Ask McGehee

That church did lose the top of its steeple, but it was the 1916 hurricane that gets credit for the damage. A cross studded with electric light bulbs replaced it.

According to the official history of the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, a plane struck the southern tower and knocked off the cross during World War II. In actuality, that accident happened a year after the war ended.

On February 28, 1946, as Mobile geared up for the first Mardi Gras celebration since the war began, a two-engine Navy training plane flew over Downtown Mobile and struck the 12-foot cross. Miraculously, it did not fall but stood leaning precariously until it could be repaired.

A 23-year-old pilot, Robert “Shorty” Grammer, had flown the plane from N.A.S. Barin Field in Foley. In the first two years of that field’s existence, there had been 40 fatalities, earning it the title of “Bloody Barin.” That night, there would be another.

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A Crash Landing

After striking the cross, a piece of the wing fell and ripped a hole in the roof of St. Mary’s Orphanage, which stood across Conti Street from the Cathedral. The plane continued on a southwest route, its pilot apparently hoping to get to a landing strip at Brookley.   

It just missed the tops of the oaks lining Government Street before striking the roof of a home and then a small apartment building facing Hamilton Street. The plane finally crashed into a metal shed behind a house on South Lawrence Street. The only injury on the ground was an apartment dweller who was struck by falling plaster. Several residents had reportedly been out at the movies.

According to a newspaper account, “Hundreds of pedestrians and motorists swarmed the area.” The police hurriedly warned the crowd not to light cigarettes due to the spilled fuel. A resident of South Lawrence Street, G.A. Cumbaa, was arrested when he ignored the proclamation and was charged with disorderly conduct. 

As police scuffled with Mr. Cumbaa, rescuers took a full half hour to cut Grammer from the wreckage. When asked his name, the young pilot smiled and weakly responded, “Call me Shorty.” Those were his last words, and no one will ever know why he flew his plane at such a low altitude that evening.

A year later, Bloody Barin was shut down but would open again when the conflict in Korea began. As a result of the accident, the Archdiocese reinforced both of the cathedral’s towers with concrete after replacing the bent cross. 

And in the 1960s with the arrival of the Civic Center, urban renewal efforts took the block where the plane crashed and cleared it for a motel complex that never arrived. The Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce has occupied the site since 1981.

Text by Tom McGehee

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