HUDDLESTON — It was 71 years to the day her father died in a plane crash on a farm in Bedford County, and Tuesday Kathleen Iacopetti stood by his memorial, wreath in hand, at the end of a cross-country journey that brought her to the site of her father’s death for the first time.
On June 22, 1950, a production model AJ-1 Bomber, the Navy’s first strike plane designed to carry the nuclear bomb, crashed en route to a naval air station along the Patuxent River in Maryland.
The plane exploded in the air and fell in flames, killing its three crew members. Among them was 26-year-old James A. Moore Jr., a flight test engineer from California and a last-minute replacement on the final flight.
At home were his pregnant wife and a 4-year-old daughter. Iacopetti was three weeks away from being born.
A plaque commemorating the crash sits in the lot of the Glenwood Service Station, a stone slate mounted against a brick pedestal. The memorial is about five miles from the crash site, a hayfield on what used to be A.J. Laughlin’s farm off Falling Creek Road in Huddleston.
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Now, still farmland, the field is lush and green, no remnants of the cratered earth or the wreckage of the crash.
On Tuesday afternoon, under a cool, overcast sky, Iacopetti stood by the memorial, and bent to touch the engraved lettering of her father’s name.
“I’ve always had a connection because he’s been sitting on my shoulder since I was born, and I feel I’m just like him,” she said. Growing up, her mom told her “hero stories,” but she never knew what to believe.
“I never thought I would cry because I never met him,” she said. “I never touched him. He gave me life, and he died eight months later.”
But standing at the monument, she was struck by the care of the Bedford community, who built a memorial for men they had never met.
“I’m not a selfish person, but I feel like this memorial was made for me,” she said.
Iacopetti only found out about the memorial in 2019 when she stumbled across an archived newspaper article about its dedication in 2002. In it, Larry Lynch, one of the last surviving firsthand witnesses of the crash, was quoted describing the events of that night — a 13-year-old watching the sky turn red over his family’s Bedford County farm.
On Tuesday, Lynch, now 84, was beside her as she placed the wreath, and he held her hand as they approached the dais.
The memorial to the AJ-1 Bomber, dedicated in 2002, was part of a project driven by Richard McGann, of Campbell County, and Jeffrey Clemens, who then preached at New Prospect Church. In the early 2000s, they created and placed plaques to commemorate four plane crashes in the Bedford County, that, in total, took the lives of 13 military men.
At the 2002 commemoration, Bedford American Legion Post 54 got involved with the project, and Post Commander Nick Soukhanov, Lynch and McGann were present for Iacopetti’s visit this week.
“It’s really emotional,” McGann said of her visit. “I’m getting emotional about it now.”
When he built the memorial, he didn’t know anything about her, but getting to see its effect so many years later was enough to make the small group clustered around the newly-placed wreath misty-eyed.
“I’m sad,” Lynch said. “But I’m glad she finally got to do something she’s been wanting to do all of her life.”
He and Iacopetti have been corresponding since she learned about the memorial — and him — in 2019. She initially had planned to visit the site for the first time in 2020, but the pandemic waylaid her plans for a year.
She and her husband, Louie, embarked for their journey from their home in Huntington Beach, California, on June 5, and spent two weeks traveling across the country, ending with the final stop in Bedford County in time for the anniversary.
From Albuquerque and Oklahoma City to St. Louis, the Ozarks in Missouri, and Myrtle Beach, the trip culminated in a drive down the Blue Ridge Parkway, to her first glimpse at her father’s memorial — what she called “the most beautiful thing” — and stepping into the field where the plane went down 71 years ago.
“It was peaceful,” she said. “That’s what I felt. Peace.”
Glenna Laughlin Caldwell, the granddaughter of the original property owner, also was in attendance Tuesday. Like Lynch, she was a 13-year-old when the plane crashed. She was in the Ephesus Church, where the choir was singing “Rescue the Perishing,” when the plane began to plummet overhead.
“We heard a terrible noise and we all ran out,” she said. “It was a ball of fire. That’s all it was.”
Former Bedford County Sheriff Carl Wells also was at the wreath ceremony, and remembered the night of the crash, as well, an event that turned an unexceptional summer day into a scene that shook the community.
He already was in bed listening to the radio when he heard the engine roar. Jumping up, he ran to the back door as the plane came right over his house, fire shooting from its engines, close enough to illuminate the wheat shocks on his family’s farm and disappearing over the treetops before it crash landed with an explosion that reverberated through nearby homes.
He said he hopes the visit would give Iacopetti closure, the end to a years-long journey.
“We’re walking the clock back,” said Soukhanov. He helped to arrange her visit, a welcome Iacopetti said made her feel like family.
“The one thing that got me most was the fact that the people in this area who witnessed the crash and had anything to do with it, made this for [my dad] and the other two men,” she said. “I am so proud to be his daughter.”