Remembering the Southern crew on Memorial Day 2015

  • Published
  • By Lt Col Terrence G. Popravak, Jr., Lt Col, USAF (Retired)
  • 142nd Fighter Wing History Office
Each Memorial Day we remember those men and women of the armed forces who gave their lives in defense of our country.  A unit typically honors its heritage by remembering the fallen from its own history.  But units often move, and sometimes units inactivate, leaving a cold trail for remembrance.

In the case of the 142nd Fighter Wing of the Oregon Air National Guard, the unit honors its heritage dating back to World War II.  But during World War II, the 142nd was not assigned to Portland Air National Guard Base.  A variety of other air units were based at then-designated Portland Army Air Base.  From January 20, 1942 to March 14, 1943, one of these Portland-based units was the 75th Bomb Squadron (Medium) of the 42nd Bomb Group (Medium). 

The squadron's mission at that time was to conduct patrols of the Pacific Northwest coastline looking out for enemy submarines.  The Army Air Forces IV Bomber Command controlled the west coast patrol effort, though at times the Navy directed the anti-sub patrol operations of 75th Bomb Squadron aircraft.  

During this time, the 75th operated the Lockheed A-29 twin-engine attack aircraft, the contract designation of the famed Hudson bomber widely used by the British Commonwealth.  The A-29's were originally built for export under Lend-Lease contract, with the British receiving most of them as the Hudson Mk IIIA bomber.  But 153 of them were reclaimed by the expanding Army Air Corps and retained for US service as the A-29.

On the morning of November 20, 1942, 75th Bomb Squadron pilot 1st Lt. William S. Southern, and his four crewmembers, were on detached service from Portland AAB at Tongue Point Naval Air Station in Astoria, Oregon.  They boarded Lockheed A-29-LO serial number 41-23323 and departed on a routine patrol flight off the northern Oregon coast at 8:15 a.m. local time.  When they were about 50 miles off the coast, at 8:45 a.m., they experienced mechanical difficulties with the right engine.  Lt. Southern feathered the propeller, jettisoned the load of depth bombs, ordered the radio operator, Sgt. Albert Povodnik, to contact the base and headed back for Astoria.  They almost made it back.  Less than five miles off the coast, the left engine cut out without warning. 

As the aircraft lost altitude, two men bailed out; the plane's navigator, 2nd Lt. Leroy Kline, was likely followed by the gunner, Sgt. Robert E. Pierce, though surviving crew members did not see Pierce jump - witnesses ashore reported seeing two parachutes.  Sgt. Povodnik made an effort to jump and crawled out onto the back of the plane, but his parachute snagged the empennage of the aircraft and instead he came down with the plane.   

Lt. Southern glided the A-29 down to make what was recorded as the 42nd Bomb Group's first water landing at 9:15 a.m.  The aircraft came down with three of the crew still aboard around 500 yards from the shore, about five miles northwest of the Gearhart Hotel, just north of Seaside, Oregon, and a few miles south of the mouth of the Columbia River.  It sank about a minute or so after coming to a rest in the ocean, leaving the men little time to make their escape.

An eyewitness to the mishap was Mrs. Henry Goodrich, at her beach cottage close to where the plane came down.  She saw it flying low just over the waves offshore. "Suddenly it just dropped into the water," she recalled.  Mrs. Goodrich then observed a crew member climb out on a wing and contacted the Coast Guard at Astoria. 

All three crewmembers, pilot Lt. Southern, flight engineer Sgt. William R. Dart and radioman Sgt. Povodnik, survived the forced landing, though Sgt. Povodnik was thrown from the aircraft as it hit the water.  He swam back to the plane where Southern tried to help Povodnik get out of his parachute before the aircraft sank, and got his two leg straps opened before they were all in the water. 

Sadly, only two men of the A-29's crew of five survived this "routine" patrol mission.  The cold, rough waters, with waves of 12-15 feet, winds and an outgoing tide quickly separated the three who came down with the plane and then claimed the life of Sgt. Povodnik.  His body later washed up on shore at the mouth of the Columbia River. 

The two crewmen, who parachuted out, Lt. Kline and Sgt. Pierce, went missing in the cold waters of the Pacific Ocean.  The area where the A-29 came to rest was searched carefully, but no trace of them could be found at that time.

A Navy OS2U Kingfisher single-engine floatplane from Astoria flown by Lieutenant Commander Bowers, with ARM1c (aviation radio mechanic first class) Roy K. Whalen in back, spotted Sgt. Dart in the water.  They landed about 100 yards offshore and retrieved the slightly-injured, exhausted flight engineer and brought him back to Tongue Point just in time - at the base hospital Dart was so cold the doctor could not feel his pulse. But some whiskey and blood plasma brought him back around and he survived.  The Kingfisher crew launched again to search for the other men, to no avail.

The A-29 pilot, Lt. Southern, was able to reach the beach after a 35-40 minute struggle.  He couldn't walk straight after that but ambled a half block before an Army jeep came by and soldiers took him to an observation post for first aid - he couldn't stop shaking after the chilly immersion.  Later, he was taken to the Ft. Stevens Hospital, and he survived.

Several months later, the 75th moved on from Portland AAB to the war in the South Pacific with the 42nd Bomb Group.  Perhaps the memory of the three men the squadron lost on November 20, 1942, moved on too, as old squadron members left, new personnel arrived, compounded by the distance in time and location. 

Sgt. Robert E. Pierce's body was apparently later recovered, and is buried at the Hartsoe Cemetery in Marmaduke, Green County, Arkansas.  There is scant information on the other two crewmembers.  Sgt. Albert Povodnik's name is listed on the state of Kansas World War II casualty list for Chautauqua County.  2nd Lt. Leroy Kline's name is carried on the WWII casualty list for Knox County, Tennessee.  None are reflected on the Department of Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency's list of missing personnel not recovered after World War II.

On this Memorial Day 2015, we remember these three men of the Southern crew, 2nd Lt. Leroy Kline, Sgt. Robert E. Pierce and Sgt. Albert Povodnik, and their sacrifice for our country during World War II, while assigned at Portland Army Air Base.  May we all take some time on Memorial Day to pay our respects to all members of the armed services who lost their lives in defense of our nation.

(Special thanks to 42nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs Chief of Command Information, Ms. Lisa Warr, and Air University Director of History, Dr. Robert B. Kane, for their kind assistance in researching this event.)