Man remembers finding broken body of female WWII pilot after her plane crashed
By JOE CRESS | The Sentinel, Carlisle, Pa. | Published: August 4, 2018
CARLISLE, Pa. (Tribune News Service) — Arthur Zimmerman kept a lone vigil over the female pilot until the authorities arrived.
Only minutes before, the farmer had carried the broken body of Evelyn Sharp away from the burning wreckage of the P-38 fighter plane.
"I was afraid it might explode," Zimmerman told the Harrisburg Telegraph. He could only guess what may have happened in the final few seconds of her brief but illustrious life.
"It looked as though she had tried to escape through an emergency door at the top of the plane, but was thrown head-long before the plane hit the ground," he said. "I thought she was dead when I picked her up but I wasn't sure. She was lying to the right and in front of the plane."
The time was just after 10:30 a.m. The date: April 3, 1944. America was at war and the airstrip of the New Cumberland Army Depot was a hive of home front activity.
That morning Jack Murray was a 10-year-old boy hanging out with friends in the playground of the Fifth Street Elementary School not far from the installation.
"We were so close we got to see every type of aircraft taking off and landing," recalled Murray, now 84 and president of the New Cumberland borough council.
"The P-38 with its two big engines was a good looking plane," he added. "When they came overhead, it was quite a roar. But on that particular day, as soon as it got up in the air, she lost an engine. This all happened right after take-off."
Struggling to survive in the cockpit that morning was a leader in the Women's Airforce Service Pilots — a group of female aviators tasked with ferrying warplanes from factories to staging areas for deployment overseas. Sharp was on her way to Newark, N.J., to deliver a brand new example of the twin-engine fighter the German Luftwaffe dubbed "the fork-tailed Devil."
A short distance away, Zimmerman was standing in the kitchen of the farmhouse when he heard the plane come over. "The engine sounded wrong and I ran out the back porch and saw smoke," he told the Telegraph. "It caught fire immediately. I ran over to the plane, about a city block from the house, to see what I could do."
Meanwhile, Murray saw the plane take a dive. There was a lot of noise when it hit the ground. Being a 10-year-old boy, he was naturally curious and joined his friends in the rush to the crash site. Murray saw the aftermath only briefly before military police escorted civilians away from the wreckage.
The memory of that day stayed with Murray even as most Cumberland County residents forgot about Evelyn Sharp and the plane crash that killed her.
Last December, Murray was talking with David Peiffer, an American living in Israel who owns five acres in New Cumberland and 28 acres in Lower Allen Township.
Peiffer had purchased the land in 2010 and was in the New Cumberland area overseeing the final stages in the development of an arboretum and nature preserve in memory of his parents, Howard and Rosemarie Peiffer. Born in Baltimore, David grew up in New Cumberland in a house next to a 160-acre farm that has since been sold off and developed. The land he purchased was all that remains of the farm.
Life and legacy
While researching the property, Peiffer had a conversation with Murray — a lifelong resident with plenty of stories to share, including the memory of the plane crash. That prompted Peiffer to conduct a Google search that turned up the name of Diane Bartels of Lincoln, Nebraska, who wrote a biography on Sharp.
An orphan, Sharp grew up in Ord, a town about 167 miles northwest of Lincoln, Bartels wrote. At age 3, Evelyn happened to look up in the sky one day to see a Curtiss JN-4 "Jenny" biplane of World War I fame. The sight of that vintage machine inspired the girl to announce "I want to drive an airplane."
Sharp was 14 when she learned to fly, 16 when she received her private pilot's license and 20 when she earned her commercial license. Her hometown helped her to realize her dream of flying by raising the funds to help her buy a plane. She frequently returned to Ord to attend air shows and offer plane rides to spectators.
Sharp was a flight instructor in South Dakota and California before World War II and later became one of the first female aviators selected for the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, later designated WASP. In her book, Bartels was able to reconstruct the final days and last flight of Evelyn Sharp.
On March 31, 1944, Sharp was in Long Beach, Calif., where she flight-tested a brand new P-38 fighter. The next day, she received orders to fly the warplane across country to Newark.
After a stopover in Ohio, Sharp flew just beyond Harrisburg when she encountered heavy clouds on April 2. Though she was certified in instrument flying, Army regulations prohibited its use among female pilots, so Sharp had to turn back and land the P-38 at New Cumberland.
Sharp stayed overnight at a Harrisburg hotel where she ate breakfast with one of her former aviation students from back before the war.
Bartels has information that sometime during this breakfast conversation Sharp mentioned that she was having trouble with one of the plane's engines.
An experienced pilot, Sharp followed all the normal protocols. She checked the weather multiple times, filed a flight plan and ran through a routine preflight check of systems and controls.
She climbed into the plane and took off down the runway at around 10:29 a.m. April 3. "She knew she was having trouble," said Bartels, who is a licensed pilot. Even though the throttles were fully engaged, there was not enough power in the take-off but Sharp was too close to the end of the runway to abort.
Smoke began to belch out of the left engine as the nose gear came off the runway. It appeared as though Sharp was trying to turn the plane to line up for a landing on another runway when the P-38 lost power and pancaked into the ground at the end of a field on the Zimmerman farm near a treeline bordering a ravine.
Sharp was in the air maybe a minute before the plane crashed, and she died on impact. She was 23 years old. Her body was transported by train to Ord, Nebraska, for burial. The community airport is named after Sharp.
Memorial to a memory
At the time, the Zimmerman farm was located near Yellow Breeches Creek at the end of a two-mile road that once extended from Sixth Street in New Cumberland. During the war, the road skirted an air beacon set atop a high hill just west of the borough.
In hearing the story of the plane crash, Peiffer worked with Bartels and others to raise money to build a memorial to Evelyn Sharp, which is located at the entrance of the arboretum and nature preserve off the 1800 block of Brookview Drive.
"It is very important that we never forget anybody who has given service to the country," Peiffer said. "Evelyn Sharp was a patriot. She was part of the greatest generation. How can we forget a person like that? Why would you want to forget a person like that."
Just before her death in 2013, Rosemarie Peiffer told her son she wanted the arboretum and nature preserve to only be open to 4-H clubs, scout troops and local school districts for educational purposes.
Like Evelyn Sharp, Rosemarie Peiffer was a pioneering woman in her field, David Peiffer said. "She was a good doer who wanted to do her best for the community. There are so many parallels."
A nurse and mother of three, Rosemarie Peiffer entered the political spotlight in response to a land development project in Lower Allen Township that threatened to destroy the 160 acres of farmland near her home. Her grassroots efforts to rally the community led to changes in the developer's plan that reduced the density and provided open space.
In 1975, Rosemarie Peiffer won a seat on the New Cumberland Borough Council, becoming the first women ever elected to that government board. She later made history by becoming Cumberland County's first female commissioner.
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