Saturday, August 7, 2021

August 7, 1956: Tragedy Strikes the 128th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron

By Maj. William Carraway

Historian, Georgia Army National Guard

 


Two Georgia Air National Guard pilots of the Atlanta-based 128th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron were killed in a midair collision during an annual training flight over the Atlantic Ocean Aug. 7, 1956. First Lt. James S. Bonner Jr. and 1st Lt. Robert A. Barr, both of Atlanta, were killed when their F-84 Thunderjets collided while flying as part of a four aircraft formation fifty miles from Savannah. Within minutes of the collision, air-rescue units were dispatched but were only able to locate wreckage.[1]

The accident occurred just after 8:35 a.m. as the four Ga. ANG aircraft were flying at 25,000 feet prior to initiating target runs. The first aircraft banked to engage a target towed by another plane. Climbing high, the first pilot was out of position to witness the collision of the second and third planes in formation. The only witness, the pilot of the fourth plane, reported an explosion and was unable to see any parachutes deployed.[2]

James Shepherd Bonner Jr. was born in Nashville, Tenn. Feb. 3, 1929 and grew up in Atlanta where he played football for North Fulton High School. A 1951 graduate of the University of Georgia, Bonner served in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War. He enlisted in the Ga. ANG Feb. 2, 1953 and commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in April. He was a partner in a building supply firm as a civilian.

Just weeks before the fatal accident, Bonner survived a night bailout over Macon. On May 6, Bonner and 1st Lt. Charles Cox were enroute to Jacksonville, Fla. at night in two F-84 Thunderjets when Bonner’s instruments started spinning rapidly indicating a possible loss of equilibrium. He struggled to regain control of the aircraft as it descended at the maximum indicated rate of 6,000 feet per minute. At Cox’ urging, Bonner jettisoned the aircraft canopy and ejected. Bonner had just freed himself from his seat and deployed his parachute when he hit the ground in a Kaolin mine. He slept in his parachute and in the morning walked to a nearby road where he was able to hitch a ride to a farmhouse. He was then conveyed to Robins Air Force Base.[3]

Robert Andrew Barr was Born Feb. 18, 1925 in Evanston, Ill. He served as a pilot during World War II and the Korean War. Married with three children, Barr was a partner in an Atlanta-based commercial art firm.

At the time of the accident Bonner and Barr had each flown the F-84 for three years compiling more than 600 combined flight hours. They were memorialized at Marietta National Cemetery. The Atlanta Constitution extended sympathies to the families of the pilots observing “The two Atlanta officers died in the line of duty as surely as if the nation had been in a state of war.”[4]

On August 10, 14 pilots of the 128th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron took to the skies in a flying tribute to Bonner and Barr.[5] The Guardsmen dropped flowers into the sea as a final salute to the fallen pilots.[6]

 

Pilots of the 128th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron prepare for a flight to honor 1st Lt. James Bonner and 1st Lt. Robert Barr at Travis Field Aug, 10, 1956.
Georgia National Guard Archives.

 



[1] “Jets Collide High Above the Atlantic.” The Baltimore Sun, Aug. 8, 1956, 3.

[2] “2 Atlanta Guard Jet Pilots Killed in Fiery Crass High Over Atlantic.” The Atlanta Constitution, Aug. 8, 1956, 1.

[3] “Night Bailout over Macon Saves Georgia ANG Pilot” The Georgia Guardsman, May 1956, 5.

[4] “They lost their Lives in the Nation’s Cause.” The Atlanta Constitution, Aug. 9, 1956, 4.

[5] “A Pictorial Review of 1956 Field Training,” The Georgia Guardsman, Sept. 1956, 0.

[6] “Services at Sea Set for 2 Fliers.” The Atlanta Constitution, Aug. 9, 1956, 35.

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