As this column has previously noted, Taioseach of Éire (pron: tee-shock), Eamon de Valera maintained a curious kind of neutrality during World War II. Ireland was neutral, but de Valera conducted neutrality on his own terms. He secretly aided the Allies whenever possible, while Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt publicly condemned his neutral position.
One of the most secret concessions made by Ireland during World War II was the secret agreement that established the Donegal Corridor. This was a four mile flight path that allowed Allied aircraft to fly a route crossing over the territory of Éire and then on to bases in Northern Ireland and beyond.
On January 21, 1941 Éamon de Valera met secretly with Sir John Maffey, the British ambassador to Ireland. The result was the agreement that granted permission for Allied aircraft to fly across Irish territory. The corridor was located over south Donegal, north Leitrim, and north Sligo.
The agreement specified some terms: The planes were not permitted to fly over the Irish Army Camp at Finner in Donegal; the planes were expected to fly at a specified altitude (5,000 feet); and, in order to preserve an appearance of neutrality, the purpose of the flights were to be for air-sea rescue only. In actual practice, however, the rules and geographical boundaries were routinely ignored by the Allies with the full knowledge of the Irish government.
A serious aircraft accident occurred in the Donegal Corridor in northern County Sligo on the afternoon of December 9, 1943. The aircraft, a US Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress was being flown on a flight from Goose Bay, Labrador, Canada to Prestwick in Scotland.
The aircraft was part of the fourth batch of G model B-17’s produced by Boeing. The aircraft bore the name Queen of the Skies. On board the aircraft that afternoon were ten crewmen, including the pilot of the aircraft, Second Lieutenant Richard C. Walch, from Minnesota.
The aircraft approached Ireland on course at 11,000 feet. Over the Irish coast, the aircraft encountered unexpected heavy cloud cover. This caused the pilot to decide to land for refueling at Nutt’s Corner, County Antrim, Northern Ireland, rather than continuing on to Prestwick. Nutt’s Corner cleared the aircraft to descend to 4,000 feet, which the aircraft acknowledged.
As the aircraft proceeded over the Irish coast and visibility became zero, the pilot began a descent to get below the cloud cover, dropping below the 4,000 feet. During its gradual descent to Nutt’s Corner, the plane crashed into Truskmore Mountain, in northern County Sligo. Truskmore is 2,123 feet, on the northern borders of County Sligo and County Leitrim.
It is the highest mountain in the Dartry Mountain range and the highest mountain in County Sligo. The crash site was approximately 2,000 yards from the summit.
The co-pilot, Second Lieutenant William M. Grim, was the first survivor to emerge from the wreckage. Both of his arms had been broken when he was thrown from the aircraft. He found that the navigator and bombardier appeared to have fatal injuries.
He then made his way to the plane to check on the other crew members. It appeared that everybody he could find was severely injured, but because of his own injuries he was unable to assist them.
Second Lieutenant Walch arrived from the cockpit area. He was disoriented and appeared to have a head injury. The need for urgent medical assistance was clear.
Second Lieutenants Richard E. Fox (bombardier) and William F. Wallace (navigator) were killed on impact. The surviving members of the crew were either trapped or so badly injured as to be unable to move. Walch and Grim made their way down to a house at the base of the mountain. A local resident walked several miles to the Garda (National Police) station at Cliffoney, County Sligo and was the first to report the crash.
The Rescue on Truskmore Mountain
From then on, one of the finest examples of unselfish community effort occurred. Residents of Cliffoney and officials and organizations of County Sligo spent the entire night getting the injured crewmen out of the wreckage, down off the mountain and to the Sligo County hospital. One group of rescuers spent several hours digging earth with their hands to get at one crewman who was trapped beneath some of the wreckage.
Members of the Irish Red Cross of Sligo, aided by members of the Local Defense Force (LDF), made many trips up and down the several miles of steep, treacherous mountainside as stretcher-bearers – eight men were required to get each stretcher safely down the mountain.
Help was also provided by an elderly couple, Mr. and Mrs. Daniel Rooney, who lived in the cottage at the foot of the mountain. Rooney, aged 75 years, left his sick bed to guide Walch and Grim beyond a dangerous riverbed.
Mrs. Rooney remained up all night, supplied all the ambulances with boiling water for hot-water bottles, gave hot tea to each injured man and each stretcher party and supplied tea to the military party. She refused to take payment for her services and only asked that her stock of tea – about one and a half pounds – be replaced if possible.
Outstanding service was provided by Dr. Evelyn Connolly of Cliffoney, the only physician in the district. She crawled on her hands and knees and was pushed and pulled by two policemen for three hours to reach the mountain top. U. S. Army medical officers later stated that her initial care not only relieved the suffering of the injured but resulted in saving some of their lives.
She remained in charge of the rescue work all night, lightly clad, in pouring rain and bitter cold. The last of the injured was not extricated and brought down from the mountain until morning.
At Sligo County Hospital, medical care and surgical treatment was given as quickly as the injured airmen arrived. Every physician in Sligo was at the hospital all night. Medical personnel from 28th Station Hospital, U, S, Army, Northern Ireland, were dispatched to Sligo on the morning of December 10, 1943. Sergeant Adam J. Latecki (gunner) died of his injuries in the hospital four days after the crash.
The accident report of the US Army Air Forces Historical Support Office concluded, “The accident investigation board believes that the accident was actually caused by error in judgment on the part of the pilot in descending below 4,000 feet. If altitude had been maintained no difficulties would have been encountered. Pilot’s altimeter must have been in error somewhat, which cannot be explained, but if the airplane had remained at 4,000 feet (as ordered) there would have been adequate clearance over the mountains.”
*J. Michael Finn is the Ohio State Historian for the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Division Historian for the Patrick Pearse Division in Columbus, Ohio. He is also Chairman of the Catholic Record Society for the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio. He writes on Irish and Irish-American history; Ohio history and Ohio Catholic history. You may contact him at FCoolavin@aol.com.