Several of the crated war prizes were assembled and a test flight program was initiated in the late summer of 1945. Not only were there Luftwaffe machines on had at Freeman, but a similar project had been undertaken with Japanese, Italian and even a few English aircraft. The list of German types on hand was extensive and included the very familiar Bf-109, FW-190, JU-88, Ju-87's plus jets such as the Me-262, He-162, Ar-234 and even V-1 and V-2 rockets. There were also many trainer, bomber and transport types on hand. Now keep in mind that all these types came over accompanied with many crates of spare parts.
Even though the war in Europe had come to an end and the bombs were being dropped in Japan, they had managed to make almost 2000 flights from Freeman in the aircraft that had been made airworthy. However, with the end of the war, there was no need or budget for the evaluation program and it rather quickly came to an end. Some of the planes were transferred to Davis-Monthan Air Base in Tucson Arizona, some to Wright Field and some to Orchard Place Army AirField just northwest of Chicago. Need I explain to anyone what became of Orchard Place?
By early 1946, the mission of Freeman Field was over and all the military material was being disposed of by selling it, giving it away, or by the easiest way digging a hole and burying it. Now, for you German aircraft fans, think about all the existing Luftwaffe machines that still reside in various museums today in the USA. That would include the ones in the Smithsonian, the JU-87 hanging in the Science Museum in Chicago, the ones in the Planes of Fame-West at Chino and the other few scattered around the country. All of these were from the collection at Freeman Field.
By April 30th, 1947 the military had finished their disposals and clean up of Freeman, and had officially returned it to the City of Seymour, and it became the civil airport for Seymour and Jackson County, Indiana.
Now, if we do a little inventory here, we find that several of the "War Prize". aircraft had found new homes in museums, Only a handful could be accounted for in that manner. We are sure that some of them were actually scrapped, meaning cut apart into small pieces and melted down. However, scrapping took on another meaning to some people in those days. It meant simply getting rid of it by whatever means were available. In addition to the several dozen aircraft remaining on hand, there were dozens of railroad box cars still on hand that had been used to store the hundreds of tons of spare parts that had never been used. When an individual aircraft was given to a museum, it didn't necessarily have all its spares with it. Many of the spares were still crated and stored. Since there had been a fair amount of Luftwaffe's Jet and Rocket powered aircraft there. They were of great interest to the US military in the early post-war years. Much of the flyable and new or like-new jet/rocket equipment was taken away and a lot of it ended up with the US Navy and US Air Force for further evaluation. Even with that, the inventory list left a lot of material unaccounted for at the time of the turnover of Freeman to the City of Seymour.
From 1947 until 1992, little or no interest was given to the items that were buried at the airfield. The runways were still there and it remains an active airport. Although, a couple of the runways had been closed. The ramps and hangers remain. A fixed base operator runs the fuel sales, hanger rental and flight instruction that goes along with most any civil airport. Rhodes International, a small cargo-hauling airline flying C-47s and Convair 240's had a facility and maintenance hanger and a few corporate aircraft were based there. The main part of the base that had contained the barracks, mess halls, offices and all the buildings found on a busy military base, had become a giant industrial park.
In 1992, Charles Osborn of Louisville, Kentucky, heading a group named "Blue Sky Aviation", made some contacts and received permission to do some digging for the "treasure" rumored for many years to be buried there. After several months of exploratory holes and many pits and trenches dug, they had nothing other than plain trash to show for it. And, I'm not saying plane trash. Blue Sky decided to abandon the project, feeling that little or no aircraft material was there, only the trash typical of any normal dumping site.
Now enters "Salvage 1", run by a Northwest Airlines mechanic, Lex Cralley. Lex has successfully retrieved WW2 aircraft from lakes, rivers, swamps, and other final resting-places that others have given up on. Lex watched the progress of Blue Sky at Freeman and formed his own ideas of how to and how not to go about looking for the "buried treasure". Probably the most important thing was to gain the confidence and respect of the local authorities at Freeman, the City of Seymour, Jackson County, the State of Indiana, the FAA and the United States Air Force Museum. With this done, he poured over maps, vintage aerial photos of the field, interviewed the few old timers still living in the local area that either worked at Freeman in those closing days or knew people who had been there.
By the summer of 1995, Salvage 1 was ready to do a little digging of its own. By this time, I had sort of talked my way into the project as official photographer and historian, even though there was another excellent historian and author from Cincinnati who had been researching Freeman Field for many years. He is Lou Thole, who recently published a soft cover book named "Forgotten Fields of America."
The first dig of 1995 was a site in the middle of a corn field. That dig showed some promise based on the study of several aerial photos that showed a large X shaped disturbance in the topsoil. It had been said that bulldozers had cut large X's in open areas and set some of the larger aircraft in the trenches. They may well have done just that, but not at the point where we labored that day. In 1996, we had run ground radar soundings and checked the ground adjacent to the one lone rail siding on the field, figuring that had they wanted to empty those box cars quickly, a long trench beside the siding would be just the answer.
The radar images tended to reinforce that thinking. Another full day of digging along the tracks drew another blank. If nothing else, we were learning what the radar could and could not show after it penetrated a couple feet of hard blue clay and soil and sand full of natural ferrous material. That day while digging by the tracks, we walked over about 200 yards to the place Blue Sky had been digging in the base dumping ground and where they had put the ash from the base incinerator, in the military days. Even though the ground was now covered with a layer of broken glass from thousands of soda bottles left on the surface by a pop bottling plant which had operated in the industrial park in the past, we thought the site was worth a more thorough search than Blue Sky had given it. Thus, after a lot more radar searching and the taking on of a new business partner, Tidewater Tech of Virginia Beach, VA, it was decided to look into that dump again. In August 1997 after a full day of digging right next to the Blue Sky site, the back hoe pulled up a load of soil and out rolled a beautiful German radial engine cylinder head. The next bucket full brought up several more. Some were identical to the first and several other types and sizes.
Eureka! We had found something! In the next few days we brought up about 3 tons of other German aircraft parts, along with a scattering of some AT-10 parts and a very curious pair of Spitfire Mk. 9 gear doors. In addition ot the cylinders, there was one bank of DB605 V-12 engines (they were used in the Bf-109), several turbine wheel sections from a JUMO engine of the Me-262, a couple dozen prop blades, some wooden and mostly metal, about 50 various landing gear struts, several wheels, some with tires still on them, a dozen or so radiators for liquid cooled engines, hundreds of odd pieces of sheet metal and aircraft framework. One of the airframe parts was what appeared to be a very sturdily built wing tip, obviously of jet or rocket quality. A comparison of the part with some photos and interestingly enough a 1/32 scale plastic model of a Me-262, show it to be the outer two feet of the left horizontal stabilizer of a 262. Possibly the largest single piece brought up was the entire vertical stabilizer of a FW190 still showing the camouflage paint scheme and the swastika on each side.
We have the full story on one FW-190D-9, W/Nr211016, (FE-119), that crashed at Freeman on September 22nd 1945 and the tail was ripped off the aircraft on impact. The rest of the plane bounced, cartwheeled, and came to a rest a quarter of a mile beyond the impact point. It is said that the pilots body was removed from the wreckage and the plane was buried right where it came to rest. It appears that the tail, which was some distance from that site, did not get buried and somehow ended up in the dump site which we were now digging up. However, our tail was from an earlier FW-190A model and it is not the D-9 that we thought it might be.
That site is now pretty well played out of aircraft parts. Our next target will be some other known dumping areas on other parts of the field.
As I mentioned earlier, one of the old LINK Trainer buildings that still stands on the base has been turned into a mini-museum to hold not only some of the German parts we have found, but also the USAAF historical items that the airport manager has obtained. A local aircraft modelers club has built dozens of models of all types of planes associated with Freeman Field over the years.
On October 29, 1997, the Indiana State Historical Society recognized Freeman Field as an Indiana Historical Site by placing a bronze plaque at the field entrance. This event was undoubtedly brought on by the findings and work we have done over the past few years.
The digging has ceased for this season. But when the ground dries out in the spring, we will be back to check out the area that the radar has shown to be promising. THE SEARCH CONTINUES!