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Tragedy of the C-47

By Cpl. Paul B. Lowney*

On September 18, 1944, nineteen persons -- nearly all soldiers returning to the United States on furlough -- climbed into an A.T.C. C-47 transport plane at Elmendorf Field, Anchorage.  The motors warmed for a few moments and then the plane lifted easily into the sky and circled north.  There was nothing unusual about this.  In a matter of hours the plane would land in Fairbanks and the flight would become only a notation on forgotten paper.

But the flight was no ordinary one.  The plane, which might have landed safely in Fairbanks, mysteriously crashed into solid ice on an unnamed, uncharted peak sixteen miles northeast of Mt. McKinley and sent crew and passengers tumbling through the fuselage into the deep snow, never again to be seen by human eyes.

This routine flight brought about one of the most extensive and daring rescue expeditions ever undertaken.  For the first time men were to investigate a towering, cone-like peak of ice stretching skyward for 11,400 feet.

Pilot Roy Proebstle, flying at 9,000 feet over Talkeetna station, reported to Ladd Field, Fairbanks, at 7:42 A.M.  Half an hour later the plane was estimated over Summit, still on course.

As hours slipped by, Ladd Field saw nothing of the C-47.  Silence added more certainty to a growing fear for its safety.  Drafts and currents over the snow-capped Alaska Range are known to be treacherous; peaks are high and deceiving; thickly falling snow obscures visibility.  Clouds often hang low, screening huge blocks of ice that jut miles into the sky.

Killed in the plane were:

RAY PROEBSTLE, pilot, Minneapolis
L. H. BLEVIN, co-pilot, Minneapolis
Pvt. J. A. GEORGE, Jr., Russelville, Ark.
S 1/c BERNARD ORTEGO, Opelsas, La.
Maj. RUDOLPH F. BOSTELMAN, La Grange, Ill.
Pvt. CHARLES E. ELLIE, Greenfield, Ill.
Lt.(jg) ATHEL L. GILL, Nashville, Tenn.
Lt. ORLANDO J. BUCK, Rosebank, N. Y.
T/4 TIMOTHY d. STEVENS, Suffern, N. Y.
Pvt. HOWARD A. PEVEY, Roseland, La.
Pfc. ALFRED S. MADISON, New Auburn, Wisc.
Pfc. CLIFFORD E. PHILLIPS, Lake City, Tenn.
Cpl. CHARLES N. DYKEMAN, Holland, Mich.
T/5 MAURICE R. GIBBS, Caro, Mich.
Pvvt. ANTHONY KASPER, Allamucky, N. J.
T/5 EDW. S. STOERING, Duluth, Minn.
Sgt. WM. E. BACKUS, Lake Wales, Fla.
CARL V. HARRIS, Texarkana, Texas

Three days later, September 21, the shocking truth was known.  An ATC pilot sighted wreckage on a barren, white peak between Mt. Brooks and Mt. McKinley, but he saw no signs of survivors.

September 30, Grant Pearson, chief ranger of Mt. McKinley National Park and a mountain climber with 20 years experience, was called tot the Land Rescue Office at Elmendorf Field to organize the expedition which Gen. Delos C. Emmons of the Alaskan Department and Gen. Davenport Johnson of the 11th AAF so keenly supported.  After several flights over the crash area, Pearson and his pilot spotted sections of the plane over the glistening snow.

When Pearson reported back to Col. Ivan M. Palmer, CO of the Elmendorf Airbase, the Colonel turned to him gravely and inquired: "Can you get to the plane?"  Pearson answered simply, "Yes."

And so began one of the largest land rescue expeditions ever assembled.  The job was herculean.  Pearson -- a tough, hard-bitten, husky mountain-man -- outlined his needs.  He would require at least 40 men trained in mountain-climbing, bulldozers, trucks, tents, radios, stoves, tractors, gasoline, mountain-climbing equipment and dozens of other items to aid men against winter and the dangerous, glacier-capped mountain.  Some equipment had to be flown in from the States, some came from the Aleutians.  Finally it was all assembled and men and supplies moved by train to McKinley Park headquarters.

The expedition, under the direction of Capt. Americo R. Peracca and Lt. Allen M. Dillman, was to consist of a series of camps several miles apart leading to the scene of the crash.  Base camps would be largest; those more advanced would be smaller.  With snow jeeps, trailers, trucks, tractors, and several tons of supplies, the advance party began pushing its way through the heavily drifted snow toward Wonder Lake.  Bulldozers first had to clear the road.  At Wonder Lake the men set up camp and then pushed on to Cache Creek and established another.

From here a few traveled by foot to the top of McGonagall Pass, against what Grant Pearson described as the hardest wind he had ever seen in the Pass.  They set up camp here, contacted Wonder Lake by radio, and waited for a plane to drop much-needed supplies.

By extraordinary coincidence, Bradford Washburn and a few Army officers were testing emergency and survival equipment for the Army Air Forces in the vicinity of Wonder Lake and were only a few miles from the camp of the rescue party.  Through special permission of Wright Field, Dayton, Ohio, Washburn was allowed to join his old-time mountain-climbing friend, Pearson, and aid with the rescue work.  Though small of stature and slight of build, Washburn possesses unusual stamina, and is regarded as one of the nation's outstanding mountain-climbers and geographers.  At the age of 1 he climbed the Swiss Alps and later published three books for children on these experiences.  In 1942, together with Pearson, he scaled the highest pinnacle of Mt. McKinley.  His present work with the Air Technical Service Command, testing personnel equipment, brought him to Alaska.

In a snow jeep S/Sgt. James E. Gale, T/4 John M. Greany (a photographer), Washburn, and Pearson left McGonagall Pass and proceeded up the glacier.  Going at first was not steep, but slow.  A dangerous avalanche slide took considerable time to pass.  At 7,500 feet the men abandoned the metal crampons to their shoes, and went slowly up a step, icy grade.  For 200 feet steps had to be cut in the ice, but at the top of the pass they got a good view of the crashed plane over 1,000 feet below them.

At this time Ranger Grant Pearson wrote in his diary: "From the top of the pass we have a good view of the airplane.  There is a real steep grade down to it.  When we were at about 11,000 feet an airplane flew over us.  We were then in our most difficult position, perched on the side of the mountain, cutting steps in the ice."

With the aid of ropes and steps hewn into the ice, the men made their way still farther upward to a ridge immediately above the crash.  Choosing a camp site, they sent for additional men from a camp below.  Washburn, Pfc. Jack N. Yokel, and T/5 Jacob A. Stalker left the ridge camp in the morning and placed 650 feet of rope down the hazardous grade to the plane.  Ten men from the ridge camp descended the rope to the C-47.  Near the wreckage they found supplies which had been dropped by plane previously.

Immediately the men began clearing snow from the twisted fuselage.  One section of the plane was broken off just above the rear toilet near the vertical stabilizer.  The tail wheel was intact.  To the right of the tail they found the remains of the pilot's cockpit.  Most of the instruments were uncovered, but completely ruined.

No bodies or traces of bodies were found.

Some personal items were uncovered.  A flight bag was undamaged.  Nearby were a pilot's cap and a toilet case.  There were some playing cards strewn in the snow, a few snapshots, a mathematics book belonging to Karl V. Harris, a civilian.  Also uncovered were a soldier's furlough papers, some chewing gum, a pack of cigarettes.

After some seven and a half hours of digging still no bodies had been found.

The next day they again dug.  The futility of trying to find bodies was indicated in Pearson's diary for November 13: "Wind blowing hard this A.M., and it is cold.  We dug out the balance of a wing and also a section of the fuselage.  There were no bodies in it or any baggage.  There is ten feet of snow over the airplane.  We have dug out the main parts of the airplane . . . but have failed to find any bodies.  The question is where next to dig.  We dug eight hours today.  Weather windy and cold."

The motor of the C-47 was buried in the ice near the summit of the pass, over 1,000 feet above the fuselage.  Pvt. Elmo Fenn, S/Sgt. Richard C. Manuell, S/Sgt. James Gale and Washburn left the ridge camp and climbed to the cornice of the peak above the motor and established a fixed rope.  Gale and Washburn went down the rope to the motor, inspected it, and determined it to be the left one.  Scattered about they found engine mountings, propellers, and some tubing.

There was nothing more the expedition could accomplish.  They found the plane, identified it, excavated as much wreckage as they could, an made certain there were no bodies in it.  But still the enigma of the C-47 remained: (1) Why did the plane crash point-blank into the icy mountain?  (2)  What happened to the bodies?

Theory and evidence point out logical answers.  The plane was reported flying under icing conditions, which may have prevented it from securing necessary altitude to clear the mountain.  As for being nearly 50 miles off course, it had been pointed out that radio beams have been known to bend.  Still another theory, and a probable one, is that the plane was caught in a severe downdraft and could not pull out.  Such a downdraft sucked Pearson and his pilot down 1,000 feet when flying over this area in a bomber.  Actual cause of the tragedy is at best conjecture.  A high-ranking Air Corps official put it: "Only one man knows the real cause. . . and he's not here."

As to the bodies, opinion is in accord.  Pearson, Washburn and other members of the search party agree that the occupants of the plane were hurled out when the motors struck the solid ice, splitting the fuselage open.  Bodies and other heavy object which were loose inside the plane were thrown out into the snow and likely fell into crevices on the mountainside.  The impact of the crash caused a snow-slide which concealed all evidence which might otherwise have been found.

According to official reports of the Air Corps, recovery of the bodies -- even in the spring when weather is more suitable -- is highly problematical.  At this altitude only summer snows thaw.  Owing to the location of the wreckage, prevailing winds, and depth of drifted and packed snow, excavation in the spring would be practically impossible.  Since no bodies were found in the fuselage and surrounding debris, a strip approximately one-quarter-mile long, from the point of impact to the resting point, would have to be dug up.  Even if this were done, there is no assurance that the bodies could be recovered, for there is every likelihood they have lodged in crevices.

The Indians had a name for the mountain, although it is little known.  They called Mount McKinley "Denali," meaning "home of the sun."  Mount Foraker, nearby, they called "Denali's Wife," and the remainder of the peaks -- including the one on which the C-47 crashed -- were known as "Denali's Children."  Now the peak will likely take the name of the senior officer aboard the ill-fated ship (Major Bostleman) or one of the several names suggested by members of the rescue party: Deception Peak, Crash Mountain, or Furlough Peak.

No one can minimize the stark tragedy, the shock, and pathos in the loss of the men aboard the C-47.  A worse aircraft disaster in Alaska is not known.  These men were not engaged in combat -- where death is expected -- but were passengers bound for the States after many weary months in Alaska.  This type of death in uniform is not expected yet it sometimes happens.

In a larger sense, it may be said their lives were not altogether given in vain.  Survival and rescue work in Northern terrain is relatively untried.  As air travel increases in Alaska, more planes will crash, others will be forced down, and still others will be abandoned by parachute.  This is inevitable.  Whether personnel of these unfortunate flights live or die on barren, cold, mountainsides will depend largely upon how much is known about survival.  Whether or not help will reach them in time will depend upon how much is known about rescue.

On the McKinley expedition invaluable information was learned both on rescue and survival.  Men spent six weeks in the field learning how to live and get along with their equipment.  Much was learned about the use of communication, dropping supplies by aircraft, mechanical equipment, tents, clothing, and food.  Dozens of pages were written on the usefulness of each item and whether or not it could be improved, and how.  Much was learned about the organization of rescue parties and how crash victims may be gotten to quickly and efficiently.  As a result of the recent rescue attempt, there can be no question but that the whole knowledge of survival and rescue in the North has been advanced substantially.

*Cpl. Paul Lowney, Aleutians correspondent for Alaska Life and Yank, was present at McKinley Park when the rescue mission returned, and had an opportunity to question the men who made the long trip.  On January 20, Army chaplains representing the Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant faiths spoke, a guard of honor fired a volley, and a bugler blew "Taps."  An ATC plane then flew over the scene of the crash and dropped three floral wreaths.

Source: Lowney, Cpl. Paul, Alaska Life, the Territorial Magazine, Tragedy of the C-47.  Juneau, Alaska: Alaska Life Publishing Company. April, 1945.




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