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Cemetery air crash PFOP
Bloomington firefighters removed sections of a damaged airplane that crashed at Evergreen Cemetery, May 30, 1948. (The Pantagraph file photo)

Three years after the end of World War II, some 4,000 Twin City residents participated in Memorial Day commemorations at various local cemeteries, with many lining downtown Bloomington streets for the annual parade. For most, life was slowly returning to normal, though the pain remained of that decade’s more than 330 McLean County dead, lost in the far-flung battlefields of Europe and the Pacific.

All was well then on May 31, 1948, when a memorial service at Bloomington Cemetery (now called Evergreen Memorial Cemetery) was suddenly interrupted by a deadly plane crash.

The aircraft in question was a two-seat World War II trainer, flying low — skimming the treetops, onlookers said — between Park Hill and Bloomington cemeteries, circling both locations to shower poppies on those gathered below for Memorial Day programs.

“Eyewitnesses reported that the plane … had circled the cemetery once just above the treetops and was on its second trip around when it apparently stalled out and crashed either nose first or upside down into a large tree,” The Pantagraph reported. “The aircraft broke in two at about the middle of the fuselage and burst into flames.”

The plane’s only passenger, Chester H. Frahm, was pronounced dead on arrival at St. Joseph’s Hospital, while pilot James A. Tuley suffered serious but non-life threatening injuries. Both men were 25 years old, World War II veterans (Frahm with the Army Air Corps; Tuley with the Marines), and former residents of Stanford, the farming community west of Bloomington.

According to civil aeronautics authorities, Tuley had violated regulations prohibiting low-flying aircraft over a congested area.

Debris from the crash was thrown some 100 feet into a Bloomington Cemetery crowd that had gathered at a plot set aside for Civil War soldiers. Fortunately, no one among the several hundred on the ground was injured. The Bloomington Fire Department arrived to put out the fires and pull down part of the plane that had wedged in a tree.

The wrecked plane was a Vultee BT-13 Valiant, one of the more popular BTs (or basic trainers) of World War II. Thousands were produced for the Army Air Corps and Navy, and after the war most were sold as surplus.

There are still local residents who recall this Memorial Day crash. One such eyewitness was Gene Lorch who, back on May 31, 1948, was a five-year-old growing up on South Lee Street near Lincoln School (now the Lincoln Leisure Center).

Lorch remembers watching from his neighborhood as the low-flying aircraft disappeared over Bloomington Cemetery. Seeing smoke rise from that direction, he convinced his parents to walk the several blocks east to the cemetery. Not far from the entrance they saw the still-burning wreckage, with one part of the fuselage in the tree and the other on the ground. Coincidentally, Lorch is now president of the Evergreen Memorial Cemetery board of trustees.

The deceased Frahm joined the Army Air Corps in 1943, serving in the European Theater and accepting a captain’s commission before his discharge two years later. After the war he served as a reserve officer in the Air Corps and ran a small crop dusting outfit using his own plane. He married Ialeen Dossett, a graduate of the Mennonite Hospital nursing school, in October 1947.

Tuley, the pilot of the doomed plane who survived, served two years in the Pacific, and was wounded on the island of Guam. After the war the former Marine learned to fly, keeping a plane at Bloomington’s municipal airport, which was presumably the one lost in the crash. At the time, he was working as a bartender for Bloomington’s Louis E. Davis American Legion Post.

The following summer, Frahm’s widow, contending that careless piloting led to her husband’s death, obtained an undisclosed settlement against Tuley.

Back in 1948, what is now Evergreen Memorial Cemetery was actually two separate cemeteries — the northernmost part was called Bloomington City Cemetery (or “Old City Cemetery”), and the newer, southern sections were known, somewhat confusingly, as Bloomington Cemetery. The two similarly named but distinct burial grounds merged in the early 1960s under the care of Bloomington Township, a move that also led to the adoption of a new name — Evergreen Memorial Cemetery.

The cemetery is holding its fifth annual Memorial Day commemoration this weekend. Activities include free trolley tours of the cemetery grounds (1 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. today;  11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. Monday), the popular “Avenue of Flags” display and a noon Memorial Day ceremony.

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