Tuesday, June 18, 2024

ROMA: A Forgotten Local Tragedy (Part 3)

Spectators watch as a crane removes the twisted metal of the crashed ROMA. Note how the steering assembly remained caught in a telephone pole on the right. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Nancy Sheppard is also a professional historian that specializes in Hampton Roads and aviation history. She has researched, written, and lectured extensively on the subject of the dirigible ROMA disaster and is considered the leading academic authority on this subject. -Ed.
WARNING: This part of the series discusses topics regarding the death of several people and may not be suitable for all readers. Discretion is advised. -Ed.

LANGLEY FIELD (Va.) — For the past two weeks, we have discussed what happened in the months leading to the single deadliest disaster of a U.S. hydrogen airship, the Army Air Service’s ROMA. Today, we will conclude this tragic tale and the nearly forgotten men who served aboard.

The Beginning of the End

February 21, 1922 was a day in which the weather was not ideal for flight. The temperature was frigid, the sky overcast, and a light drizzle of freezing cold rain and ice was coming down from the sky. This was supposed to be the day in which ROMA was scheduled to take her first trial flight with her newly-outfitted Liberty V-12 engines. However, Capt. Dale Mabry, commanding officer of the airship, was uncertain if conditions would be right for flying.

One of ROMA’s original Ansaldo V-12 engines, which were replaced by the Liberty V-12 engines prior to the ship’s final flight (Courtesy of the U.S. Air Force)

Just after lunch, the sky began to clear and Capt. Mabry recalled his crew to the hangar to move ahead with the flight that day.

Forty-five officers, crewmen, and civilians gathered on board including Walter McNair, a physicist from the Bureau of Standards whose purpose was to measure ROMA‘s speed on that flight. Also on board were several civilian engineers from McCook Field in Dayton, Ohio, who were training the Army engineers on how to use the new engines aboard ROMA.

The lift off from Langley Field that afternoon was very different than that on Nov. 15 the previous year. Instead of lifting on an even horizontal axis, ROMA was nose heavy, with her forward section remaining lower than her aft. Knowing that structural integrity was based on balancing the ship and her eleven mini gas bags (or ballonets) that were house inside her much larger envelope (exterior gas bag), Master Sgt. Harry Chapman worked vigorously to balance the gases inside while Capt. Mabry ordered weight to be moved as far a stern as possible. Eventually, ROMA reached the desired horizontal equilibrium and pressed forward with what was supposed to be a trial flight around the Greater Hampton Roads area.

ROMA‘s first officer, Capt. Walter Reed, noted that the controls seemed to be more sensitive than he experienced in the past and Walter McNair’s instruments measured her speed in excess of 75 mph (approximately twenty mph faster than she was ever noted as flying before). Instead of seeing these as symptoms for a cautionary tale, Major John G. Thornell, the recently relieved first commanding officer of ROMA, who was on board as an observer, exclaimed, “These Liberties are the stuff!”

When ROMA was just over the white light house at Old Point Comfort (Fort Monroe), Capt. Reed fell ill and asked that second officer, Lieutenant Byron T. Burt, Jr., take over his position while he retired to the passenger cabin for rest.

Layout of ROMA’s key positions (U.S. Air Force photo with notes added by Nancy Sheppard)

Corporal Alberto Flores stuck his head out of the top point of ROMA‘s crow’s nest to measure how taunt her bag was. Men milled about the various corridors and cabins aboard the airship, some there just to watch the scenery while others soaking in everything they could learn from those manning the various stations.

ROMA turned to cross the river over to southside Hampton Roads and all hell began to break loose.

The Fall

While crossing over the river from Old Point Comfort to Norfolk, Cpl. Flores measured the gas bag from the exterior. She was ten millimeters too loose. While to the casual observer this might not seem like a big deal, for ROMA, it could be catastrophic. ROMA‘s structure consisted of an articulated duraluminum, a heavy metal cone on her front and a box kite, triplane rudder that was supported by the structural integrity of the airship.

Meanwhile, Lt. Burt stood at the control wheel. He went to turn it but there was no resistance or give; it just spun freely in his hands. He pulled the elevator controls for ROMA‘s rudder and they, too, moved freely.

On the ground, witnesses reported seeing the rudder fall to a forty-five degree angle. Mrs. Mingee stood in the backyard of her Norfolk home as ROMA passed over. Her son pointed her attention in the direction of the airship. Mrs. Mingee cupped her hand over her mouth and, with a gasp, cried out, “Those poor men!”

Cpl. Flores attempted to climb down from his post but found his only passage to warn his shipmates below was pinched shut and unable to be passed. Helplessly, he gripped tightly on the bag as the blustering wind pushed passed his face.

Lt. Burt and Capt. Mabry scrambled to try and gain horizontal equilibrium and stay aloft long enough to reach back to the waters of Hampton Roads but to no avail. Without a central way to unload the ship’s ballast, it was impossible to lighten the load quick enough. A message was sent to the six engine platforms for full stop. The aft and midship platforms received the message. However, for reasons that remain a mystery still nearly 100 years later, the forward engineers never received the message.

ROMA was plummeting to the ground at remarkable speeds. At the Army Quartermaster Depot (now the location of Norfolk International Terminals off of Hampton Boulevard), the employees watched as ROMA was coming closer and closer to them. One employee raced to the power station to cut off all electricity to the depot but found himself slowed by the mud from that morning’s shower.

On board, panic ensued as the men tried to figure out a way to save their own lives. Lt. William Riley strapped on a parachute while his crewmates begged him not to jump. At a max ceiling during that flight of just over 700 feet and ROMA‘s rapid descent did not place her high enough for a safe jump. Riley seemed to not hear his shipmates and leapt from the cabin to the ground below.

Spectators watch as a crane removes the twisted metal of the crashed ROMA. Note how the steering assembly remained caught in a telephone pole on the right. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Cpl. Flores gripped the bag’s exterior with razor focus on the ground coming quickly towards him. He knew he had mere moments to save himself. The moment the tip of ROMA‘s nose touched the ground, he jumped forward and ran, uncertain if his own feet were on the ground or in midair. He continued to run until he felt someone grab him.

Behind him was a magnificent explosion as ROMA burst into flames. Witnesses saw the silhouettes of men, writhing in the fire, screaming, “Mercy! Oh, mercy!” before disappearing into the fingers of what was their funeral pyre.

Lt. Byron Burt, who was thrown clear from the ship upon initial impact, saw a group of men gathered around a singular spot on the nearby roadway. He ran over and found the mangled body of Lt. Riley; as warned, the ship was simply not high enough.

The Recovery

Eleven men were taken to the nearby public health hospital in various states. The most dire were civilian engineer Charles Dworak and Master Sgt. Harry Chapman, who dove into the flames to rescue several of his shipmates. The men at the hospital kept asking nurses and doctors where everyone else was.

An intrepid newspaper reporter managed to sneak past everyone in the cacophony of the moment and into where the eleven men were being held. One survivor asked, “What of the other boys?” The reporter felt a lump in his throat as he told them that these men were the only ones to survive.

All anyone could utter in response was, “Awful!”

Eleven men. Only eleven of the forty-five that went on board ROMA just a short time before survived.

Back at the scene of the crash, thick, black smoke filled the air and the heat so great that not a person could get near. It took hours to douse the flames of the twisted wreckage that once was the great dirigible. It was obvious to anyone there that this was not a rescue but a recovery.

The dress cover of ROMA victim, Sgt. William Joseph Ryan (From the Nancy E. Sheppard ROMA Artifact Collection)

Bodies were pulled from the wreckage; some completely unrecognizable. Those who pulled the men out took whatever they could and pinned it to the remains to help identify the victims. Mr. Rouse from Rouse Funeral Home in Newport News arrived with a cavalry of hearses from other funeral homes to transport the thirty-four men by ferry back across to the Peninsula.

The last man to be pulled out was removed of any recognizable features except for his uniform and the control wheel he still gripped tightly to.

What was a day that was supposed to marked in triumph was instead marred by the single deadliest disaster of a U.S. hydrogen airship.

Thirty-Four Lost Souls

Thirty-four men sacrificed their lives in a brutal manner in the name of aviation advancement on behalf of the U.S. Army. That night would be one to determine who each of them were and to notify their loved ones.

Capt. William Kepner, a non-flying member of the crew, arrived to Rouse Funeral Home accompanied by Dr. Jesse Mabry, a local dentist and older brother of Capt. Dale Mabry. Kepner later described the scene that befell him as one that he would never forget. He noted that these were his boon companions and, in the blink of an eye, they were gone.

One by one, the items found with the bodies were used to identify those who were unrecognizable. Dr. Mabry helped however he could, determined to find his brother. When they came to the last body, that of the man holding the control wheel, it was determined that was Dale Mabry; a hero to the end, he never left his post.

Loved ones were notified and hearts were broken. These thirty-four men left behind fiancées, wives, children, parents, siblings, and so many that loved them. Capt. Kepner was there to comfort each family members as they came to take their boys home. Cpl. Nathan Curro kept his word to friend Cpl Irbey Hevron and accompanied the young man’s remains back to his home.

The burial flag of ROMA survivor, M.Sgt. Alberto Flores (From the Nancy E. Sheppard ROMA Artifact Collection)

An elaborate public funeral was held on February 24, 1922. The remains of Capt. Mabry and Pvt. John Thompson were used to represent all of the thirty-four men who died. After an intimate church service, the caskets were paraded through the streets to the reserve unit, Huntington Rifles, playing “Saul’s Death March.” Hundreds gathered along the sides, weeping as if this was their own loved one who died.

Finally, the procession ended at Newport News’ Casino Grounds, where the ship’s dog mascot stood loyally beside Capt. Mabry’s casket. Promises were made in speeches that these men would never be forgotten and grand memorials would be erected in their memories. A spray of flowers rained down from the sky as pilots flew their biplanes over the service.

The question remained: What happened on February 21, 1922?

What Happened

ROMA was in poor condition when she went aloft that day. Her fragile gas bag needed replacing and their was a tenuous amount of oxygen that kept leaking into it. Additionally, the Liberty V-12 engines were lighter and faster than the Ansaldo engines that she was originally fitted with. The ship was simply moving too fast, too low an altitude, and was in too poor condition. She began folding in on herself (given the articulated structure) and the rudder control cables snapped. Additionally, an unstable mix of oxygen and hydrogen was occurring.

When ROMA initially touched ground, she was fine. But when her broken rudder grazed an active telephone wire, the spark ignited the unstable gas mixture and she exploded. At that point, anyone who wasn’t thrown clear of the ship would more than likely not get out.

Debates raged in the public and in Congress as to what to do next. While some demanded an end to the airship programs, others chalked the crash up to be collateral damage in the face of advancement. The ultimate compromise reached was that airship development would continue, but every other ship would be filled with helium moving forward.

The Ultimate Cost

A marble stone erected at Norfolk International Terminals to memorialize the ROMA disaster. It is behind a locked gate and completely inaccessible to the public (Nancy E. Sheppard)

Following ROMA, it took Master Sergeant Harry Chapman and civilian Charles Dworak a full year to recover as best they could from the injuries they sustained. Master Sergeant Chapman was the only member of the crew to be recognized for his heroism that day as the first recipient of the now-defunct Cheney Award. He died many years later from the long-term injuries he sustained from jumping back into the fire to save several of his crewmates.

Charles Dworak truly suffered mental anguish as a result in what would be characterized as today as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He was unable to return to his job as an engineer and languished for the remainder of his life.

The rest of the eleven men that survived were scattered from one another. While some remained in the military, continuing to serve through World War II, others returned to civilian life when they could. They each lived a quiet existence for the rest of their days.

There was a memorial stone dedicated thirty years following the disaster at the site where it took place. The men that worked at the newly-stood up terminal port pooled their money together and erected a marble stone to mark the place where the thirty-four men lost their lives. In the port’s expansion, the stone was moved years later and now sits a quarter of a mile way on the grounds of the Crumbley House; a private recreational area for the port that is behind a locked gate; completely inaccessible to the public.

In 2020, the first public recognition occurred when a historic highway marker, sponsored by this author on behalf of the family members of the “ROMA 45,” was erected in Norfolk, telling the story of the sacrifices made and forgotten nearly 100 years ago right in Hampton Roads.


The historic highway marker for the ROMA disaster, sponsored and written by Nancy E. Sheppard on behalf of the loved ones of the “ROMA 45” (Nancy E. Sheppard)

ROMA is a story wrapped in legacy, loss, and sacrifice. It is one of more than an airship, but of forty-five separate lives destined to converge at a single point in time to advance aviation technology but leave their marks on history.

Today, we wouldn’t think twice about honoring such bravery and selflessness; we would honor the dead and the ultimate sacrifices made in the line of duty. We would remember them.

No one remembered nor grieved for the men of ROMA except the loved ones that were left behind. With fewer left, their light grows further dim with each passing year.

These are the things that should never be forgotten. These men mattered, they changed history, and they were heroes.

Lest us never forget those who made such a sacrifice wearing the cloth of this nation.

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