Killed in a plane crash on November 24, 1943, 2nd Lieutenant Rachel Hannah Sheridan had the sad distinction of being the first of only two members the 32nd Station Hospital to die during the war. She was also the only nurse killed while assigned to the 32nd Station Hospital. I first learned about Rachel Sheridan from Willard Havemeier’s website about his experiences serving in the unit, and became curious about the circumstances of her death.
Sheridan was born in September 30, 1918 in Audenried, Pennsylvania, one of six children raised by Thomas and Hannah Sheridan. After graduating from McAdoo High School in 1936, she eventually made her way to Wilmington, Delaware. In 1941 she graduated from nursing school at the Delaware State Hospital. After joining the Army Nurse Corps, she was stationed at Camp Upton, New York and eventually assigned to the 32nd Station Hospital.
The annual reports written by Lieutenant Colonel Harold L. Goss and Principal Chief Nurse Helen W. Brammer are some of the best sources of information about the 32nd Station Hospital, but they rarely discuss individuals. Goss didn’t mention Sheridan’s death at all in his 1943 report. Brammer wrote in her 1943 nursing report only that, “A bit of gloom hung over [Thanksgiving], however, for we had received official word that one of our Nurses had been killed in an airplane crash on her way from Algiers.”
Besides the Goss and Brammer reports, the best sources of information about the 32nd Station Hospital are the memoirs of Willard Havemeier and Dwight McNelly. In this particular case, the fact that they were writing decades later about events they did not witness proved problematic in piecing together Sheridan’s fate.
Willard Havemeier’s Account
Writing over half a century later, Havemeier recalled:
I became friendly with one of the nurses, Rachel Sheridan, a real Irish beauty with a great smile. We were seeing each other regularly at the dances. I really liked her a lot.
As for what happened to her, he wrote:
The nurses also had dances at their hotel where only officers were invited. Apparently one night she met a fighter-bomber pilot, and accepted a ride in his plane. This was tantamount to going AWOL. When Rachel didn’t show up for work, an investigation was initiated, and it was discovered that she had gone off on the plane. The plane never returned, and no traces of it were ever found. The Registrar’s Office was responsible for the paper work in all deaths or missing in action cases, and it fell to us to prepare her effects for shipping home. When we received her footlocker, I was still not able to believe what had happened[…]For a long time a pall hung over our unit. Rachel was the first of us to go. We suddenly realized that our youth was not the protection we had believed it to be. I thought about Rachel for a long time. I still do.
Heartfelt as Havemeier’s memories of Sheridan are, his recollections of the circumstances of her death are not accurate. She did not in fact disappear without a trace, nor did she die taking a joy ride in a fighter-bomber.
Dwight McNelly’s Account
Dwight McNelly’s account (in his unpublished manuscript, written sometime prior to 1987 and now in the collection of the Pritzker Military Museum & Library) also has some accuracy issues, though it perhaps gets closer to the truth than Havemeier’s account.
As the war progressed, and more passes were now being given to the Officers, we felt that victory would soon be ours in N. Africa. A tragic event unfolded! A group of nurses were scheduled to go to the rest area near Algiers. We were happy for them.
The location McNelly gave for the nurses’ leave is puzzling given that Chief Nurse Brammer’s nursing report listed the usual nurse R&R locations Béni Saf and Ain el-Turck. Both were close to Oran, as opposed to Algiers, which was located hundreds of miles away.
McNelly recalled that after word got out that a nurse had been killed:
Because of little knowledge of just which nurses had actually gone from our unit, we were perplexed as to the young nurse that was reported killed. We didn’t have that many younger nurses actually. It was some time before the returning nurses told us the facts and with the lectures on wearing the dog-tags and always being signed out and not on A.W.O.L….We were shocked at the story!
What happened, as McNelly recalled, was:
Most of the nurses that went on leave were in a group and soon they were asked if they were missing anyone or were there any other medical units sending their nurses to the same spot. Feeling they could offer no help, but being told that a nurse had been brought into a hospital unit and she had no identification on her, they wanted to see the body themselves. It was one of our nurses and the apparent tale was as follows: she had gone A.W.O.L., flown with an American pilot in a Piper Cub, which crashed in the surf outside Algiers…killing both. She had not worn her dog-tags..We named the chapel after her at this time and of course the chaplain had the duty of writing the next-of-kin “killed in action”.
(Six minor typos corrected for clarity purposes.)
Some aspects of McNelly’s account are more accurate than Havemeier’s; Sheridan was indeed killed in a crash at sea near Algiers and did not vanish without a trace. Other parts of the McNelly’s account are problematic. The part about her going A.W.O.L with an American pilot and crashing in a Piper Cub sounds rather similar to Havemeier’s account, and may accurately reflect the rumors going around the unit after the crash. However, the aircraft she was riding in with neither a Cub nor a fighter-bomber, but a transport aircraft. (Havemeier was in contact with McNelly after the war, so one’s account may also have been partially based on the other’s.)
Missing Air Crew Report
In fact, the aircraft involved was a Douglas C-47 Skytrain, the U.S. military’s transport workhorse of the era. I was surprised to find out that an anonymous researcher had already done the most important legwork for me when he recorded details in Sheridan’s Find a Grave entry. Though a Google search for Sheridan’s crash had not turned up this page, it did appear when I used Ancestry.com. The researcher even provided the serial number on the C-47, 41-7811. With that in hand, it was an easy matter to track down details of the crash on the Aircraft Safety Network website, and the more detailed Missing Air Crew Report (M.A.C.R.) at the National Archives, accessible via Fold3 (behind a paywall).
According to the M.A.C.R., on the morning of November 24, 1943, 2nd Lieutenant Sheridan was aboard a C-47 en route from Maison Blanche (Algiers) to Oran. There were three crew members and a total of six passengers on board. The plane’s crew consisted of:
- Pilot: 1st Lieutenant Jerome R. Jordan (16th Squadron, 64th Troop Carrier Group)
- Co-Pilot: 2nd Lieutenant Michael J. Lagio (Headquarters Squadron, III Air Service Command)
- Aerial Engineer: Staff Sergeant George Vilen (42nd Squadron, 329th Air Service Group)
The passengers were:
- 1st Lieutenant Ernest W. Dvorak (Repair Squadron, 38th Air Depot Group)
- 1st Lieutenant John R. Southerlin (16th Squadron, 64th Troop Carrier Group)
- Private Gomer Jones (38th Squadron, 38th Air Depot Group)
- 2nd Lieutenant Rachel H. Sheridan (32nd Station Hospital)
- 1st Lieutenant Walter H. Baker (38th Air Depot Group)
- Sergeant Kenneth B. Conlin (38th Air Depot Group)
Two of the passengers were destined to be the only ones who lived to tell the tale: 1st Lieutenant Walter H. Baker and Sergeant Kenneth B. Conlin. Both submitted statements that were identical, word for word, so it’s not clear who actually wrote them. The statements were dated November 25, 1943 and submitted from the 29th Station Hospital (located in Algiers at the time). The statements answers many but not all questions about Lieutenant Sheridan’s fate.
The text of Baker’s statement is as follows (although the paragraphs can’t be formatted the same way as the original report displayed below due to limitations with web display):
On 24 November 1943, I the undersigned, Lt. Walter H. Baker, Jr., 0793714, 38th Air Depot Group, was a passenger on a C-47 type plane making a routine passenger and cargo flight from Algiers to Oran.
At approximately 15 miles out at sea, 15 minutes from take-off at Algiers about 10:00 AM the right engine started burning at 2500 feet altitude. Bail out order was given but the aircraft lost altitude too rapidly to use parachutes. The plane pancaked and all personnel cleared the ship and when doing so made attempts to put on “Mae Wests” [life vests].
A French Merchant Marine officer saw the plane go down and ordered two fishing boats to go out and at about 11:00 AM the boats picked up 2nd Lt. Rachel H. Sheridan, N-722877, Sgt. Kenneth B. Conlin, 14080604, and myself.
To the best of my knowledge andbelief [sic], the remaining six (6) individuals drowned. The nurse, 2nd Lt. Rachel H. Sheriden [sic] died the 24 November 43 enroute to this hospital.
The statement indicated that none of the passengers or crew were trapped when the plane sank, but the fact that they “made attempts” to get their life vests on implied that some or all of them were unsuccessful; at any rate, six of the people on board the aircraft disappeared in the roughly one hour it took the rescue boats to arrive.
A memo in the report dated about one month later (it looks like December 21, 1943) states: “The two survivors are on this day present on a full duty status at proper station.” That suggests that neither Baker or Conlin were severely injured in the crash. Did Sheridan suffer mortal injuries in the crash or die of hypothermia?
Absent Without Leave?
The M.A.C.R. clears up quite a few mysteries about the crash itself, but does nothing to explain how Sheridan ended up on the ill-fated aircraft in the first place. If she was in Algiers with other nurses on leave as McNelly claimed, the idea that she was A.W.O.L would appear to be nonsense. On the other hand, it’s puzzling that the nurses would have been in Algiers at all, when the usual R&R locations were Béni Saf and Ain el-Turck, neither of which required a plane to get to. But if the 32nd Station Hospital nurses were not in Algiers, then the part of McNelly’s story in which they identified the body there cannot be true. And if Sheridan was in Algiers with other nurses, why did she come back on a flight without them and without them knowing that she was leaving? Either way, it was clear that Sheridan was identified within a day since she was specifically mentioned by name in the survivors’ statements.
A December 16, 1943 story (“Lt. Rachel Sheridan, McAdoo Army Nurse, Dies in Africa”) printed in The Plain Speaker (Hazleton, Pennsylvania), reported: “She has been overseas since January, 1943 and only last Saturday her mother had received a letter dated November 18 in which she said she was in good health, enjoying life in Africa and that she had a ride in an airplane a few days previous.”
The fact that her last letter mentioned an airplane ride is an intriguing detail. It suggests that there was truth in the McNelly and Havemeier tales that she went joyriding in an airplane, even if the details they recounted (the kind of aircraft, that she met the pilot at a party, and likely the part about nurses being on leave in Algiers) were suspect. Although I hesitate to draw too many conclusions based on the handful of surviving documents, my impression is that most members of the 32nd Station Hospital traveled by ground motor transport or train while on official business in Algeria. Sheridan, however, had flown at least twice in the span of maybe two weeks. Air travel was a novelty back then, and it was probably not difficult for a nurse to talk air crew into letting them hitch a ride when there was space available.
Dr. Lowell E. Vinsant’s Account
Did Sheridan simply enjoy flying, and decide to try to get aboard an aircraft again during her next leave or when off duty? Several months into my search for details about her fate, in March 2019, the daughter of Dr. Lowell E. Vinsant sent me a copy of her father’s World War II journal. An entry dated November 27, 1943 suggested that joyriding in aircraft was something of a pastime for the 32nd Station Hospital’s nurses:
The nurses have gone Awol, riden in airplanes without permission, etc with very little being done except one weeks restriction to quarters. On the 25 nov– one of our nurses Miss Sheridan, [was?] awol for 5 days and was killed in airplane wreck at sea while on her way to or from Sicily. Fell in the sea and drowned. A nice girl who liked to have a good time with no one to control her.– Will this be a lesson to the rest?
Although the date of the crash listed in Dr. Vinsant’s account was one day off (and the part about Sicily isn’t correct unless she made it that far on a previous flight), it does represent a contemporary account, without the influence of memory on the accounts written years later by McNelly and Havemeier.
Interestingly enough, despite Lieutenant Colonel Goss’s reputation for being strict, Dr. Vinsant’s account implied that 32nd Station Hospital nurses regularly went for joyrides in aircraft in part because the punishment for being caught was quite light.
One puzzling detail is Dr. Vinsant’s statement that Sheridan was A.W.O.L. for five days. Even if that figure included the time necessary for news to get back to the 32nd Station Hospital, it would suggest that Sheridan had disappeared from the hospital at least two days prior to her death. Elsewhere in his journal, Dr. Vinsant mentioned that it wasn’t uncommon for a member of the hospital to take off briefly (presumably hours, not days), as long as they got someone to cover them. Regardless of whether brief absences from duty or aircraft joyriding while off duty were generally treated laxly by the hospital’s leadership, it seems unlikely that a nurse being A.W.O.L. for two or more days would have been overlooked.
To answer Dr. Vinsant’s rhetorical question at the end of the passage, some nurses evidently continued to enjoy flying even after Sheridan’s death…at least judging by a photograph from Ruby Milligan’s photo album taken in 1944 or 1945. Milligan apparently flew with three other nurses aboard a B-25 Mitchell, captioning one of the photos from the adventure: “Forbidden plane trip!”
Although 1st Lieutenant Walter H. Baker’s name is rather common, I was able to find information about an individual that I am virtually certain must be him. Thanks to a section of the M.A.C.R. that includes Baker’s father’s name (also Walter H. Baker) and address, 2015 Valentine Avenue in New York City, I found a draft card for the elder Baker listing his name as Walter Hewlett Baker. The 1930 census lists two Walter H. Bakers living on Valentine Avenue; the younger Baker was 11 years old at the time. That matches a record in the National Archives for a Walter H. Baker, Jr. (service number 12053264) who had been born in New York in 1919 and who enlisted as an aviation cadet in the U.S. Army Air Forces on January 17, 1942. If he was subsequently commissioned, however, his service number would have changed.
Those details also match that of Lieutenant Colonel Walter H. Baker, Jr. (March 4, 1919– February 13, 1981) who is buried in Poughkeepsie, New York. His headstone indicates that he was a U.S. Air Force veteran of WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. His obituary (printed in the Ithaca Journal on February 14, 1981) states that “U.S. Air Force Col. [sic] Walter Hewlett Baker Jr. (Ret.), 61, of Locke Road, Groton, died Friday, Feb. 13, 1981, in Veterans Administration Hospital, Syracuse, after a long illness.” The obituary also states:
Col. Baker retired from the Air Force in 1969 after 29 years of service. During World War II, he was a bomber pilot and was shot down twice. He served in the North African, Italian and French campaigns.
It is likely, but not confirmed, that one of the two crashes that he survived was the C-47 incident. Baker’s obituary listed his wife Lucille Stoeppler Baker (1919–2010) as a survivor, but no children.
Sergeant Kenneth B. Conlin, Jr. (November 9, 1919 – October 2, 2015) was born in New York City, but as a child he moved with his family to St. Petersburg, Florida. Conlin returned there after the war and eventually took over running the family business, the Lighthouse Restaurant. He later opened another restaurant, Ken’s Original Wine House. Conlin married Jean R. Thom, with whom he raised four children. He died in Williston, Florida, aged 95. The plane crash was a prominent enough event in his life that his obituary mentioned it, albeit with the livelier description that “he was shot down while ferrying a C47 military plane from North Africa to Italy.”
A Friendly Fire Incident?
On June 4, 2019, a little over a month after this article was first published, I was contacted by David Procaccini, who has been researching the 38th Depot Repair Squadron for years. He wrote me:
I am familiar with the Rachel Sheridan crash. I spoke to Ken Conlin who refused to go into detail about the crash and Walter Baker’s widow and other members of the 38th and they all alluded to the C-47 in which they were flying being shot down by friendly fire. Baker’s wife was emphatic about it.
In a phone conversation the following day, he mentioned that while Conlin discussed other matters freely, when Procaccini broached the topic of the crash, Conlin ended the interview. Procaccini was suspicious about the fact, noted above, that both survivors’ statements were identical, perhaps suggesting that a third party wrote both. He speculated that if the M.A.C.R. did have statements that whitewashed the cause of the crash, it might have been because it was mere months after another embarrassing friendly fire incident in which aircraft carrying U.S. paratroopers were shot down during Operation Husky.
The possibility that the crash was caused by friendly fire is both intriguing and heartbreaking. As a point of caution, it should be noted that the statements about the crash being due to friendly fire did not come from directly from either of the survivors. Furthermore, as the Havemeier and McNelly accounts about the crash indicate, it is quite possible for rumor to obscure the truth, especially when the events were not directly witnessed by those recounting the story later.
Conlin’s refusal to discuss the crash isn’t really strong evidence for or against the friendly fire allegation. His behavior could be interpreted as either reluctance to relieve traumatic memories of an event that he narrowly escaped with his life, unwillingness to shed light on an event that was officially covered up, or both. Still, if the crash was indeed the result of friendly fire, it would certainly explain the discrepancy in the wording of Conlin’s (and likely Baker’s) obituaries that the plane was “shot down” as being not as mere error or embellishment, but rather an accurate description of the event. The truth may never be known with any degree of certainty.
2nd Lieutenant Sheridan was laid to rest in the North African American Cemetery in Tunis, Tunisia. The six men killed in the crash are also memorialized there, though their bodies were not recovered. Sheridan’s mother also placed a memorial honoring her daughter at Sky-View Memorial Park in Hometown, Pennsylvania.
This inquiry illustrates the challenges inherent in trying to piece together the details of a incident 75 years after the fact. Although there are no longer any living witnesses, the handful of reports and accounts do paint a partial picture of the events leading to 2nd Lieutenant Sheridan’s death. Based on the available evidence, it seems likely if not absolutely proven that Sheridan ended up on the ill-fated fight while joyriding on an aircraft, a practice that, while unauthorized, was apparently considered a minor infraction.
I am hopeful that additional contemporary accounts from 32nd Station Hospital members may turn up, which may answer some of the remaining questions about Sheridan. I also would like to interview any descendants of Sheridan’s siblings and the crash survivors who might have additional details about the incident, but have been unsuccessful in contacting any thus far. If additional information comes to light, this article will be updated accordingly.
Last updated July 9, 2019