Marine veteran remembers Travis Air Force Base famous 1950 crash

Brig. Gen. Robert Travis, 9th Heavy Bombardment Wing commander, rides his bike to work followed by his dog, Dan, at Fairfield-Suisun Air Force Base, California. Travis was killed when his B-29 Superfortress crashed Aug. 5, 1950. The base was renamed in his honor one year later. (U.S. Air Force photo)
February 14, 2020

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. — Nearly 70 years have passed, but the night of Aug. 5, 1950, is burned in Jerry Sherrill’s memory.

Sherrill, 11 at the time, was lying in bed and listening to the radio in a trailer on the west side of Fairfield-Suisun Air Force Base, when he heard – and felt – a loud bang. Whatever it was nearly knocked Jerry’s radio onto him from the ledge above as he listened to one of his favorite radio programs, “Lucky Lager Dance Time.”

A startled Jerry got out of bed, dressed, woke his mother, Frances Mae Sherrill, and went outside to survey the damage. That’s when they saw the wreckage of a B-29.

“It was like a movie set,” he said. “I look up and here’s this B-29 … down in the ground with the tail sticking up like you would see in a movie.”

What they watched was one of the defining moments in the history of the installation, the early stages of an incident that would take 19 lives and impact many such as Jerry for decades to come.

Jerry said he was one of many onlookers viewing the aircraft, which caught fire as they watched. Many onlookers weren’t concerned about safety because “so much of the plane was still there, intact,” he said.

Air police arrived on the scene and encouraged people to leave, but many did not. Jerry and his mother tried to flee, securing a ride with a neighbor. However, his mom left her purse in their trailer and decided to go back for it. When she did, their neighbors panicked, leaving the scene without the Sherrills.

As Frances recovered her purse, Jerry searched for their bird and pregnant cat, but found neither. Jerry said they were back outside when he turned to say something to his mom. The highly explosive filler pit for the aircraft’s Mark IV nuclear bomb detonated, resulting in a blast heard up to 30 miles away, according to the 60th Air Mobility Wing History Office.

“It blew me back,” he said. “I feel like it blew me yards and yards back. I don’t know if it did. It lifted me.”

The aircraft was on a mission to Guam. The bomb’s highly radioactive material was flown separately.

Jerry initially took cover behind what remained of the restrooms for the trailers despite the roof being blown off of them in the blast. Then he heard his mom calling for him.

A piece of flying metal from the explosion struck his mom’s leg. When Jerry found her, she was crawling through an alleyway between trailers. He saw the wound and knew she needed to get to the hospital, which she did after insisting on stopping to tell her supervisor at the Officers’ Club she wouldn’t be into work.

The day after the crash, Jerry returned to the site to look for his pets and any possessions, but there was nothing left. A neighbor searched for a prized coin collection, only to find them melted together. Although Jerry never found the bird, he was able to recover their cat, which took shelter in another trailer with other pets.

The crash and explosion of the B-29 killed 19 people and injured more than 100 others. Among the deceased was Brig. Gen. Robert F. Travis, 9th Bombardment Wing commander at Fairfield-Suisun Air Force Base. In 1951, the installation was renamed Travis Air Force Base in his honor.

Frances’ right leg was amputated. She and Hollis Duane Sherrill, her husband and an officer who ran the swimming pool and the golfing range at Travis, separated in the early 1950s. She took a settlement from the U.S. government for $40,000, according to an article in the April 30, 1953 edition of The Solano Republican, a forerunner to today’s Daily Republic newspaper in Fairfield, California.

Jerry said his mom used the money to buy a house in Vacaville, California, and invest in a restaurant in the area. Later in life, she relocated to Southern California and then Oregon, where Frances died in 2011 at age 90.

Jerry, too, now lives in Oregon. His early life centered around the military, including living at Clark Air Base in the Philippines. Later, he served in the U.S. Marine Corps.

Most of the mementos of his early years burned that night in 1950 after the B-29 exploded. Though few material goods remain, the memories of that night have lasted a lifetime.

“Sometimes, I can’t remember what I ate for dinner last night, but I have a crystal clear memory of the night of the crash,” he said. “I think that’s because it was such a traumatic event that I can remember every detail.”