Merrill Moore, former anchorman at WCYB TV, attempted for years to learn the truth about a purported military plane crash in East Tennessee during World War II.
Eugene “Jeep” Jones, former chief engineer at WETB Radio and a friend of Moore, recalled hearing about a P-51 Mustang going down on Coffee Ridge in Unicoi County. The newsman’s first big break occurred in 1987 while working on a television story regarding the apple orchards on Coffee Ridge.
Merrill remarked, “The ridge was the location of many orchards in the early part of the 20thcentury, but over the years, hard times and high costs had forced most growers out of business. The theme of the story I was working on centered on the fact that only seven orchards remained. Brothers Harley and Merley Willis owned one of the few remaining ones. During the interview, I mentioned about the tale of the downed plane. Merley said, ‘You see that tree up there on the hill and that sunken area next to it? Well, that’s where the plane hit.’”
The two young boys were sitting on their front porch one afternoon during a severe rainstorm and heard what they believed to be a truck out of control. Suddenly, an airplane descended through the fog, crashed and exploded within 200 feet of their house, sending a ball of flames across the field and setting their barn on fire. As the boys ran to put out the blaze, they unexpectedly spotted the slightly injured pilot, a Lt. McKinsey, floating earthward in a parachute.
A thorough investigation by Army personnel ensued over the next three days. The aircraft was determined to be P-39 Bell Airacobra plane. Additional facts about the event occurred in August 2002 while Merrill was working at the Appalachian Fair. Ms. Helen Edwards, who grew up in Coffee Ridge, recognized the popular TV newscaster and began talking with him.
Merrill questioned her knowledge of the crash: “She said her mother kept a journal on everything that happened and felt she surely would have written something about it. She promised to go home and try to find it.”
True to her word, the lady returned to the fair a couple of days later and handed Merrill a piece of paper. She had located the journal containing this handwritten entry: “An airplane crashed in Jasper Willis’ field on June 17, 1943. It was a P-39 pursuit plane with a pilot. He bailed out in his parachute. As he left the plane, he hit his arm and broke it twice. He was taken to the hospital in Johnson City, Tennessee. Horace Higgins took him to Erwin, and an ambulance took him to Johnson City. The pilot had started from Charlotte, NC, headed for Knoxville, Tennessee. The plane had four machine guns and one cannon. The plane was blown up and the propeller and cannon were driven seven to nine feet into the ground.
“Government officials arrived on June 18 to guard it until the truck and wrecker came from Charlotte. On June 20th, they picked up what they wanted to get and pulled the propeller and cannon out with a winch. The first plane to crash on Coffee Ridge Creek, 14 miles south of Erwin. Written June 20th, 1943.”