ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — Stanley Jones recalls standing outside his home in England, watching open-mouthed as an American warplane arced toward the ground behind a plume of smoke, its engine alternately sputtering and roaring.
The plane was one of thousands of American aircraft swarming over Britain in July 1944 to fight World War II. It passed out of sight, and seconds later an explosion shook the town of Stafford.
Jones ran to the crash site and found a wheat field strewn with smoldering wreckage. He wondered: Who was the pilot? What happened to him? And why didn’t he parachute to safety?
On Wednesday, Air Force Capt. John Pershing Perrin will be honored in Britain for saving the town by staying with his crippled P-51 Mustang rather than abandoning the fuel-laden plane to crash into homes and schools.
Among those in attendance will be Helen Perrin of Brownwood, Texas, whose late husband, Donald, was Jack Perrin’s first cousin.
“The heroes we kids had growing up during World War II were politicians and soldiers, people like Jack, who in a split second decided to give his own life and save that town,” she said. “Courage and sacrifice were the ideal. We’re all proud of him.”
Because it was wartime, “nothing was reported of the crash,” said Jones, now 70 and living in Oregon.
“Years went by and every now and again we’d talk about it, my brothers and I and family and neighbors,” he added. The accident was mostly forgotten, “but it stayed in me.”
Before enlisting, Perrin lived with his parents in Atlantic City. At age 25, he was already certified as an ace pilot, having destroyed at least five enemy aircraft. He was also awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters.
In a February 1942 letter, Perrin described the hazards of wartime flying and mentioned a fellow pilot who was killed after bailing out: “He tangled with another plane and didn’t have enough altitude for his chute to crack after bailing out.”
On the day he died, Perrin had been assigned to fly the Mustang from an air base in Warton, Lancashire, to another one about 160 miles away. It should have been a routine 40-minute flight.
Although he was experienced, Perrin had never before flown a Mustang P-51-D, with an extra 85-gallon fuel tank that could make it tricky to maneuver.
Sometime after takeoff, the plane began leaking fuel from the right side of the engine, in front of the cockpit, according to Air Force reports obtained by The Associated Press.
The cockpit began to fill with smoke and fuel vapor. But Perrin apparently chose to stay with the stricken plane in an effort to reach the nearest landing strip or crash-land in a field, Air Force officials said.
Perrin had “ample time to get out,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Jeff Price, the assistant air attache at the U.S. Embassy in London and a veteran pilot who will speak at Perrin’s memorial service. “But the initial inclination of an aviator is to stay with the aircraft. If you still think it’s in landable shape, that’s what you try to do.”
What finally doomed Perrin was an explosion of fuel vapor that shattered the cockpit canopy, either killing him immediately or knocking him unconscious before the plane crashed a few moments later, the investigation revealed.
“It was a very courageous decision to stay with his craft, to accept the worsening risk of an explosion in the cockpit rather than bail out,” Jones said. “He was skimming over houses and schools, people — untold others in the town, going about their daily business, kids walking home from school, and this then-pilotless plane, fuel-laden, would be crashing among them.
“I think it was a true moment of valor,” Jones said.
The countryside around the crash site was eventually developed into homes, businesses and industrial parks.
“It was not good for public morale to publicize accidents like this,” said Tom Doubtfire, 67, administrator of the local government in Creswell, the section of Stafford where Perrin’s plane crashed. After the war, the British “wanted to get up and get on with their lives.”
At Wednesday’s ceremony, representatives of the British and American governments, as well as several of Perrin’s relatives, will gather at the crash site to dedicate an 8-foot stone monument etched with the image of a Mustang.
Associated Press researcher Rhonda Shafner contributed to this report.