|St. Albans, West Virginia||Patent attorney for the DuPont Company|
|U.S. Army||Enlisted 32359777 / Officer O-182634|
|Zone of Interior (American)||Manhattan Engineer District (the Manhattan Project)|
Early Life & Family
Paul Benton Selbe was born in Charleston, West Virginia, on August 21, 1902. He was the son of Benjamin Franklin Selbe (a Chesapeake and Ohio Railway employee, 1874–1960) and Maude Estella Selbe (née Hively, 1883–1984). He had two younger sisters, Virginia Kathleen Selbe (1906–1933) and Helen Irene Selbe (later Kniseley, 1909–1999).
The Selbe family was recorded on the census on May 6, 1910, living in St. Albans, West Virginia. They were recorded again on the next census on January 2 or 3, 1920, living on 8th Avenue in St. Albans. Selbe graduated St. Albans High School in June 1918. In September 1918, he began attending West Virginia University.
According to a letter by his father to the State of Delaware Public Archives Commission, Selbe graduated from West Virginia University with a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering on June 30, 1924, and in September that same year he began working as a patent examiner for the federal government in Washington, D.C. In 1925, he enrolled in National University School of Law in Washington, D.C.
While in law school, Selbe was in the Phi Lamba Upsilon and Scabbard and Blade honor societies. He was listed in a 1926 D.C. directory living at 1332 Harvard N.W. He was listed in the following year’s directory living with his sister, Virginia (then a student), at 2621 13th Street N.W. He graduated from law school in 1928.
According to his father’s letter, in September 1929, Selbe was hired as a patent attorney by E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company, better known as the DuPont Company. He was listed in a 1934 Wilmington, Delaware, directory living at 900 West 30th Street. Selbe’s address was listed in the 1938 Wilmington directory as 309 West 8th Street. He was recorded on the next census on April 22, 1940, living in an apartment at 309 West 18th Street in Wilmington. He remained at that address until he entered the service.
Journal-Every Evening reported that Selbe
was active in Boy Scout work and when commissioned in the Army [in 1942] he was a district commissioner of the Del-Mar-Va Council. He had served as leader of the troop at Trinity Episcopal Church and in 1941 was winner of the Scoutmaster’s Training Award. He was a member of Westminster Presbyterian Church and taught a class in the church school.
According to his military paperwork, Selbe stood five feet, 5¾ inches tall, had brown eyes, and gray-brown hair.
As a student at West Virginia University, Selbe was a member of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (R.O.T.C.). In July 1922, he attended the R.O.T.C. Engineer Students Camp at Camp A. A. Humphreys (now Fort Belvoir) in Virginia. His family’s statement indicated that Selbe was a member of the Officer Reserve Corps (that is, he held a commission as a reserve officer in the U.S. Army) from September 8, 1923, to August 23, 1938. During at least part of that period, he served in the Chemical Warfare Service.
Selbe was recalled to the U.S. Army during the summer of 1942. He rejoined the U.S. Army in Camden, New Jersey, on August 20, 1942. He initially held the grade of private and was assigned a draftee’s service number, 32359777. According to a summary of his service that Colonel Charles D. Carle of the War Department’s Adjutant General’s Office Records Administration Center provided to Selbe’s father, Private Selbe did not immediately go on active duty, instead transferring to the Enlisted Reserve Corps (E.R.C.). It is possible that Selbe was already waiting for his commission to come through when he was drafted. If not, it would appear his prior service as a reserve officer fast-tracked him to regain his commission. Colonel Carle wrote that Selbe “was appointed a first lieutenant, Army of the United States on 24 August 1942; was assigned serial number, O 182 634; accepted 26 August 1942[.]”
On September 3, 1942, Selbe reported for active duty at Fort Dix, New Jersey, temporarily attached to the 1229th Reception Center. On September 7, 1942, as a formality, he was honorably discharged as a private from the Army of the United States to accept his commission. Selbe went on active duty as a 1st lieutenant in the Chemical Warfare Service on September 8, 1942.
On February 20, 1943, 1st Lieutenant Selbe graduated from a 274-hour training course, the Third Command and Staff Officers’ Course at the Chemical Warfare School at Edgewood Arsenal, Maryland. Selbe also spent some time stationed at Camp Sibert Alabama. Journal-Every Evening reported that “Later he was transferred to patent work for the Army and stationed in Washington.” The article added that he “repeatedly asked for active duty”—presumably the writer meant that Selbe asked to join a combat or overseas unit, since he was already on active duty—“but in July  he was transferred to California, where he was stationed at Berkeley, doing special work.”
Special work was something of an understatement. Sometime prior to January 1944, Lieutenant Selbe was assigned to the Manhattan Engineer District, better known as the Manhattan Project.
Very few facts are available about Selbe’s role in the massive undertaking to develop the atomic bomb, a project that involved over 100,000 men and women. Perhaps not coincidentally, in the fall of 1942 his former employer, DuPont, was brought into the project to set up plutonium production, an element first discovered by a team at University of California, Berkeley. Although it seems likely that Selbe was involved in securing patents for Manhattan Project innovations, no evidence has yet emerged to confirm that theory.
Tragedy in Oakland
Early on the morning of January 18, 1944, Lieutenant Selbe boarded a Douglas C-47A Skytrain (serial number 43-30682) at Oakland Municipal Airport. The aircraft, piloted by Lieutenant Colonel Ralph L. Zimmerman (1910–1944) and 1st Lieutenant Ralph G. Breshears (1918–1944), belonged to the 94th Troop Carrier Squadron, 439th Troop Carrier Group, I Troop Carrier Command, based at Laurinburg-Maxton Army Air Base, North Carolina. There were four passengers and four crewmembers aboard. The aircraft was scheduled to fly to McChord Field, Washington, then back to Laurinburg-Maxton via Alliance, Nebraska. It is unclear whether Selbe was headed to the state of Washington—the Manhattan Project’s Hanford Site was a few hours from McChord Field—or back to the East Coast.
Lieutenant Colonel Zimmerman had originally been rated as a pilot in the Air Corps back on May 16, 1936. He had accumulated over 1,648 hours of flight time as lead pilot, including over 1,026 hours in that type of aircraft. The C-47 had been delivered only a few months earlier.
The plane took off from Runway 27 at around 0613 hours Pacific War Time. There was trouble soon after takeoff and the aircraft lost power in one engine. The pilots tried to return to the airport, but the C-47 plane crashed into a house at 2010 38th Avenue in Oakland.
R. C. Williams, a flight engineer for Pan American, wrote in a statement:
Early this morning about 06:18 PWT, I heard the sound of a Douglas Transport within close range of my residence at an extremely low altitude. I could distinguish the plane must be in trouble by the sound of the plane, I could clearly hear that it was operating on only one engine at a high R.P.M. as if it were trying to gain altitude. I ran outside to try to see the location of the plane and just before getting outside our front door, I heard the crash of the aircraft directly across the street from my residence.
Williams believed that some of the occupants survived the initial impact only to perish in the subsequent fire. The Oakland Tribune reported: “The crash caused a three-alarm fire which destroyed the one residence, knocked an adjoining home from its foundation and partly burned it, and scorched several other dwellings.” Although the home destroyed by the crash and several others nearby were occupied, nobody on the ground was killed.
In the accident report, 1st Lieutenant Eugene W. Roddenberry (1921–1991) wrote:
The investigation discloses that after take-off, Number One engine became inoperative due to a fuel vapor lock in the carburetor. The examination of the engines showed the absence of a vapor vent line in the Number One carburetor’s venting orifice, where the factory installed Allen Plug was still present. This plug was drilled out of the subject carburetor and it was found that the vapor vent needle was stuck in a closed position indicating a vapor lock at the time the carburetor became inoperative. No other defects in the engines were found. It appears that when the pilot realized his predicament he attempted to return to the field and he made a right hand pattern turn gradually losing altitude until he was forced to fly at a dangerously low airspeed while attempting to maintain a clearance over obstructions. It was also ascertained that at the scene of the crash, a high and gusty wind had been blowing at the time of the accident. It is likely then to assume that, in the heavy winds at this point, his wing lift was destroyed by a gust or down draft and the aircraft went into a full or partial spin to the left.
The report did not explain the absence of the vapor vent line. There is no indication that the investigators were aware of the top secret nature of Lieutenant Selbe’s work, though it is unclear whether that knowledge would have altered the course of the investigation.
Following Lieutenant Selbe’s funeral at his parents’ home in St. Albans on January 26, 1944, he was buried at Sunset Memorial Park in nearby South Charleston, West Virginia. His younger sister had been buried there, as were his parents after their deaths.
Crew & Passengers Aboard C-47A 43-30682 on January 18, 1944
The following list was adopted from “Report of Aircraft Accident 44-1-18-12” with grade, name, unit, service number, and position. Lieutenant Knight was a U.S. Coast Guard officer. Aside from Knight and Selbe, rest of the men were U.S. Army Air Forces personnel assigned to the I Troop Carrier Command.
Lieutenant Colonel Ralph L. Zimmerman (439th Troop Carrier Group), O-344809 (pilot)
1st Lieutenant Ralph G. Breshears (94th Troop Carrier Squadron, 439th Troop Carrier Group), O-746034 (copilot)
Staff Sergeant Benjamin D. Edwards (94th Troop Carrier Squadron, 439th Troop Carrier Group), 18151155 (flight engineer)
Sergeant Harold J. Manasse (94th Troop Carrier Squadron, 439th Troop Carrier Group), 16143860 (radio operator)
Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Howard H. Knight (Coast Guard Training Station, Alameda) 500-190
Private Robert Lapan (97th Troop Carrier Squadron, 440th Troop Carrier Group), 19182173
1st Lieutenant Paul B. Selbe (Manhattan Engineer District), O-182634
Sergeant Vincent J. Virga (92nd Troop Carrier Squadron, 439th Troop Carrier Group), 19188409
There may be a typo in the 1938 Wilmington directory, which listed Selbe at 309 West 8th Street rather than 309 West 18th Street, where several sources confirm he lived from at least 1940–1942. There is no extant address of 309 West 8th Street, though of course it is possible there was such an address in 1938 and that Selbe moved precisely 10 blocks sometime between 1938 and 1940.
Curiously, although Selbe’s parents stated that their son was originally commissioned on September 8, 1923, they provided a commissioning document stating that Selbe was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the U.S. Army’s Chemical Warfare Service on August 24, 1928. There is no lower grade than 2nd lieutenant. One possible explanation is that he was previously with another arm of the service (such as the Corps of Engineers) and then switched to the Chemical Warfare Service.
Runway 27 is now known as Runway 28 due to changes in magnetic declination during the intervening decades.
Eugene W. Roddenberry
1st Lieutenant Roddenberry, one of the investigating officers, became famous after the war when he entered the television business, eventually creating Star Trek.
Special thanks to Lieutenant Selbe’s niece, Ginny Brink, for contributing information and a document, and to the Delaware Public Archives for the use of their photo. Thanks also go out to Dalton Alves of the Special Collections Research Center, Gelman Library, The George Washington University, for locating a copy of Selbe’s law school yearbook.
“2 Delaware Soldiers Killed; 2 Others Wounded in Action.” Journal-Every Evening, January 20, 1944. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/110721987/paul-selbe-death/
“8 Die As Plane Hits Home Here.” Oakland Tribune, January 18, 1944. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/110745011/paul-b-selbe-plane-crash/
“Benjamin F. Selbe.” Charleston Daily Mail, December 2, 1960. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/110750132/benjamin-franklin-selbe-obit/
Paul Benton Selbe Individual Military Service Record, c. 1946. Record Group 1325-003-053, Record of Delawareans Who Died in World War II. Delaware Public Archives, Dover, Delaware. https://cdm16397.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p15323coll6/id/20743/rec/1
“Benjamin Franklin Selbe.” Find a Grave. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/73708254/benjamin-franklin-selbe
Boyd’s Directory of the District of Columbia 1926. R. L. Polk & Company Publishers, 1926. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/2469/images/15802140
Boyd’s Directory of the District of Columbia 1927. R. L. Polk & Company Publishers, 1927. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/2469/images/16016435
Carle, Charles D. Letter to Benjamin F. Selbe, September 12, 1946. Record Group 1325-003-053, Record of Delawareans Who Died in World War II. Delaware Public Archives, Dover, Delaware. https://cdm16397.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p15323coll6/id/20749/rec/1
Fourteenth Census of the United States, 1920. Record Group 29, Records of the Bureau of the Census. National Archives at Washington, D.C. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/6061/images/4392034_00304
“Lieut. Paul B Selbe.” Journal-Every Evening, January 24, 1944. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/110760069/selbe-funeral/
“Miss Helen Irene Selbe Wed to Mr. C. W. Kniseley.” The Evening Star, November 3, 1939.
Polk’s Wilmington (New Castle County, Del.) City Directory 1934. R. L. Polk & Company Publishers, 1934. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/2469/images/16084270
Polk’s Wilmington (New Castle County, Del.) City Directory 1938. R. L. Polk & Company Publishers, 1938. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/2469/images/16150154
“Report of Aircraft Accident 44-1-18-12.” Reel 46311. Courtesy of the Air Force Historical Research Agency.
Selbe, Benjamin F. Letter to Leon deValinger, Jr., September 16, 1946. Record Group 1325-003-053, Record of Delawareans Who Died in World War II. Delaware Public Archives, Dover, Delaware. https://cdm16397.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p15323coll6/id/20750/rec/1
Sixteenth Census of the United States, 1940. Record Group 29, Records of the Bureau of the Census. National Archives at Washington, D.C. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/2442/images/m-t0627-00551-00616
Thirteenth Census of the United States, 1910. Record Group 29, Records of the Bureau of the Census. National Archives at Washington, D.C. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/7884/images/4454964_00196
World War II Army Enlistment Records. Record Group 64, Records of the National Archives and Records Administration. National Archives at College Park, Maryland. https://aad.archives.gov/aad/record-detail.jsp?dt=893&mtch=1&cat=all&tf=F&q=32359777&bc=&rpp=10&pg=1&rid=2982635
WWII Draft Registration Cards for Delaware, 10/16/1940–3/31/1947. Record Group 147, Records of the Selective Service System. National Archives at St. Louis, Missouri. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/2238/images/44003_13_00007-00390
Last updated on January 6, 2023
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