B17 plane crash on Reigate Hill

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A memorial bench on Reigate Hill

Those of you who have walked on Reigate Hill may have noticed a bench dedicated to the memory of nine USAAF crew who were tragically killed when their plane, a B17G, crashed into the hill on the evening of Monday 19 March 1945. The crew, from the 384th Bombardment Group was flying back to their base at Grafton Underwood in Northamptonshire after an operation near the German/Czech border.

Far from ideal flying conditions
Cloud had dogged the crew following take off some nine hours earlier and near Reigate, they entered another cloud bank. Moments later, their aircraft crashed into Reigate Hill killing all those on board.

The crew
This was the crew’s thirteenth mission together - although some of them had flown missions with other crews. As far as research can determine this mission was their first in this particular aircraft.

The Officers on board
There were three officers on board the flight and all were Army Air Corps Second Lieutenants - pilot Robert Stanley Griffin, co-pilot Herbert Seymour Geller and navigator Royal A. Runyon came from California, Michigan and Hancock County, Illinois. Geller was a student at university. He enlisted on November 21st 1942 in Detroit. Runyon came from Illinois. At just three months short of 25, Griffin was the oldest.

Staff Sergeant Robert Manbeck
Staff Sergeant Robert Manbeck was the tail gunner. Two years after joining the army in November 1942, Sergeant Manbeck had completed more than 50 missions, volunteering for a second tour.

Sergeant Donald W. Jeffrey
Donald W. Jeffrey, the aircraft's togglier would have dropped the 10 five hundred-pound bombs.

Sergeant Philip J. Phillips JR
The Radio Operator Philip J. Phillips JR was living in Nassau County New York (on Long Island) when he decided to enlist. He was trained as the aircraft's medic.

Sergeant Robert F. Marshall
Flight Engineer and Top Turret gunner Robert F. Marshall had enlisted in Milwaukee where he was a factory foreman. In the event of an emergency he would have used his basic flying skills to fly the aircraft.

Sergeant William R. Irons
William R. Irons came from Massachusetts. He would have been small enough to fit inside the ball-turret and hang outside and underneath the aircraft.

Sergeant Thomas J. Hickey
Waist Gunner Sgt Thomas J. Hickey was the most highly decorated of the crew, having been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. He lived in King's County, New York City and had been an office messenger.

How we will remember these men
An opening in the woodland on Reigate Hill marks the spot where the plane crashed. A bench at the crash site is dedicated to the memory of the airmen. Plans are currently being drawn up to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the accident and as part of the Front Line Surrey Hills project, we hope to create a second memorial at the crash site to commemorate the lives of these brave men, four of whom are buried at Madingley American Cemetery.