(Sheridan, Wyo) Just when you think you know everything about local history, someone hands you a copy of a book like The Bomber Mountain Crash: A Wyoming Mystery by Scott Madsen.
Sure, I knew about Bomber Mountain before my neighbor handed me the book. But often it’s the things we’ve known about our entire lives, and never really looked into, that can surprise us the most.
Madsen, a Buffalo resident, explains in the introduction that he has been intrigued by the mysterious tragedy at Bomber Mountain since he first visited the crash site in his youth. He set out to track down every clue he could find.
Madsen’s book is short yet lovingly researched. He has left no stone unturned and, while many more questions have been raised, he has contributed immensely to our understanding of what happened to the crew of B-17F Flying Fortress No. 42-3399 on June 28, 1943.
Here are four things I learned about Bomber Mountain:
1: The plane was missing for two years.
The bomber was flying from Pendleton, Oregon to Grand Island, Nebraska, but never made it. The men were about to be deployed to Europe and all of their records were onboard with them. Also, the airmen were attached to various bases and “ownership” of the lost aircraft wasn’t immediately clear.
With only the last known position as a guide, the search area was enormous. When the wreckage was finally discovered in August of 1945, it was due to sun reflecting off of the bare aluminum that had been exposed as the paint weathered off.
2: Multiple factors were likely involved in the crash.
The last known position of the bomber was off-course, and many have concluded that the pilot was unable to navigate due to instrument malfunction. Bad weather and a new moon probably contributed to the crew being unaware they were over mountains.
The crew’s relative inexperience could have been a factor also. The wreckage indicates that the pilot pulled up at the last minute, impacting the mountain with the mid to tail portion. “Then, half the fuselage, one wing and a couple of the engines continued over the top to the east side of the ridge,” Madsen writes.
3: Civilians aided the Army recovery team.
On August 13, 1945, the day after the wreckage was reported, the recovery operation took place. There were three “official” civilian members of the crew: George McRay and Forest Rangers Herb Post and Ervin Massey.
The three men provided and managed a pack train of 15 horses, and along the way other civilians just happened to come across the train and joined up. The crew was taken to Rapid City and on August 18 began notifying next-of-kin based on dog-tags. The dog tags were also official confirmation of the identity of the flight, as no military insignia could be found on any of the wreckage.
4: Bomber Mountain isn’t actually a mountain.
It’s a ridge. The previously anonymous location was officially named “Bomber Mountain” On Thursday, August 22, 1946.
The Sheridan War Dads and Auxiliary also placed a memorial to the crew at the base of the mountain. The plaque is located on the Solitude Trail, near the shore of Florence Lake, 1.5 miles southwest of the bomber’s resting place. The inscription on the plaque reads as follows:
The following officers and enlisted men of the United States Army Air Force gave their lives while on active duty in flight on or about June 28, 1943. Their bomber crashed on the crest of the mountain above this place.
Lieutenants: Leonard H. Phillips, Charles H. Suppes, William R. Ronaghan, Anthony J. Tilotta; Sergeants: James A. Hinds, Lewis M. Shepherd, Charles E. Newburn, Jr., Lee V. Miller, Ferguson T. Bell, Jr., Jake E Penick.
Dedicated by Sheridan Chapter No. 4, American War Dads and Auxiliary, Sheridan, Wyoming, August, 1945.
The Bomber Mountain Crash: A Wyoming Mystery by Scott Madsen is a great book and you should read it. I have to give my copy back to the neighbor, but Sheridan Fulmer Library has more than one copy and, even though it’s out of print, you can still buy one from Amazon.