WWII-era crash site rediscovered at Idaho National Laboratory

Seventy years later, researchers are piecing together the story of the downed flight crew.

(IDAHO FALLS) POST REGISTERMay 26, 2014 

A 1935 class ring found at the INL site

A 1935 class ring was among the items researchers found at the crash site.

PROVIDED BY IDAHO NATIONAL LABORATORY

In March, archaeologists at the Idaho National Laboratory pinpointed the location of Aircraft 42-73365 - a consolidated B-24J Liberator bomber that crashed in the Arco desert during a 1944 training mission.

The entire seven-man crew died in the crash: 2nd Lt. Richard A. Hedges; 2nd Lt. Lonnie L. Keepers, 23; 2nd Lt. Robert W. Madsen, 28; 2nd Lt. Richard R. Pitzner, 23; Sgt. Louis H. Rinke, 19; Charles W. Eddy, 22; and George H. Pearce Jr., 25.

"I think that was the most touching part - that we know that seven people died right here," archaeologist Julie Williams said. "And it's not that we haven't found other places (on the INL site) where people have died, but this was in context … because we know where and how they perished."

The rediscovery of the long-forgotten site is thanks to Marc McDonald, a Pocatello historian and airplane enthusiast. While studying World War II-era plane crashes in eastern Idaho, he came upon the story of aircraft 42-73365. He contacted INL with the suspicion that the crash may have been close to or on the site.

"Julie told me that they'd heard rumors of the plane but had never seen nor found anything," McDonald said. "So I requested the incident report from the Air Force, got a hold of several news articles, and working as a group, we started to put this whole thing together."

The incident and news reports don't give an explanation for the crash but do provide a glimpse into the night it happened.

THE CRASH

The training mission took place Jan. 8, 1944. It was a frigidly cold night in Bingham County with temperatures near zero, but, by all accounts, the sky was clear, winds were minimal and a nearly full moon was shining.

It was an ideal night for flying, which would have boded well for the rotating bomber groups and fighter squadrons based at the Pocatello Army Air Base. During the height of World War II, pilots and their crews frequently practiced high-altitude bombing and air combat training in the sky above what today is INL.

That night, one of the training missions was led by pilot Hedges and co-pilot Keepers, members of the 464th Bombardment Group. They were to take Aircraft 42-73365 on a nighttime run, dropping sand-filled practice bombs on wooden pyramid targets.

Reports show that earlier in the day, the seven-man crew passed a pre-flight medical check. They were found to be sufficiently rested and "have no physical or mental defects," according to Medical Corps. Capt. Dabney von K. Moon.

The accident report showed that before the crash, Hedges had hundreds of hours of flight time as pilot on the B-24.

One crew member, engineer Frank Ramsey, was not aboard the flight as he was taking a furlough day.

"This was the only flight I ever missed. Thank God," Ramsey said years later in a history book about the Pocatello Airport.

The plane took off at 8:05 p.m. and entered the desert bombing range at about 8:40 p.m., according to the flight controller at the Air Base.

Bombing range tower operator Sgt. Nickerson observed the plane make three bombing runs 10 minutes later at an estimated altitude of 20,000 feet.

As the bomber began its fourth run, something went wrong. Technicians later suspected failure in one or two of the aircraft's four main engines. But, whatever happened, within minutes the plane dropped from 20,000 feet to about 100 feet off the ground.

Somehow, Hedges and Keeper managed to stabilize the plane before impact. It flew directly over a livestock herding camp where George Hansen of Firth was working. He observed the plane "very close to the ground" trying hard to regain altitude.

"I believe the airplane was having trouble and trying to make a landing. I could not see whether all the engines were running or not," he said in a statement to the military.

The plane regained about 500 feet of altitude and tried to initiate a tight turn, but the maneuver turned out to be too much for its frame. The stress tore the left fin and rudder from the plane, causing it to spin out of control. It fell very quickly, crashing into the desert and resulting in a bright, loud explosion observed by both Nickerson and Hansen.

The herder jumped on a horse and rode to the burning plane. He looked for injured crew members but found none. He later guided military personnel to the crash site.

It is unknown when the Army recovered the bodies and large pieces of wreckage. A Jan. 14, 1944, news article from the Arco Advertiser reported that five bodies had been recovered and that a search was under way for two additional crew members. Eventually, their remains were found underneath the wreckage.

The bodies were returned to the crew's families.

Within the next decade, the crash site became part of a restricted area that would house the Idaho National Laboratory. The remaining wreckage sat relatively undisturbed for 70 years.

THE REDISCOVERY

McDonald and INL historians had no idea where the crash site might be. The only clues were some photocopied photos of the wreckage, conflicting eyewitness accounts and a 70-year-old hand-drawn map.

"There were so many discrepancies within the report … the whole thing was very confusing trying to determine where it was," Williams said. "But we started to recognize some of the places, and we made some assumptions based on information in the accident report."

Eventually, they turned to Google Earth and satellite imagery to find scars that may have been caused by a plane crash. They identified three potential sites and went out to investigate with GPS locators.

The first two sites returned no results. But at the third site, Williams stumbled across an aluminum gauge, which led them to the main debris field.

"The debris was covered in vegetation in a slight depression - it wasn't a scar or crater left by the airplane, just a natural dip," she said. "If you had walked by there not looking for the airplane we would not have paid any attention to the wreckage."

Large pieces had been carted off, but there was a large swath of smaller aircraft debris and even some personal items belonging to crew members.

"After 70 years, you couldn't really tell anything crashed there," McDonald said.

One of the artifacts appeared to be high school class ring, bearing the year 1935. It was the only artifact removed from the site. The hope is the owner can be identified and the ring returned to a family member. McDonald has found a few relatives of crew members but is still searching for more information.

"Most of the things we find (at archaeological sites at the INL), you don't know who was there," Williams said. "But in this case, we know who the crew members were; their ages, hometowns, and so when we were looking at this debris, we were thinking of those people - and that really struck home for us."

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