On May 12, 1944, almost exactly a year before World War II ended, Mrs. Logan O’Brien was at her home on 5061 College View Ave. in Eagle Rock. It was around noon on Friday, and she heard the roar of an airplane in the sky that sounded very familiar.
Mrs. O’Brien wondered if the plane was a Mustang—and if her 23-year-old son, a pilot in the U.S. Army Air Corps's Ferry Command in Long Beach, might be in it.
An hour and a half later, Mrs. O’Brien learned that her son, Lt. Clarence O’Brien, was indeed flying a Mustang over Eagle Rock skies—and that the plane had crashed in a residential area nearby, killing him, according to a May 13, 1944 news clipping from the now-defunct Eagle Rock Sentinel. (Clippings of major news events from the newspaper, which served Eagle Rock for more than 40 years, have been preserved by Eagle Rock Valley Historical Society President Eric Warren, who provided the attached clips.)
The crash, which occurred in an area between Rockland Avenue, Las Flores Drive and Eagle Rock Boulevard, incinerated a home on 5201 Eagle Rock Blvd. The accident narrowly missed killing a mother and her six-year-old son who were eating their lunch in the dinette of the house that was destroyed.
Lt. O’Brien had been ferrying the long-range P-51 Mustang, widely considered the best American fighter jet in World War II, to New Jersey when the aircraft’s controls reportedly jammed. (The “P” in the fighter’s name designates “Pursuit” and the “51” represents the 51st fighter aircraft designed and built for the USAAC.)
According to the Sentinel, O’Brien radioed Long Beach and was instructed to try to land on the grounds of one of Eagle Rock’s schools. O’Brien was directly over Eagle Rock High School, Eagle Rock Elementary and Occidental College, but he evidently could not make a forced landing on any of those campuses because students were out on the grounds at that time of the day.
The Mustang was seen rocking from side to side at a great speed as it flew dangerously over an eatery identified as the Martha Washington restaurant, where members of the Eagle Rock and Highland Park chambers of commerce as well as leading real estate agents from both neighborhoods had gathered for a zoning meeting with city officials and then-Councilman John Holland.
Moments later, the aircraft made its fatal plunge.
“It pitched directly toward the rear of the Harold Wilder residence, 5202 Rockland, shearing off a corner in the rear, above the bathroom, sheared off the limbs of a plum tree, broke down iron clothesline posts as well as a two-by-four across the top of a bench in the yard,” reads the Sentinel report, adding: “There the plane apparently exploded and became a mass of flame.”
Firemen from Eagle Rock and elsewhere doused the inferno, helped by onlookers from a huge crowd that gathered at the site of the crash. "All day Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the scene of the crash was visited by hundreds of people," the Sentinel reported, adding: "It was not long before souvenier hunters were carring away parts of the ill-fated plane."
A popular figure among the youth of Eagle Rock, Lt. O’Brien attended St. Dominic’s School. He lived with his parents on 3158 Weldon Ave. at the time, “just outside the old boundaries of Eagle Rock,” according to the Sentinel. O’Brien’s parents had bought their College View home about six months before his tragic crash.
O’Brien had once flown a plane to Australia, and had his Mustang not crashed that day 68 years ago, he might have broken a flying record. As it happened, another Mustang P-51 that flew from Los Angeles to New York on or around that same day established a new record for fast passage between the two cities, getting to the Big Apple in six and a half hours.
An experienced “No. 1” pilot, O’Brien’s ambition was to become a combat flyer and go on missions overseas. In addition to his parents, he was survived by his widow, Alice Waldon, of Montgomery, AL (they married two years before the crash), two sisters and three brothers. A military funeral for O’Brien was held at St. Bernard’s Catholic Church on Verdugo Road and Avenue 33 in Glassell Park.