Airplane Crash on the 4th of July

Kathleen Forney

On July 4th, 1935 hundreds of residents of Elizabethtown gathered in Klein’s field behind the Elizabethtown High School on South Poplar Street to celebrate the nations birthday. The local newspaper had been promoting the event from as early as March. A half-page advertisement in a June 28th, 1935 edition of the Elizabethtown Chronicle had a title which read “All in readiness for Mammoth 4th of July Celebration sponsored by local Post of the American Legion.” Attractions in the advertisement included a free street parade at 1:30p.m., with a $500.00 in prize money, a county League baseball game at 2p.m., an airplane stunt flying and parachute jumping at 5p.m., a band concert from to 8 p.m., and the drawing of three ‘grand’ prizes at 9 p.m. The first, a 1935 Pontiac four-door sedan, purchased from Hassinger and Risser; second, a 1935 Frigidaire refrigerator purchased from J. W. Zarfoss, and third a 1935 Philco radio, purchased from Jacob Fisher. The Klein Athletic field would be the stage for the festivities.
The advertisement did not list a fireworks display, but a later news story stated that “to close the day, a spectacular, realistic fireworks display, lasting almost one hour, will thrill the spectators”.
Apparently, the keynote speaker Governor Earle could not participate as planned. His substitute would be Major General Smedley D. Butler, of the U.S. Marine Corps. Elizabethtown Chronicle described Butler as “a fearless speaker and fighter”.
The weather was wonderful, and the festivities did not disappoint anyone of any age. The highlight of the day was the death-defying aerial stunts of the ‘Red Rose Air Show’ scheduled to start at 5p.m. The five planes left the newly constructed Lancaster Airport piloted by Art Lamparter, Larry Jones, George Ritenour, Richard Dommel and Virginio Marchetti. The planes made a stop at Menno Wolgemuth’s farm, three miles from Klein field, near the Mount Joy Township Municipal building in Elizabethtown, to prepare for the show. At 5 p.m. the planes were 2,000 feet above Klein Field ready to stage their “sham battle”.
Fifteen hundred spectators watched as the planes began their spectacular and daring stunts. After the sham battle one of the pilots was planning on jumping from his plane, opening his parachute and landing in the pitcher’s box on Klein Field.
At 1,200 feet, just a few minutes into the aerial routine, thirty-two-year-old pilot Virginio Marchetti began his death-defying tailspin in his Monocoup airplane. Marchetti, a resident of Fruitville, PA was familiar with danger. Just a week earlier Marchetti had been in a plane that crashed. In that crash the plane had struck a wire and fell only 15 feet. Neither he nor the pilot were seriously injured.
The following is the account of what occurred while Marchetti prepared his plane for the thrilling tailspin. “The pilot apparently turned off his ignition in the downward plunge, as the plane did not ignite.” Marchetti was unable to pull out of the nosedive and while hundreds watched he crashed the plane into the entrance of the Masonic Homes. The plane crashed nose first and crumpled on impact. The plane narrowly missed by ten feet the automobile of Miss Raffenberger and Miss Halgren, both nurses at the Masonic Homes.”
After the crash there was a surge of spectators from the Klein field towards the Masonic Homes. The State Police were in attendance for the show and attempted to preserve order. The Elizabethtown Chronicle described the chaotic scene as follows “As the crowd approached the footbridge leading towards the Masonic Homes, the bridge crossing the Conoy Creek was said by police not to be strong, so the police held back the large crowd, allowing only ten people to cross at a time.”
There were two young men who were able to bypass the police. They were Harvey Eshleman and his best friend Elwood Krudel. The following is Harvey’s account of the crash. “Being kids, we were able to out run most adults. At our arrival at the crash site, however, there were already about five or six adults there. They were sifting through the squashed and scattered debris, picking up the splintered sections of the aircraft, trying to locate the pilot. In a short time after throwing things aside the men found the pilot, but he was somewhat mangled and already dead. He was found still gripping the ripcord of his parachute. We were standing within six feet, watching what was going on, when someone hollered at Elly and I to get back as four others picked up the shattered body and placed it on the lawn next to the road. The men covered the body with a section of the plane wing to conceal it from sight as the large crowd began to arrive. Elly and I were standing in the remains of the shattered cabin, which was still recognizable but somewhat bloody. I quickly grabbed the one half of a safety belt and a 14” inch piece of aluminum. We immediately left the scene since a large crowd had gathered and a hearse driven by Coroner Frank Miller and Dr. T.M Thomson had arrived.”
There were two other eye witnesses that fateful day who would later share their personal account of the air disaster with Elizabethtown Historian Pat Reed. They were Zig Hielman and Phares Risser. Pat Reed recorded Zigs recollection of that disaster in 2006. The following is an excerpt from that article titled “The Flyer’s Luck Ran Out”. Zig shared the following with Pat “One plane made a tight turn and then went into a downward spiral. In an instant the plane was below the tree tops and I knew it was going to crash. I left the stands, raced over the creek and through the tunnel under the railroad tracks. It had crashed close to the triangular entrance at the Masonic Homes, just west of the end of the tunnel.” As an avid plane enthusiast Phares Risser was able to relocate with fervor what occurred over sixty years ago. The following is his account that he shared with Pat Reed. “I thought right off, those things were too rickety-raggedy that kind of a show. They asked me if I was coming to see their show and I said, ‘No, I don’t want to see your flying coffins.’ I stayed home that afternoon. About 4:00pm news came to the house that one of the planes had crashed near that little island at the entrance to Masonic Village.”
Coroner Miller would later confirm the death accidental while Dr. Thompson stated that Marchetti died on impact when he practically broke every bone in his body.
Harvey Eshelman held onto that safety belt for decades. He generously donated it to the Elizabethtown Historical Society over ten years ago. It is on display along with a copy of the article from the Lancaster newspaper and Harvey ‘s full account. Please stop in to see our display in the society’s museum.