A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

Mary Elizabeth McDaniel hurried through an early lunch and dashed out to the yard so she wouldn’t miss her husband’s plane flying over. The June sunshine warmed her cheeks as

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

Mary Elizabeth McDaniel hurried through an early lunch and dashed out to the yard so she wouldn’t miss her husband’s plane flying over. The June sunshine warmed her cheeks as

The Mystery of Badin Lake

Mary Elizabeth McDaniel hurried through an early lunch and dashed out to the yard so she wouldn’t miss her husband’s plane flying over. The June sunshine warmed her cheeks as she scanned the sky, while her little sisters, Kate and Teresa — 4 and 14 — charged out the farmhouse door, too, along with her mother, brothers, and a neighbor who’d come to see what all the fuss was about. Just after noon, they heard it: the distinctive rumble of a U.S. bomber’s engines.

Mary and her pilot husband, 2nd Lt. Charles McDaniel, USMC, were newlyweds, childhood sweethearts who’d once lived across the street from each other. Just seven months earlier, in November 1943, they’d said their vows at the Baptist church up the road, but too soon they were parted. In wartime, such sacrifices were expected. Charles, 21, ferried Navy planes to Cherry Point, and sometimes he flew over his hometown of Palmerville at night while Mary slept. This trip, he and his copilot, John E. Withrow, USNR, had to make an unexpected landing in Charlotte, only an hour’s drive away. Which meant that he got to be with Mary and have supper with family at home. Early the next morning, he went back to work, but before he left, he promised Mary that he’d fly over — maybe circle the lake — on his way to Cherry Point.

Now, all heads tipped back. Squinting and hopeful, they waited. News of the Allies’ recent invasion of Normandy was still crackling over the airwaves. It would be good — reassuring, even — to see Charles’s brand-new PBJ-1H bomber, twin engines, ocean-blue with a white star near the tail. A symbol of strength. The Navy’s modification of the famed B-25 Mitchell bomber was a heady war machine — designed for bombs, cannons, and machine guns — and a force in every theater.

They all heard Charles before they saw him. He thundered overhead and then flew over his parents’ house down the road. The engines’ mighty rumble hung in the air, even as the plane slipped behind the trees and headed over the lake. Then, another sound, seemingly unreal, came without warning: an enormous explosion. Silence, somehow just as loud, followed. Seconds passed. Mary screamed.

No one saw the plane hit Badin Lake, yet there’s no question that’s where it crashed. Mary wanted to run to the lake, to plunge into the water herself, but her brother and neighbor coaxed her inside. 

They would go instead. Charles’s father rushed to the water’s edge, too. By the time they all got there, the PBJ had disappeared in the deep, inky water. Only splintered remains bobbed on the surface. Stray papers. A brown sock. A uniform shirt sleeve. 

• • •

Military police swarmed the communities of Badin and Palmerville, rushing to secure nearby dams and the aluminum plant, a critical supplier of metal for the war effort. Charles’s father watched from the shore as elite Navy divers searched for the boys. Mary’s mother forbade teenage Teresa from joining the neighborhood kids who tiptoed down the lakeside railroad tracks to see what was happening. Nonetheless, Teresa snuck down once or twice, but returned without any good news for Mary, who remained at home under a doctor’s care. Divers finally located some wreckage — but not the bodies. That week, the deaths of Charles McDaniel and John Withrow were reported along with the growing list of D-Day casualties.

By mid-July, the Navy concluded its investigation and drove out of town with a truckload of salvaged metal. The plane remained at the bottom of the lake, and the community still had no idea why it had crashed. Porch talk gave way to speculation, fueled by gossip and fuzzy recollections. Some accused Charles of showing off, making a grand romantic gesture with two or three loops over the lake. Others said the plane went down with top-secret Norden bombsight technology on board. Whispers spread that souvenir hunters had found wreckage on the shore, including the nosewheel, and were keeping the items a secret.

Like a game of telephone, the story of what happened that day got told and retold until fact was indistinguishable from fiction. As a result, Mary unwittingly became the romantic lead in an unsolved mystery, and generations of Stanly County children grew up wondering just what secrets Badin Lake held. “I’ve heard the story forever,” says Curt Dorsey, a 69-year-old real estate agent who grew up in Badin and owns a local watering hole called the Loafers and Legends Club. He remembers childhood summers spent jumping off the town dock, wondering where the plane might be. Like most Stanly County natives, he’s heard too many versions of the story to know what’s true. “My third or fourth grade teacher told us that she was in school at the time and the plane made at least two laps around town.”

Locals like Curt Dorsey grew up jumping from the town dock, not far from where Charles McDaniel and his plane went down. Dorsey’s social club is decorated with Badin bomber memorabilia. photograph by Charles Harris

The story is well known up the road in Albemarle, too. Roger Thomas, a 62-year-old local artist and preacher, heard about the plane from his mother, and he, in turn, told his friends. “Every time we passed the lake, I’d tell people. We thought it was a small Cessna,” he says with a chuckle. “We thought it was right there at the boat landing somewhere.”

It was in Albemarle, at a church potluck in 1998, that Wendy Coble first heard the tale. Wendy, a highly skilled underwater aviation archaeologist, was visiting her parents, who were new in town. When she mentioned that she’d been in Hawaii investigating a sunken World War II plane, a parishioner told her that Badin Lake had one of those, too. Intrigued, she reached for the nearest napkin and began taking notes.

Wendy Coble is an underwater aviation archaeologist who works for the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. She oversees the program to disinter and identify unknown veterans’ remains. photograph by Peter Grill

Back home in Greenville, Wendy couldn’t stop thinking about what she’d heard. “I would probably never have known about it had they not mentioned it,” she says. After confirming that a bomber had indeed gone down in the lake, she requested permission from the surviving family members — Mary died in 1986 — the state, the Navy, and Alcoa, which owned the land under the lake, to embark on an investigation to find the plane. She wanted to figure out why it had crashed. And to do that, she needed to answer a question that had vexed so many in town: Why didn’t the Navy recover the plane when it had the chance, back in June 1944?

• • •

The answer is the lake itself. “It’s basically drowned land,” Wendy says. The lake bed was a fertile valley on the Yadkin River until 1917, when Alcoa built four dams to power its smelting plant. Farms, churches, and entire forests were submerged some 200 feet. Silt and tannins turned the depths into an opaque tea. “Black water,” Wendy calls it. “Visibility on the surface might be a few feet, but at the bottom, among the trees, Lord only knows.”

Navy divers in 1944 had a heck of a time even locating the plane. Eyewitness accounts of the crash site didn’t align. Grappling hooks snagged unfelled trees and other lake debris. Unable to see, divers searched with their hands. One was pulled up unconscious after his equipment failed. Officials set off underwater explosions, hoping to shake loose the wreckage, but only tiny flecks of blue paint floated up. 

The shattered plane had come to rest in an underwater forest, its cables and wires dangling from the trees. The risk of losing divers in such an environment was deemed too great, and the Navy scuttled the recovery effort. They salvaged what they could and, essentially, closed the case — a crushing moment for the families and the townspeople, who had been waiting to bury the young men and now faced the possibility that they never would.

Over the years, the urgency to recover the remains gave way to a stronger desire to understand what happened and to restore honor to Charles, who had been mythologized as a besotted daredevil. By the time Wendy launched her investigation in 1999, hopes were high that her unique set of skills could bring clarity and closure. “Nearly everyone wanted to ask a question or share a theory,” she says. “People wanted to do something.”

Some donated money for the investigation; others offered boats, gas, printing supplies, even campsites for Wendy’s crew of divers and archaeologists. Roger Thomas, who often fished on the lake, agreed to create an oil painting of the PBJ that could be sold to raise funds. The project brought back memories of drawing war planes in elementary school. He and Wendy took a boat to the site. “She got right over the spot,” Roger says. That’s when she told him the real story — not the Cessna version he’d grown up believing. The heartbreak of the story revived in Roger a regret that he’d never been able to serve his country as Charles and others from his hometown had done. His painting, Final Run, was a chance to honor these men.

“As I began to paint the scene,” he quietly recalls, “I thought, they didn’t die on some distant battlefield. Or flying a mission over enemy territory. But they did die serving our country.” With a painter’s eye, he restored the plane — ocean-blue, white star on the tail. A buyer snapped it up and prints were sold. Still, he says, “I would like to have done more.”

Local artist and pastor Roger Thomas painted the PBJ bomber to help raise money for Wendy Coble’s search for the plane and pilots. photograph by Charles Harris

Wendy feels the same way. Although she captured side-scan sonar images of what could be the wreckage, equipment failures and other obstacles prevented her from diving to the site to gather more data. After studying all the evidence and talking to dozens of witnesses, family members, and aviation experts, her 43-page report is a comprehensive chronology, not just of what happened on that tragic day, but what happened after, too. At the time, the Navy blamed the crash on “flat-hatting” — a type of grandstanding, usually for a girl. In training materials, the military specifically warned World War II pilots not to engage in this behavior, tempting as it may be. “The military is not touchy-feely,” Wendy says. “Whether or not he was showing off — and I don’t think he was — doesn’t weigh into it.” The point is, she says, “he was not where he should have been.” It’s impossible to say for sure, but Wendy believes pilot error or mechanical failure are likely scenarios.

Charles was a well-trained pilot with 128.4 flying hours in PBJs alone. He was familiar with the bomber’s weight and balance in flight; he knew that it lacked the quick maneuverability of a fighter plane. Combat pilots frequently flew low-altitude bombing runs, but Charles was a ferry pilot. It’s possible that he got too low over the lake — perhaps he lost control or the water skewed his depth perception — and he couldn’t recover. It was known to happen: Just two days earlier, a B-25 crashed into a South Carolina lake when it got too low during altitude training. 

But it’s also possible that Charles experienced a mechanical failure and attempted to ditch on the lake. At least one eyewitness heard the plane sputter as it passed over Palmerville. Charles had even told Mary that the unexpected Charlotte stopover was because of a mechanical issue. The mechanic’s log would have clues, but it’s never been found. Of course, the plane itself could hold answers, but the crash site was compromised during the Navy’s initial salvage operation.

That leaves only witnesses. Mary’s sisters, Kate and Teresa, are the last people alive who were with the family that day. They believe that a mechanical failure was to blame. When Charles walked through the farmhouse door the night before, he set his bag at the foot of the stairs. Kate toddled over to peer inside. “Don’t bother that,” he joked. “My parachute’s in there. I might need it tomorrow.”

• • •

A couple of years ago, Curt Dorsey was listing a property near town when, out of the blue, the seller revealed a fascinating detail: “You know, I have that wheel that came off that plane.” The man brought a nosewheel out from the barn, and, to Curt’s delight, “March 1944” was etched on the side. A friend’s grandfather had found it on the lake shore and had actually used it around the farm. Curt bought it — now the only tangible artifact from the crash — for $20. It’s now in the Badin Museum, along with photographs, news clippings, and mementos donated over the years by those who hold this story close, like a shared memory.

A few miles away from the museum, not far from the farmhouse where Mary watched for Charles’s plane, is a meadow on a hill. There, Mary is buried in a small cemetery. A few feet behind her grave is a headstone for Charles, still waiting for his remains. On a clear summer day, you can look across the meadow, over the trees, and almost glimpse the lake.

The cemetery where Mary is buried holds an empty space for Charles McDaniel’s remains. Mary and Charles were married in the nearby church, and Badin Lake is just beyond the trees. photograph by Charles Harris

Mary’s life after Charles took her away from Badin Lake, to Charlotte, where she remarried, had children, and then divorced. When she died, her family brought her back to the cemetery near the church where she and Charles were married. Wendy spoke with Mary’s son for her investigation, and he told her that when he was 16, he opened his mother’s locked cedar chest. Inside, he found her first wedding dress and mementos from a part of her life he’d never known. When he asked her about it, she wept.

The emotional currents of the Badin tragedy have stayed with Wendy, too, even as she now continues her work with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency in Washington. On Veterans Day in 2001, she returned to Badin one more time, for the dedication of a long-overdue memorial for the two airmen. Relatives from both families, Wendy, Roger, and others gathered under a grove of trees in the center of town to unveil the marker.

But in many ways, the real memorial is the plane itself, resting 150 feet below the water, among the trees. This summer, Badin children leaping off the dock and anglers dropping lines for bass will surely tell the story again. They may wonder how close their foot or hook is to history. They may even think they know exactly what happened back in June of 1944. Soon enough, though, talk will turn to the future, to Badin’s plans to build a small marina, to the weather forecast for the Sunday picnic. But the past is always there. Roger will make sure of it. The next time he meets a newcomer to town, he’ll tell the story — the correct version of the story — with a mix of humility and pride. “Every time the story’s told,” he says, “there’s an opportunity to honor these men again.”

Badin Museum
60 Falls Road
Badin, NC 28009
(704) 422-6900

This story was published on Jul 30, 2018

Robyn Yiğit Smith

Robyn Yiğit Smith has worked internationally as a journalist, writer, and documentary film producer. She lives in Chapel Hill with her two sons.