Feb 8

A Lack of Seatbelt Saves a Life

Monday, February 8, 2016 12:01 AM


The Honorable Colgate W. Darden, Jr.

The Honorable Colgate W. Darden, Jr.

Colgate W. Darden, a U.S. Navy aviator during World War I, received his wings in 1918 and went to France as a Marine Corps flier. Shortly before the end of the war, he was involved in a terrible plane accident. He was sitting in the rear of a De Havilland DH-4 with pilot and Medal of Honor recipient Second Lieutenant Ralph Talbot (USMCR) on 25 October 1918. Darden, who was not wearing a seatbelt, was flung from the airplane, which burst into flames, killing Talbot. Below is an excerpt from Darden’s Oral History conducted by Dr. John T. Mason in 1969 on behalf of the U.S. Naval Institute in which he describes the accident.

I was over at Squadron Three with a friend of mine, Ralph Talbot, and I went for a flight. Talbot had been in a fight a day or two before, a few days before, and he had gotten his plane shot up right badly. He had had it in the shop and had gotten it out. He and I had been in nine together. We were friends, and he had asked me to come along and go for a flight with him. I got in the plane and got in the gunner’s seat. It was a DH-4. And for some reason I didn’t fasten my belt. I just sat down on the gunner’s seat on the strap that the gunner used as a seat in the mount that revolved and carried the machine gun. The gun wasn’t mounted. We ran down the field, and there was trouble with the motor. I realized there was trouble. It wasn’t tuned up well. Ralph came back, and then the second time he went down, he got the plane about six inches off the ground and ran straight into a heap of earth that had been thrown up for a bomb pit at the end of this field. I think he must have known it but had forgotten about it. It was a bomb storage pit, dug at the end of the field, with earth thrown on the side as they dug this trench or hole. The DH locked its landing gear in the earth bank and the plane went over into the pit. Talbot was killed, but I was thrown clear almost as though I had been thrown from a catapult. I was sitting in the second seat in the DH-4 and when she went over on her nose and turned over, she caught fire. It projected me straight out, just like a stone being thrown out of a catapult. It threw me 125 feet into a wheat field. Well, it was an awful fire, and the squadron boys ran down there to try to get us out and also to try to pull the bombs out of the way, because they didn’t want them catching fire and exploding. They thought we both had been killed. They didn’t see me take off on my flight, because the plane and the smoke interfered. I had been shot out at almost a dead level. I didn’t go up and come down.

Q: You were like a missile.

I was just like a missile shooting at shoulder level, and it just shot me down on the ground. Walking around the field later on, they came across me and picked me up and put me in a car and took me over to the British hospital at Calais. There I stayed for a week or ten days or so. It was the end of October, the 25th, that I was injured. I was transferred from Calais to London.

De Havilland DH-4

De Havilland DH-4

I had the right side of my face broken in completely. My head went over and hit the escarpment of the gun, and it crushed the side of my face. It dislocated my spine, the upper part of the spine, and paralyzed me. So it was some time before I could move. I was turned over by attendants at the hospital. They kept me on the bed and moved me around. Then, on my left leg, the flesh was just opened down to the bone, I think. My leg must have hit some blunt object. It didn’t break the bone but simply pressed aside the flesh and opened it along the bone for two or three inches.

Q: It certainly was providential that you didn’t fasten your flying belt.

Absolutely saved my life. Had I fastened that flying belt, I would have been burned. There was no way they could have gotten me out and I would have been…

Talbot did [burn], but I think he was killed immediately, because in the DH-4, one of its difficulties was that its large fuel tank of 90 gallons in a wreck would slide forward on the pilot. He was sitting in the pilot’s seat, in the forward seat, which was the pilot’s seat. I was sitting in the gunner’s seat right behind the wings. It was a biplane. There was a 12- or 14-gallon auxiliary tank in the wing just above the pilot’s head, and in a crash that thing would come down and they would have a fire. That’s what burned the plane up, and the 90-gallon tank tore out and went along with me for a distance, not as far. But the auxiliary tank caught fire on the impact. I think Talbot was killed instantly by the large tank moving forward and tearing out of the plane, because we hit with enormous force. We were off the ground, and I expect we were going 100 or 115 miles an hour and gaining headway. We were a little bit off the ground when we hit.

Second Lieutenant Ralph Talbot (USMCR)

Second Lieutenant Ralph Talbot (USMCR)

They got the bombs away from the fire. They got the bombs pulled away and there were no explosions.

After recovering from his injuries, Mr. Darden returned to college and then went to law school. In 1929 he was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates from Norfolk, Virginia. He then moved on to the national scene and was elected to the House of Representatives from Virginia’s Second Congressional District. He served there before resigning to run for governor of the state, winning in 1942. He returned to the world of academia and became president of the University of Virginia for 12 years before retiring.

He died on 9 June 1981 in his home in Norfolk.

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