In September 1936, members of the 99th Bombardment Squadron, stationed at Mitchell Field in Long Island, New York, were sent to train at Hillsgrove Airport in Warwick for two weeks.
On the evening of Sept. 22, thousands of interested spectators were watching from the ground below while a trio of B-10 bombers performed their aerial night missions.
The bombers, some of the largest and fastest planes used by the military, flew in formation during what was planned to be just another night of training maneuvers. Then, unexpectedly, a thick fog rolled in off Narragansett Bay. Radio operators attempted to make contact with those in the planes to instruct them to land their machines immediately. Although communications were unsuccessful, the pilots knew their flights needed to be aborted due to their sudden lack of vision.
With the fog making it impossible to determine where the airport’s landing field was, one of the bombers went on to Massachusetts and safely landed there, while another went on to a safe landing in New York.
The plane that had been leading the formation, carrying 25-year-old pilot Jack Jerome Neely of New York, 26-year-old Corporal Angelo Mazzacco of New Jersey, and 28-year-old Corporal Thaddeus Macaziewski of New York, would unwisely go in for a landing right there in Warwick.
Neely erred in estimating where the runway was, not realizing he was touching the plane down close to the end of it. The plane soared through trees and bushes, slicing through the forest as the machine broke apart and burst into flames. The two corporals were killed instantly. Neely was still breathing when he was pulled from the wreckage and was transported to St. Joseph’s Hospital in an unconscious state. He died soon after his arrival.
The son of retired Army officer Capt. R.H. Neely of Florida, he was survived by his parents, a brother and a sister. He had graduated from West Point Military Academy in 1934, was stationed in Texas in 1935 and had been with the 99th Bombardment Squadron in New York for about a year.
Neely was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia with full military honors. As his casket was lowered into the ground, a formation of Army planes flew by as a memorial to him, one space in the lineup being left empty.
Let us not forget the meaning of Memorial Day. It is to honor those brave patriots like Neely, Mazzacco and Macaziewski, who sacrificed their young lives for a country they loved.
Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.