About 50 years ago, Genoa native Wilbur “Billy” Skinner crashed his A-4 Skyhawk into a mountainside in eastern France, unable to navigate back to his carrier in a heavy thunderstorm and dense fog.
Billy, a 1949 graduate of Genoa-Kingston High School, had joined the U.S. Marine Corps and was part of Cold War maneuvers off the carrier USS Independence near the coast of France. He had ejected moments before his aircraft hit the 4,000-foot-high Ballon d’Alsace near Belfort on Aug. 18, 1963. He did not survive.
In October his brother Bob Skinner, now a resident of San Francisco, and two of Billy’s three grown children, Bill and JB, of San Diego and Tustin, Calif., decided to visit the site of the crash and talk to villagers who were there a half century ago.
This would not be the first visit for Bob, who has been to the site twice before, but the two sons had never made the bittersweet journey. His sister, Ellen (Skinner) Piper who now lives in DeKalb with her husband Jerry, has not made the trip over there either. When Billy died at age 31, he left a widow, Joan, and four small children. Joan passed away in 2004, never having been to the mountain where her husband perished. Billy and Joan’s oldest child, Vicki, visited the site in 1985.
On this trip the three Skinners, and Bill’s wife Lois, were taken to the crash site, where the impact crater is still evident. They also talked with local residents who recalled the accident and were part of the attempt to rescue the downed pilot from near the wreckage, but his neck had been broken on impact.
Brother Bob relates the details as told him in 1981 by a local restaurant owner, 84-year-old Mr. Sevrin. The man had recovered and kept the plane’s rudder on a back patio of his mountain restaurant. He had etched details of the crash in French on the rudder, which he shared with Bob. Another elderly man, who lived on a nearby mountain, told how he heard the noise of the low-flying jet, then the sound of trees breaking, but the dense fog kept him from investigating.
The first person to reach the crash was a Sewen village fireman, soon joined by others who used a stretcher to carry Billy’s body back to a local doctor who determined the cause of death. He was then returned to the U.S. for burial at the Genoa cemetery, where his parents Bill and Margaret are also interred.
It was later learned that four planes from the carrier crashed in the foul weather that Sunday morning. Two pilots survived, but Billy and another pilot perished.
Bob said the recent visit brought Billy’s sons some peace of mind when they learned more details about the crash. Their journey helped bring some closure for the family that has been without their father for 50 years now.
Sevrin had written in an earlier letter to Bob: “Often I’m reminded, when listening to people of a certain generation speaking of Americans causing problems for us, of a different feeling these people had when the ‘boys’ arrived June 6, 1944? Wilbur having chosen for himself to defend the freedom and democracy, which is surely very precious to us, he knew in his work he could die, but he willingly served anyway.”
In 1964 Billy’s parents created a memorial, the Capt. W.E. Skinner Memorial Garden at Faith United Methodist Church in Genoa, so the young pilot will be remembered for many years to come.
• Barry Schrader can be reached via email at email@example.com or at P.O. Box 851, DeKalb, IL 60115.