Connected by tragedy, pilot of Marshall football plane crash buried an hour from ECU

A light fog hugs the wall bordering New Bern National Cemetery shortly after sunrise on Nov. 14.

A rooster crows in the distance. Rainwater, left over from a recent storm, spills from the treetops. It makes a plunking sound as it lands on the fallen leaves below. 

Rows upon rows of ivory tombstones reflect in the sunlight as it begins to shine brighter on the overcast morning. Among them is the grave of Capt. Frank Hall Abbott Jr.  

On this date 50 years ago, Abbott piloted Southern Airways Flight 932 carrying the Marshall University football team. The Thundering Herd were traveling 币圈十大交易所home after a 17-14 loss at East Carolina. The DC-9 crashed into a rainy hillside near the Tri-State Airport in Huntington, W.Va. All 75 on board died, including 37 players, eight coaches, 25 boosters and the five-person flight crew. 

ECU and Marshall were initially scheduled to play in Greenville this season, but COVID-19 led to multiple postponements, and eventually too many scheduling conflicts. It is a tragedy that has connected the programs in a way few others could fathom. And the pilot happens to be buried an hour away from the ECU campus.

Abbott is interred in Section 11, Grave 7512 of New Bern National Cemetery. Line-by-line, his tombstone reads:

FRANK

HALL

ABBOTT

NORTH CAROLINA

CAPTAIN

21 TRP CARR SQ AF

WORLD WAR II

KOREA 

MARCH 18 1923

NOVEMBER 14 1970

The marker is visible from the paved pathway visitors drive on each day. How many vehicles have inched past Abbott but never stopped? How many have? 

The details surrounding Abbott's life proved much more difficult to find than most of the other 74 on board. Internet searches turn up scarce results. A Southern Flight 932 Memorial 75 Facebook Page sheds some light on his history by sharing an article from the December 1970 issue of Southern Airways "The Southernaire" magazine. 

Abbott served as a pilot in the Army Air Corps during World War II and was later called back to service for the Korean War. He was born on March 18, 1923 and died at age 47.

His plot is flanked between two graves. To his left rests an infant, Johnny Ray, born on Nov. 26, 1973, died on Dec. 31, 1973, the son of USMC corporal John Shewtchenko. To his right is Walter B Gilbert, a USMC gunnery sergeant born in 1917 who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Buried in front of him are three, small, unmarked graves, each with a penny resting on top. 

By 9:50 a.m., the American flags that were strategically placed in front of each grave for Veterans Day weekend had been removed. They were scooped up, row by row, the bottoms caked in mud. Abbott’s flag was picked up at 9:25 a.m. It joined the others placed inside a large, black storage container with a yellow lid. It was the closest Abbott would come to a visitor all day.   

Captain Frank Hall Abbott, the pilot of the Marshall University football plane crash on Nov. 14, 1970, is interred in Section 11, Grave 7512 at the New Bern National Cemetery.

The scene was much different seven-and-a-half hours away in Huntington. Marshall held its 50-year memorial service in the morning before its noon contest against Middle Tennessee. Among those in attendance was a small group of 1970 ECU players who made the trip to pay their respects. 

The Thundering Herd wore black uniforms and the No. 75 on their helmets in honor of those who were lost. They won 41-14 to improve to 7-0. Their boisterous celebration was a fitting tribute to those the community continues to grieve five decades later. 

Back in New Bern, a squirrel runs across the top of the wall near the far corner of the cemetery. If it is hungry, it has come to the right place. There are a variety of nuts, including acorns, scattered across the grounds, some of them split open. The plucky rodent isn't the only one searching for provisions.

Two women spend the late morning beneath the cemetery’s pecan trees. They use picker-uppers to fill large bags and buckets with the versatile nut. One of the women splits a pecan open, noting its dampness. They would eventually dry, however, and be used in a bevy of recipes just in time for Thanksgiving. 

Neither woman was aware of the location of Abbott’s final resting place. They were also surprised 50 years had passed since the worst sports disasters in U.S. history. Had it really been so long ago since that tragic night?

A pecan and a penny rest atop the grave of an unknown soldier at New Bern National Cemetery on Nov. 14.

According to a post regarding Abbott on findagrave.com, his parents are also buried in North Carolina. Frank Hall Abbott Sr. (1885-1962) is in Reidsville's Greenview Cemetery. Helen Wray Abbott (1891-1972) is in Southern Pines' Mount Hope Cemetery. According to the Southernaire post, "Captain Abbott is survived by Mrs. Abbott and a daughter, Betty, and son, Anthony." Searches for any family members were unsuccessful. 

By mid-afternoon, the graves cast a long shadow from their fronts as the bright sun beat down, stretching outward from row to row. A small breeze rustled the leaves and a dog barked in the distance. In a nearby tree, a chorus of birds sang out in multiple octaves, creating a soothing overture. 

A man arrived. He kneeled at a grave on the other side of the cemetery. He removed his sunglasses and wiped tears from his face with his shirt sleeve. Another man soon visited. He meandered about the entire grounds, stopping to read monuments. He never walked past Abbott.  

By 5 p.m. the sky begins to take on an orange glow. The shadows once projected from the tombstones were gone as a hint of darkness crept into the sky. The sun continues to shrink away behind the trees, leaving a dark amber tint in its wake.

Captain Frank Hall Abbott, the pilot of the Marshall University football plane crash on Nov. 14, 1970, is interred in Section 11, Grave 7512 at the New Bern National Cemetery.

A squirrel scampers across grave tops before disappearing into the distance. The laughter of nearby children playing outside echoes beyond the cemetery walls. Their joyful shrieks are accompanied by the sounds of clucking chickens.  

Sunset is approaching. The cemetery will be closed.

A train rattles across the track. In less than hour, it will be 6:38 p.m. The time Southern Airways Flight 932 departed the Kinston airport 50 years ago. Then 7:36 p.m. will arrive. The moment Abbott and his crew attempted to approach the landing and crashed into the hillside. 

He will once again be alone in the confines of New Bern National Cemetery, surrounded by darkness.