While doing research for another blog post, I ran across the above memorial in the McHenry Plaindealer from March 1946. I became curious was to how Pvt. Pearson passed. Was it fighting the Germans or over in the Pacific or fighting the Japanese? It turns out that is was something just as tragic, yet sadly, much more likely to be forgotten as it wasn’t on the battlefield.
William Pearson was born in Pennsylvania in 1913 to William and Josephine. Before WWII he worked at the Sears, Roebuck & Co. as an assistant department manager. He was drafted in February of 1942 and was inducted by the Army late that month. Stationed at Camp Grant, near Rockford, William was visited by his mother before he left for a training camp, Camp Crowder, in Missouri. Sadly, Pvt. Pearson never made it to Camp Crowder.
On March 7, 1942, William and 230 other troops were on a train transport to Crowder when their train hit a passenger train, the “Will Rogers”, in a head-on accident. Both engines remained upright surrounded by wreckage and carnage. Two crew members of the “Will Rogers” and four soldiers, including William Pearson, were killed. He had the unfortunate distinction of being the first soldier from McHenry to be killed. An additional 25 crew members and 20 soldiers injured. Initially it was thought that a mix up in signals was what led up to the crash. In fact, at the time of the accident the “Will Rogers” had almost come to a stop. Unfortunately, the military train was traveling at about 60 MPH at the time of the collision.
Most of the soldiers who were killed or injured came from a wooden car that had another car kaleidoscope through it. (In train terms, kaleidoscoping is when a car literally runs through one or more other cars causing an effect like a kaleidoscope being closed, usually with grizzly results.) If took over 5 hours, and in some cases a blowtorch, to cut through the train to get to some of the dead and injured. Doctors, nurses and emergency crews from Monett, Neosho, Joplin, and Springfield were taken to the scene to assist the wounded. A special train was even dispatched from Neosho with medical personnel and supplies. Shortly after the accident, uninjured soldiers were taken to Camp Crowder.
An inquest was held by the Army and it turns out that human error was what lead to the crash. The engineer of the special carrying the troops, knew that the “Will Rogers” was coming through the area. However, he looked at his watch wrong and mistakenly thought his train would clear the area before the Rogers arrived.
William Pearson’s body arrived back in McHenry on March 11th, and services were held by the Peter M. Justen Funeral Home, conducted by the McHenry County council of the American Legion the next day. The religious service was held at St. Mary’s Catholic Church and William was buried in the St. Mary cemetery. The McHenry American Legion Post, No. 491, took part in the ceremony, as did a firing and color squad.
Before leaving for the service, William lived with his mother at the Mrs. Barlow farm at Chapel Hill, where he lived for five years. The Barlows, being Josephine Pearson’s sister and brother-in-law. After William’s death, Josephine Pearson remained living with the Barlows. Around 1946, Josephine and the Barlows moved down to Miami, Florida. She would live there until her passing in 1961. It’s possible that the memorial that Josephine left for William in the McHenry Plaindealer was her farewell to him as she was leaving the area.
“Death Toll 7 In Collision of Two Trains.” Decatur Herald 9 Mar 1942: 8. Newspapers.com. Web. 26 Oct 2017.
“Officials Probe Headon Train Crash.” The Pentagraph (Bloomington, IL) 10 Mar 1942: 1. Newspapers.com. Web. 26 Oct 2017.
“Today’s News In Pictures.” The Daily Sentinel (Woodstock, IL) 10 Mar 1942: 1. Newspapers.com. Web. 26 Oct 2017.
“Wm. Pearson of McHenry Crash Victim.” McHenry Plaindealer 9 Mar 1942: 1. Newspapers.com. Web. 26 Oct 2017.
“McHenry Man Killed.” Republican-Northwestern (Belvidere, IL) 10 Mar 1942: 8. Newspapers.com. Web. 20 Oct 2017.
“Rites For Soldier Killed in Crash of Trains Held Today.” Belvidere Daily Republican 11 Mar 1942: 8. Newspapers.com. Web. 20 Oct 2017.
“5 Local Men Safe As Train Crash Kills 7.” Belvidere Daily Republican 9 Mar 1942: 8. Newspapers.com. Web. 20 Oct 2017.
“Bodies of Victims of Trainwreck Sent Home.” Dixon Evening Telegraph (Dixon, IL) 10 Mar 1942: 6. Newspapers.com. Web. 20 Oct 2017.
“Troop Carrying Train Crashes.” The Edwardsville Intelligencer (Edwardsville, IL) 10 Mar 1942: 5. Newspapers.com. Web. 20 Oct 2017.
“Seven Die in Collision of Troop Train and Limited.” San Bernardino Daily Sun (San Bernardino, CA) 8 Mar 1942: 1. Newspapers.com. Web. 20 Oct 2017.
“In Memoriam.” McHenry Plaindealer 7 Mar 1946: 8. Newspapers.com. Web. 14 Mar 2017.