By Joanne Bailey-Boorsma
The Spirit of South HighThe local Campfire Girls present the flag during the dedication ceremony for "The Spirit of South High" on April 6, 1944. (Grand Rapids Historical Collection)
The Spirit of South HighThe bomber's pilot poses with "The Spirit of South High" queen and officials. The second man from the right is Henry Mulder, a South High civics teacher who helped the students. (Grand Rapids Historical Collection)
The Spirit of South HighA local band performs during the dedication ceremony for "The Spirit of South High" on April 6, 1944. (Grand Rapids Historical Collection)
The Spirit of South HighThe B-17 bomber, "The Spirit of South High," departs from then Kent County Airport on April 6, 1944. (Grand Rapids Historical Collection)
Mabry's MillMabry's Mill in Virginia: the crash site of the bomber is located right behind the restaurant at Mabry's Mill. (Photo provided by Sandra Warren)
The Spirit of South HighSandra Warren's book "We Bought a WWII Bomber: The Untold Story of a Michigan High School, a B-17 Bomber & the Blue Ridge Parkway!"
While Grand Rapids’s South High School has been closed for almost 50 years, the school’s spirit remains strong as its Varsity Club still meets regularly along with other alumni get-togethers.
No one can deny that the spirit of South High School is just as strong now as it was when the school was open and one person who can attest to that is author and 1962 graduate Sandra Warren.
“It was quite an amazing school,” Warren said. This might be an understatement since within its graduating classes were former president Gerald R. Ford (1931) and singer Al Green (1966). And the students did some amazing things such as raise $375,000 through the sale of war bonds and stamps to purchase a B-17 Bomber – aptly titled “The Spirit of South High” – for the World War II effort, the subject of Warren’s latest book.
“The students did all of this work to raise this money for the B-17 and there was a dedication on April 6, 1944 and from there it flew off with no one ever really knowing what happened to it,” said Warren, who will give a presentation on her book “We Bought a WWII Bomber: The Untold Story of a Michigan High School, a B-17 Bomber & the Blue Ridge Parkway” on Monday, March 7, at Grand Rapids Public Main Library, 111 Library St. NE.
“There were these wonderful stories that it had won all these battles in defending our freedom,” Warren said. One South High alum took it upon himself to find out what happened to “The Spirit of South High” and with the aid of another – Ford – he discovered its history was not that glamourous. The bomber was used for training in the United States and was dismantled in Columbus, Ohio, according to a military report.
“Many of the alums were disheartened to learn the end of the story was it was used for training,” Warren said, adding that during one of her presentations about South High she stated “I wonder how many pilots it had trained. It could have had far more of an impact on the war as a trainer than if it had gone off into the war.”
A classmate, who also was a veteran, heard that comment and decided to see if he could find a list of those who had trained with South High’s B-17 Bomber. What he discovered was the bomber had a much more colorful past than originally reported.
“The Spirit of South High” never fought in the war, nor was it dismantled as reported, instead it had crashed during a training exercise in the area that today is considered one of the most photographed places in Virginia – Mabry’s Mill. What made it even more interesting is that no one from Virginia’s Patrick County Historical Society or historians for the Blue Ridge Parkway, the road where Mabry’s Mill is located, knew anything of the crash.
“I had one historical member say to me that he had been involved with the group for decades and couldn’t figure out why he did’t know about the crash,” said Warren, who has copies of the reports made by those involved in the crash. “I went on a local radio station in Patrick County asking people if they remember the crash to contact me and we started getting calls.”
At the time of the crash, Oct. 1, 1944, the land was a pig farm. The original accounts talk about how the neighbors helped the pilots all of whom got out of the plane safely. The six-member crew were being retrained to lead their own combat units, Warren said, adding that all of the crew members had amazing records with one being involved with the atomic bombing of Japan.
“The military took what it could savage from the plane after the crash,” Warren said. “The farmer had to sign a paper stating it was OK for the military to leave the smaller pieces of metal on the land.”
Warren visited the crash site last May and discovered that much of those small pieces are still there. The area has been marked as an archeological dig site and Warren said she hopes to have a national marker placed there.
“It really is a magically story,” Warren said. “It is quite amazing what these students did and in the end, just how much of an impact the bomber did have on the war effort.”
Sandra Warren’s presentation on her book “We Bought a World War II Bomber: The Untold Story of a Michigan High School, a B-17 Bomber & the Blue Ridge Parkway,” is at noon March 7 at the Grand Rapids Public Library. For more information on the presentation or other library activities, visit www.grpl.org or call 616-988-5400.