Tiny town solidly behind pilot accused in 'friendly fire' case

Tuesday, October 15, 2002

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- The tiny Illinois town where Maj. William Umbach grew up is solidly behind the Air National Guard pilot as he faces criminal charges.

"There's not one person in this town who wouldn't back Bill up," said Jerry Lynn, mayor of Easton, population 400, about 40 miles north of Springfield.

Umbach, who now lives in Petersburg, and Maj. Harry Schmidt of Sherman, face charges of involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault in the "friendly fire" bombing that killed four Canadians in Afghanistan April 17. A hearing that has yet to be scheduled will determine whether the charges will proceed to a court martial.

But in Easton, where relatives say a 15-year-old Umbach wanted only flying lessons for his birthday, people say the bombing was a mistake and shouldn't be prosecuted.

"Bill fights for our freedom and now they may take his away?" asked sister-in-law Patti Umbach.

Her husband, William Umbach's younger brother Bob, has spent hours on the phone with state and federal lawmakers trying to garner support for his brother. He's distributed T-shirts that say, "Support, don't prosecute our pilots."

'Looked up to him'

"He's my brother -- I've always looked up to him," Bob Umbach said. "This is what I have to do."

Schmidt was flying the plane that dropped a 500-pound bomb, killing four and wounding eight Canadians. Umbach was the flight leader and is accused of not controlling the mission. If convicted on all charges, which also include dereliction of duty, they each face as much as 64 years in confinement.

The pilots allegedly failed to follow normal procedures in dealing with what they thought was hostile fire but was actually Canadians doing training exercises.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: