By Tom Poland
I visit forgotten churches more than the church I call my own. I feel a haunting at an unfrequented church, a poignant peaceful feeling. I see pews, a pulpit, and the occasional piano. A hymnal now and then. The old congregation? It sleeps nearby.
Old, inactive churches have long spoken to me. “Why don’t you tell people about us? We get lonely.” When I couldn’t ignore them any longer, I decided to put several old churches in a magazine feature. Working on it now … Hearing about my project, people contacted me. One, retired forester Ken Leach of Greenwood, told me something I couldn’t get out of my mind.
“A guy I worked with forty years ago reflected on an old abandoned church near Newberry on Monument Road. It had an old piano in it and it was there he taught himself basic piano skills.” Many inactive churches still have pews and a piano. How easy to conjure up a ranger in green and khaki sitting on a three-legged stool playing the piano, notes ringing out to a congregation of cedars, birds, wasps, and mice.
A friend and I set out to find this old church turned one-man conservatory, and we were in for a shock. Monument Road, I figured, had something to do with the old church. It didn’t. We started, stopped, and backtracked. More than a bit frustrated, we stopped at an old Southern home with five chimneys. The friendly owners gave us directions. Monument Road was the key to finding our way along Beth Eden Road where the old church was. If we made it to Monument Road, we’d gone too far.
Monument Road runs into Beth Eden Road and along its route sure enough stands an impressive monument. We read with astonishment what happened near here. “In memory of the following men who lost their lives as a result of a plane crash near this spot on February 5, 1943 while in the line of duty.”
The inscription uses the singular “plane” crash but two bombers crashed here. The Newberry Observer published a story June 7, 2016 about the collision. “On Feb. 5, 1943, several B-25 bombers on a navigational training mission departed from Tampa, Fla., en route to Greenville Army Air Base, now Donaldson Air Force Base. At around 5 p.m. three of these bombers passed over Newberry in a tight V-formation. The day was overcast and when these aircraft approached a dark cloud bank, the lead plane suddenly veered to the right to avoid a flight path where visibility would have been extremely poor. In doing so it collided with the plane to the right in the formation and both aircraft plummeted to the ground, killing all 14 crew members aboard.”
The bombers were actually U.S. Army Air Forces craft. The National Security Act of 1947 created the U.S. Air Force July 26, 1947. Air Force or Army, if you research worst airplane disaster in South Carolina you won’t read of the Newberry collision. My guess is the military censored the accident with planning underway for dropping atomic bombs on Japan. The story hid, so to speak, all these years, except to the people of Newberry County and families of the victims.
The old church we so wanted to see? It took some doing, finding the site. The old church was gone. We found a flattened area littered with broken pieces of ceramic and old blue glass. At the site’s edge sat a polished piece of granite. As I walked the grounds I knew I had stepped into a personal history for some, the end of a church and the beginning of another one elsewhere.
And I had stumbled into world history—the death of World War II servicemen. I thought of piano music and the sound of crashing metal. I tried not to think of falling men. All in all, it gave me a haunting of a different kind, one I’m unaccustomed to at old chapels long left to their own devices. RIP, churches and all.
Georgia native Tom Poland writes a weekly column about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and culture and speaks frequently to groups in the South. Governor Henry McMaster conferred the Order of the Palmetto upon Tom, South Carolina’s highest civilian honor, stating, “His work is exceptional to the state.” Poland’s work appears in books, magazines, journals, and newspapers throughout the South.
Visit Tom’s website at www.tompoland.net
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