true story of
PART ONE OF TEN PARTS
A Curtiss Commando C46.
NO ONE CAN KNOW with certainty what thoughts were running through the mind of private Leslie R. Simmons, Jr., in the early morning hours of December 10, 1946.
One of 200 Marines flying out of El Toro Marine Base in San Diego, the air journey to Naval Air Station Sand Point in Seattle would take him over his tiny hometown of Kalama, Washington -- a pinpoint along the Columbia River.
All told, there would be six Curtiss Commando C46 transports taking off that morning. Private Simmons would be one of 29 passengers and three crew on his flight. Like him, all but four aboard would also be privates. But only one other private -- Donald J. Walker -- came from Washington, with the rest having hometowns crisscrossing the map from California to the Midwest to Texas to Minnesota to New York.
Two other privates came from Colorado, and one private came from Oregon, so the sight of the massive mountains of the Pacific Northwest would come as no surprise. But the immensity of Mount Rainier was almost sure to be a revelation to those who had never seen such titans -- on a clear day Rainier can be seen from 150 miles distant -- and perhaps private Simmons also looked forward to them sighting Mount St. Helens, which towered over his hometown, built to service the Northern Pacific Railroad, and consisting of just 8 square miles of hilly terrain and old wood-framed homes, itself less populated than either of the naval bases at the start and end of the flight.
And the view would be close. Although the twin-engined C46 had originally entered service as a passenger liner with a ceiling of 24,000 feet, the Marine transport version was unpressurized, and so flights were limited to somewhere around the 10,000 foot level.
Which would have the C46 carrying private Simmons flying just at peak level of St. Helens, and below the upper heights of Rainier.
A fact which would bring death to private Simmons -- and all aboard -- less than six hours following takeoff.
THE PLANE CARRYING private Simmons departed San Diego at 10:36 in the morning. Traveling at a cruising speed of 180 miles per hour, the trip was intended to be nonstop, and the flight was uneventful for all six transports as they cruised above California.
But several hours into the flight bad weather emerged over Oregon, and by the time they approached Washington worsened to the point that four of the planes aborted their flights and landed at Portland, Oregon. A fifth plane would somehow make it all the way through to Sand Point Naval Station at Seattle.
That left just one transport in the air -- the C46 carrying private Simmons -- and at 4:13 in the afternoon it was in severe distress. For unbeknownst to any at the time, the instrument readings upon which the flight depended had been set to correct for a reported wind from the southeast. But a new 70 m.p.h. wind had arisen from the west and the flight was badly off course, caught in the midst of the freezing fog and pounding sleet of a brutal Pacific Northwest storm.
Radioing to the CAA (Civil Aeronautics Administration) radio range station at Toledo, Washington, the pilot reported icing on the wings and was given permission to try to gain altitude. He should have next been in radio range of another CAA station in less than 15 minutes. But the passage of 15 minutes brought only silence, which continued through the next hour and then through the long night.
The plane, and the 32 men aboard -- including private Simmons -- had vanished, the only clues to their fate being conflicting in themselves, with rangers reporting hearing a plane near Mt. Rainier at 4:15, just after the pilot's last call, but with farmers making isolated reports also of the sounds of a loud explosion around six that evening in the Toledo area where the last radio contact had occurred.
THE NIGHT had seen intensive efforts to locate the plane, with radio messages transmitted from a wide area and airports across the region contacted in hopes that the transport had somehow made it to a safe landing. The night also brought preparations to begin an air search with the breaking of dawn.
But the harsh flying weather continued unabated, and so for the next five days search by plane was only intermittently and briefly attempted. Heavy rains caused flooding below the snow line, and above it five feet of snow fell. Search parties went out on foot but could discover nothing. And rangers climbing Mt. Rainier hoping to help reported only the sound of avalanches rocketing down the slopes.
Time was passing, and nature was burying any trace of a clue as to the flight's ultimate fate.
It would take until the 16th for the weather to clear enough to allow an intensive air search, and though it was wide-ranging there was no further clue to be found. By late December all search efforts were called off until some new evidence emerged, and the fact that the likely loss of life represented the greatest ever in U.S. aviation up to that time escaped the headlines it undoubtedly would have generated had it been but verifiable from the start.
Not that that fact in itself mattered one whit to the families who saw Christmas and New Year's come and go, not knowing whether each day would bring any further word, or if any further word would ever come at all.
HOPE CAME BRIEFLY on January 2nd. From a national wire service report...
Prosser, Wash. -- Air rescue planes from McChord Field tonight were flying over the rugged mountains ten miles southwest of La Grande, Ore., after a passenger in a private plane which landed here reported he had seen the word "aeroplane" inscribed in the snow.
R. Hogue, Payette, Ida., said he had seen the five-feet-high letters spelled out and that an arrow pointing southward had been tramped in the new snow. He said the letters looked "fresh" because snow had not drifted over them.
But that same day ended only with more waiting...
Air rescue unit planes returned to McChord Field tonight following a daylong aerial search of the rugged mountain area 10 miles southwest of La Grande, Ore., and reported finding no trace of the wreckage of a plane missing in the area.
Army officials said the search would be resumed Friday in both the La Grande and Olympic Peninsula areas of Western Washington.
The rescue planes were dispatched from McChord Field to investigate the report in hopes it would lead to a trace of a marine transport plane missing with 32 passengers aboard. The craft disappeared Dec. 10 during a storm over Toledo, Wash., on a flight from San Diego to Seattle.
The Oregon State Patrol at La Grande was alerted to prepare for a ground search of the snow-covered Rattlesnake Hills country of Southeast Washington in the event search craft spotted plane wreckage.
The CAA office at Yakima informed ranger stations throughout the area to be prepared to assist in ground and aerial searches.
Capt. Robert H. Masonheimer, acting head of the McChord Field rescue squadron, was directing the aerial search. He said if planes spotted indications of a downed craft he would form ground parties at McChord Field to assist in the search.
And on that same day came another news story...
Olympia, Wash., Jan. 2. -- Parents and relatives of 32 marines who were aboard an air transport that disappeared the night of Dec. 10 are forming a reward pool of several thousand dollars for the plane's discovery.
Mrs. T.J. Walker, Hoquiam, Wash., whose marine private son, Donald, 18, was aboard the transport said letters are in the mail to all the parents requesting contributions.
"We haven't given up hope - the plane may be down in isolated forest
country. The reward will be offered to all fliers, hunters, woodsmen or others to help the search," she said.
Mrs. Walker said Ernest Trego, Denver, Colo. father of another missing marine, was furnishing aid in contacting other parents.
But the new search also proved for naught, and over the coming months would resume only in fits and starts as the reward amount grew and reports poured in. From a January 18, 1947, article in the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin...
Latest 'Report' of Lost Transport From Richland
SEATTLE -- More than $4,000 has now been posted as a reward for information leading to the finding of the marine transport plane missing since December 10 with 32 persons aboard and is being placed in deposit at the Grays Harbor National bank, Aberdeen, Mrs. R.H. Kasper, representing several parents, said Friday.
The latest "report" among hundreds received and traced down, she said, came in a letter from George Stoker, of Richland, living 120 miles east of Mount Adams.
He said he saw a strange glow in the direction of the mountain the day after the plane disappeared.
And from a February 15, 1947, report in the Bakersfield Californian...
Mother of Missing Marine Awaits Word
Mrs. Hugh Stubblefield said today that she has received no word from Washington regarding a search being made there by several planes for the marine transport plane which was lost December 10, and is believed to have crashed, killing her son, Albert, and 31 other marines en route from San Diego to Seattle.
The search was started when a private pilot informed naval officials early this week that he had sighted the wreckage of a plane in the mountainous area of Lake Chelan.
Mrs. Stubblefield and other parents of the missing men on the plane have raised a purse of $5000 which is being offered as a reward to anyone locating the transport plane.
THE FIVE-THOUSAND DOLLAR reward represented a small fortune in 1947, when a new Ford Super Deluxe 4-door sedan could be bought for under 1300 dollars, and four-bedroom homes were listed in Seattle starting at about 6,000 dollars.
And for many, it was not the grief of the families but the size of the reward which moved them. From the April 13, 1947 Walla Walla Union-Bulletin...
Reward Offer Attracts Many To Search for Missing Plane
McCHORD FIELD -- The wreckage of a marine corps transport plane with its gruesome cargo of 32 bodies is believed to lie in the Cascade mountains southwest of this field, and gold -- reward gold -- is luring a regular trek of civilians searching for the missing craft and the marines it carried.
An officially unceasing, although diminishing search has been maintained by marine, navy and army crews despite the belief that the craft which disappeared December 10 will not be found before snows now blanketing the mountainous country melt -- probably late in the summer.
Parents of the men who were passengers aboard the plane on its ill-fated flight from San Diego to Seattle have banded together, contributing toward a reward fund which now totals $5,000. It is this fund, the expiration date of which was Thursday extended to July 1, 1947, that has lured amateur mountaineers, skiers, hiking enthusiasts and a host of others to join the search.
Focal point of the search is the western slope of Mount Rainier, where the transport was last reported heard. But the office of the air rescue unit at this army airfield southwest of Tacoma unofficially has become the search springboard of the private parties.
Here they come to obtain air maps, aerial pictures of likely looking regions to study the course of the plane from Portland to the point near Mt. St. Helens where it last reported by radio to ground stations, and to obtain the advice for guidance of the experienced rescue workers.
They come here also to stake claims to areas where they believe the plane to be -- much as prospectors claiming ground they believe holds gold ore. Suspicious bumps or irregularities are carefully located on maps and the searchers then lay claim to that region as their own, should melting snows reveal the remains of the air tragedy.
But the promise of riches hold no allure for the forces of nature, which kept secret and hidden the clues to the final resting place of private Simmons and the others, even as spring gave way to the earliest days of summer.
Above: Kenneth Arnold with his CallAir A-2 mountain plane. Left: News clipping from Popular Mechanics, June, 1946
IT HAD BEEN BUSINESS and not the reward which had brought 32-year old businessman Kenneth Arnold of Boise, Idaho to the Pacific Northwest in those early summer days of 1947. Arnold's business was the sale and installation of automatic fire-fighting equipment. As owner of the Great Western Fire Control Supply company, his business took him through the western United States, a territory he had covered since 1938, when he had been a salesman and then district manager for Red Comet, Inc. of Littleton, Colorado, before leaving to become an independent distributor.
And business apparently was good. In January, Arnold had bought a CallAir A-2 mountain plane for $5,000. And for the kid from Subeka, Minnesota -- later by way of Minot, North Dakota -- it must have represented the fulfillment of a dream.
Not that achievement was in short supply in Arnold's life. As a boy he had studied nature ardently, even teaching himself to swim by studying tadpoles, and imitating their motions. His love of nature also led him to become first a Boy Scout, and then an Eagle Scout within two years. An all-around athlete, he won a local dog sled contest the next year in the Lions Club Dog Derby. His Scout badges in swimming and diving led him also to American Red Cross certification in life saving. At 17 he entered the U. S. Olympic trials in "fancy diving". That same year and the year after he was selected and placed as an end on the All-State North Dakota high school football squads.
But Arnold also faced his share of disappointments. Entering the University of Minnesota, a knee injury cut short his ability to be involved in the football program as well as any interest in staying in college. Moving on to become a salesman during the bleakest of economic times, he somehow managed to support his wife and two daughters while making a down payment on a home.
He even acquired his first plane, no mean feat for a traveling salesman in his young 20s, in the midst of the Great Depression.
Above and Left: Barnstormers in the early 1920s.
KENNETH ARNOLD'S FIRST ride in an airplane came when Arnold was just 14-years old. Heavier-than-air powered craft were still in early days yet, but World War I had been a boon to the industry, both during and especially after the war, when military biplanes -- mostly Curtiss JN-4s, affectionately called 'Jennies' -- flooded onto the surplus market. But the end of the war also brought thousands of newly-trained pilots, with steady work in aviation mostly limited to running mail routes, which were themselves relatively few in number.
And so two new but inter-bred aerial innovations were born: the "flying circus" and the "barnstormer".
Barnstormers were pilots with their own planes who would travel from one rural town to another, offering paid rides to the locals. Their landing sites were usually farm pastures, adjacent to a barn. Pilots of the flying circuses were usually barnstormers as well, who grouped together to perform stunt flying, as well as acrobatics featuring such feats as wing-walking while in flight or crawling down to dangle from below, their iron grip the only thing separating them from death. They were the first air shows, and for their time were spectacular entertainments.
One of the earliest and most famous of the barnstormers was Earl T. Vance. Vance's storied career went back to 1917, when he entered the army and became one of the earliest graduates of the military aviation program. Showing exceptional promise, he had been sent to Brooks Field for advanced flight training. He soon became an instructor for new military pilots before leaving the service in 1919.
Arriving in Aberdeen, South Dakota, Vance helped establish one of the nation's first civilian airports, a converted pasture north of the city's livestock sales pavilion, called Baird Field, and placed an ad in the local paper...
TIME FLIES--- WHY DON'T YOU?
YOUR TIME IS YOUR MOST VALUABLE ASSET. CONSERVE IT
Fly where you are going.
An airplane will be kept at Baird's Aviation Field for the convenience of the public.
Airplane joy rides--one dollar a minute--ten minutes minimum. Cross country flights-- Intended for people who value their time. One dollar per mile. 25 mile minimum.
Exhibition fights--Public gatherings. Includes aerial acrobatics, parachute jumping, aerial advertising and flight instruction.
And it was when Earl T. Vance landed on a hill just north of Minot, North Dakota on a barnstorming tour that 14-year old Kenneth Arnold took his first ride in an airplane. Arnold would later write...
I'll never forget that day... It seemed the greatest thrill of my life.
Vance would shortly fly off again, and in later life would form one of the nation's first airlines, establish more airports, and finally re-enlist during World War II, where he became a full colonel and commander of air bases at Walla Walla, Washington, Topeka, Kansas, and Alexandria, Louisiana, before dying in 1944 at the age of 48.
But as Vance flew off that day at Minot, North Dakota, he left behind a boy with new dreams of becoming a flyer in his wake.
Arnold would take his first flying lessons at the age of 16, paid for in barter for gasoline from his father's filling station. But it would take him 13 more years to gain his pilot's license, just short of his 30th birthday.
It was then that he became first a salesman, then a district manager, and finally owner of his own business covering a territory of five western states, bringing him finally to that fateful day in June, 1947, when he would decide to try his hand at locating the missing C46 carrying private Simmons.
Chehalis, Washington in the 1940s.
IN THE EARLY MORNING of Tuesday, June 24, 1947, Kenneth Arnold had just finished installing fire-fighting equipment for the Central Air Service of Chehalis, Washington. He would later write what happened next...
I began a chat with Herb Critzer, chief pilot for Central Air Service. We talked, among other things, about the possible location of a lost C-46 Marine transport which had gone down in the mountains. I decided to look for it. It meant a $5,000 reward and I hoped that via my proposed route to Yakima, Washington, I might be lucky enough to find it. I decided to spend enough time in the air in the vicinity of Mount Rainier to make a good attempt at locating the wreckage.
I was flying a specially designed mountain airplane, and having had considerable experience in this type of flying, I felt qualified to undertake the dangerous search. I took off from the Chehalis, Washington airport at approximately two o'clock in the afternoon with the intention in mind of delaying my trip to Yakima for at least an hour, which I would spend on top, in and around the high plateau of Mount Rainier. I flew directly toward this plateau, which has an elevation varying from nine to over ten thousand feet.
There are a number of things that are extremely important in handling aircraft on a search mission over mountainous terrain. Number one is a meticulous ground inspection of your airplane before beginning; not one of the ordinary checks such as gasoline and oil, but inspection of all wiring and movable parts of the aircraft which in any way might cause a forced landing in treacherous country. This is very necessary. The consumption of gas is best judged in an aircraft not by gasoline gauge alone, but by knowing that your tank is full, knowing its capacity, and the number of gallons your engine consumes each hour. An eight-day clock with a sweep second hand is one of the essentials in my aircraft. By 1947 I had learned through experience that care and thoroughness of a planned flight is the best insurance that a pilot can have. I did plan this flight in this manner on June 24, 1947.
It was during this search and while making a turn of 180 degrees over Mineral, Washington, at approximately 9200 feet altitude, that a tremendously bright flash lit up the surfaces of my aircraft.
And though he couldn't know at that moment, that 180 degree shift would become a turning both in his life, and in the American psyche.
Left: High school graduation picture of one of the missing men. Having been in the Marines just three months, he died at the age of 18.
ALL THOUGHTS OF REWARD would leave the mind of Kenneth Arnold from that moment on, riveted not only by what he saw on that flight but then consumed in national controversy after landing, only to become embroiled in a deadly intrigue soon after. But in Raymondville, Texas and Canton, Missouri, in Ardmore, Oklahoma and Anthony, Kansas, in Confluence, Pennsylvania and Calexico, California, and in nearly two dozen other hamlets, towns and cities across the nation, the families of the missing Marines would still await word. It would finally arrive exactly one month later. From the July 25, 1947 Walla Walla Bulletin...
Wreckage of Lost Plane Identified
Party Reaches Scene of Crash on Mt. Rainier Glacier to End Seven Months Mystery
LONGMIRE, Mt. Rainier National Park -- A tattered fragment of a marine's uniform, a weathered piece of a serviceman's health record, and a few bits of wreckage ended Thursday night the seven-month mystery over the fate of a marine transport plane which disappeared with 32 men aboard.
Members of a party of eight Rainier national park rangers found the bits of evidence high up near the 10,000-foot level of Mount Rainier's treacherous South Tahoma glacier, and navy officers said there was no doubt about their being from the long-missing plane, which was lost from a storm-harassed formation of a San Diego-Seattle flight.
Weather Turns Bad
The party, accompanied Friday by Navy Lt. Gordon Stanley, left their base camp at the 3,800-foot level again to climb to the wreckage but the weather had turned bad and Park Supt. John Preston said it might be snowing at that altitude. It was raining here.
The decision over awarding the $5,000 reward offered by parents of the plane victims for finding the plane, and also as to whether it would be possible to find and bring any bodies down from the wreckage, remained to be made. Lieutenant Stanley was to report to higher navy authorities after his return from the club.
Plane Hit Cliff
The plane apparently crashed into the face of a sheer 3,000-foot cliff, the party said, with the telltale bits of evidence found on the crevasse-torn glacier at the base of the precipice.
Capt. A.O. Rule, commander of the Sandpoint naval air station, said the rangers' reports indicated that the plane exploded, scattering wreckage and personnel over a wide area.
"In view of the nature of the glacier at the foot of this mountainside," he said, "little hope is entertained for the recovery of the bodies."
Discovery of the first positive evidence was made by Rangers Bill Butler and Gordon Patterson, the two out of the eight who took the highest route to the scene. It was Butler who first sighted bits of wreckage through field glasses from a ridge last Monday and set in motion the final, successful search.
Parents who waited at the foot of the trail all day, received the news of the discovery calmly. They included Mr. and Mrs. Thomas J. Walker of Hoquiam, parents of Pvt. Donald J. Walker; and Mr. and Mrs. L. R. Simmons of Kalama,
parents of Pvt. Leslie R. Simmons Jr.
A month later the first bodies would be found along with a section of the plane. But it was far too treacherous to attempt any recovery, and so -- with the approval of the families -- the men were left to rest in peace forever where last they lay, already partially entombed in glacial ice, on the highest slopes of the mountain.
1. The title of this series is taken from two statements made by Kenneth Arnold -- once to the press and once to the military -- stating that his story was "positively true".
2. Each year since the missing Marines were located on Mt. Rainier a memorial service has been held at the mountain. Soon after the discovery of the wreckage, the National Park Service placed a bronze plaque with the final roll call of the lost:
Major Robert V. Reilly, Memphis, Texas, Pilot
Lt. Colonel Alben C. Robertson, Santa Ana Heights, California, Copilot
Master Sergeant Wallace J. Slonina, Rochester, New York, Crew Chief
Master Sergeant Charles F. Criswell, San Diego, California
Private Duane R. Abbott, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Private Robert A. Anderson, Raymondville, Texas
Private Joe E. Bainter, Canton, Missouri
Private Leslie R. Simmons, Jr., Kalama, Washington
Private Harry K. Skinner, Confluence, Pennsylvania
Private Lawrence E. Smith, Lincoln, Nebraska
Private Buddy E. Snelling, Columbus, Ohio
Private Bobby J. Stafford, Texarkana, Texas
Private William D. St. Clair, Los Angeles, California
Private Walter J. Stewart, Austin, Texas
Private John C. Stone, Los Angeles, California
Private Albert H. Stubblefield, Bakersfield, California
Private William R. Sullivan, Ardmore, Oklahoma
Private Chester E. Taube, Fresno, California
Private Harry L. Thompson, Jr., Kansas City, Kansas
Private Duane S. Thornton, Biola, California
Private Keith K. Tisch, Marne, Michigan
Private Eldon D. Todd, Fort Collins, Colorado
Private Richard P. Trego, Denver, Colorado
Private Charles W. Truby, Anthony, Kansas
Private Harry R. Turner, Monroe, Oregon
Private Ernesto R. Valdovin, Tucson, Arizona
Private Gene L. Vremsak, Calexico, California
Private William E. Wadden, Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Private Donald J. Walker, Hoquiam, Washington
Private Gilbert E. Watkins, Tucson, Arizona
Private Duane E. White, Ottawa, Kansas
Private Louis A. Whitten, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
3. Assistant Chief Ranger William J. Butler, who had first spotted the wreckage through field glasses and who led the way to retrieve the first evidence, was offered but respectfully declined to accept the $5,000 reward.
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