By December, 1951, it was time for another Christmas vacation. I had sold the 42 Buick after returning from March Field, and was driving a 1950 Nash Statesman. Again I took on passengers for a trip to Pennsylvania, but being a little smarter, took only three, including one who would help me drive. The trip to Pennsylvania was 3160 miles. We went south to Needles, California, to pick up Route 66, turned north from St. Louis, MO. to drop two passengers off in Chicago, then to Pittsburgh, PA to drop off Sergeant McChesney, my backup driver. We drove about 65 mph. McChesney and I switched drivers after each tank of gas or 6 to 7 hours. I was home in Curwensville, PA after 64 hours of driving.
For the return trip, I reasoned that we had driven too aggressively coming east and decided to allow 7 days for the return trip. My plan was to never exceed 60 mph on the trip back to California. The plan was good except that I decided to pick up McChesney at 7:00PM and to start the trip driving the first leg at night. Since we were going to share driving, one would sleep while the other drove. Also, it would be daylight when we picked up our two passengers in Chicago.
Both McChesney and I stayed out late the night before we left and quickly became drowsy when we settled into the driving routine. I wrongfully figured that we could switch driving for short periods of time until we got accustomed to the schedule.
At some time around 3 AM I drove about 15 minutes before I felt unsafe to drive. I asked McChesney to take over and I remember telling him to wake me if he got too sleepy to drive. Neither one of us understood the danger we were in. At around 4 AM, I found myself walking around on cold ground with no shoes and in a state of shock. Blood was running into my eyes from a gash in my head. I was beginning to understand that we had crashed, but had no sensation of pain because of the state of shock. A man was walking around with me who I later learned was the driver of the truck we hit nearly head on. The first conversations I remember having with the trucker was about who was driving. It seemed I realized McChesney was driving, but, I was wondering if I should say I was driving because of the insurance. I think I was answering the trucker's questions about who was driving.
Next I wanted to know if we had reached Chicago because I didn't know if I had two or 4 people in the car. I said the "driver should be here somewhere." The truck driver and I found McChesney under the hood of the car, a few feet from the car. When we lifted the hood away, we found McChesney on his back and he was gagging on blood in his throat. I said "I know we shouldn't move him but if we don't turn him on his stomach he will drown." So we carefully rolled him over. I found my shoes on the floor of the car where I had taken them off and put them on. I remember getting into the ambulance on my own before passing out.
When I came to again, two doctors were discussing how to sew up the gash above my left eye to minimize the scar. I could hear McChesney somewhere nearby, still breathing with great difficulty. I didn't think I needed any attention yet and asked the doctors to take care of the other guy. They continued to work on my wound and I passed out again.
McChesney's injuries were fatal. His skull had been fractured, and other internal injuries were just as serious. He never regained consciousness and died about an hour after the accident. We were only about 250 miles from home, in Lima, OH. Our parents were contacted and were in the hospital by that afternoon.
McChesney's parents came to see me at my bed. They were concerned about me and it seemed to me that they were apologizing that their son had wrecked my car. I didn't have time to figure out the right thing to say. I think what I said was "All I lost was my car, but you lost your son." Whatever I said was inadequate. I know that I set up the schedule that led to the fatal accident. I am one of the service men who contributed to the statistics that I quoted earlier.
After two days, I was released from the hospital. I had a broken toe, sprained back, and bandage on my head. Having no car, and no collision insurance, I had no choice but to hitch rides back to Travis AFB. Mother, Dad, and Louise took me to a main highway intersection where I could look for a ride, and I arrived back at Travis AFB on time.
Hell Driver Reputation
I had a prior reputation for being a hell driver from time to time around the air base, and that led some of my buddies to assume I had caused the accident by reckless driving. I didn't get much solace from telling them that I wasn't driving when the accident happened.