Seventy-five years ago, a military transport plane crashed in a remote section of Peru, Massachusetts, killing 16 of the servicemen on board. The victims will be remembered in a ceremony marking the anniversary, as will the story of how this tiny Berkshire County town rallied to help in the rescue.
It's about a mile-and-a-half hike to get to the memorial site for the crash: through the woods, up an old, cobblestone road, and then over on a trail leading into Peru State Forest. And the simple stone monument honoring those who lost their lives sits on a small clearing in an area called Garnet Peak.
Our tour guide was Peru Selectman Ed Munch. He pointed out the general area where the plane went down. You can’t tell from the landscape, but if you had look closely, you might even have been able to find debris from the crash. To this day, people visiting the area still find these bits and pieces, and place them atop the monument.
"There's personal artifacts here from the solders themselves, and the plane, and the horrendous damage that was done to it," Munch said as he picked up a rusty belt buckle. There were other scraps of twisted, melted metal from the fire that resulted from the crash.
It was a Saturday night, August 15th, 1942. An Army C-53 plane bound for Rhode Island from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, lost its way in foggy conditions. And at about 9 o'clock, it went down.
"The blast kind of shook the hills, and Matie Bishop, a spotter, saw the flash and the town really mobilized to find out what happened, and try to get to the crash victims," said Susan Masino, a member of Peru's historical commission.
The sound of the plane explosion sent two brothers, Robert and Kenneth Torrey into the dark, damp woods with a shotgun. At the same time, one of the passengers, Army Sergeant Robert Lee, pulled bodies out of the flaming wreckage. Lee was injured but started looking for help, using what he had to attract attention.
"For a while, there was a lot of rifle fire going on and no one really knew what was going on," Masino said. "But ultimately, because [Lee] was smart enough to have his rifle with him, and even in that terribly burned state, he was able to help navigate the rescuers to the plane crash site."
The efforts of Lee, and the Torrey brothers, helped to save the lives of two other men, but 16 crash victims died.
Only about 30 families lived in Peru at the time, but they quickly mobilized, continuing the rescue efforts in what a news report called "one of the most inaccessible spots of the Berkshires." Soon, help came from surrounding towns and other agencies, but it was the people of Peru who were the first responders.
"They would have never said they were heroes because that's just the way country people are," Munch said. "They would give their shirts off their back, literally, to help someone if they were in need. And this was a good example of the people."
Munch has helped to organize the 75th anniversary commemoration at the memorial site. He says it's important to honor these men who were serving the country during World War II, even though none of them had any connection to the area.
"They could have turned out to be important people if they had survived and went to war, and got out," Munch said. "They could have been the heroes of different battles. They could have been politicians. A lot of things could have changed."
And, Munch said, he had no shortage of volunteers for the event.
"The newer generation people wanted to be part of this because it's something that...will never be forgotten in Peru," he said.
And it would be no surprise if the people of Peru, and neighboring communities, turn out to honor the crash victims, just like many of their relatives came out to help them, on August 15th, 1942.
New England Public Radio's Carrie Healy contributed to this report. We also consulted archival material from The Berkshire Eagle and Springfield Republican located at the Berkshire Athenaeum.