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Search for the Downed

by John Ferguson (MYC '42) |

In the last newsletter we featured John, and stated that in this issue his story, "Search for the Downed," would be covered. It is an amazing story that John put together, involving the crash of a four-engine Boeing B-17F "Flying Fortress" heavy bomber approximately twenty air miles southeast of Challis, Idaho on March 20, 1943 and the subsequent crash of two search aircraft. (Challis is located about 130 air miles northeast of Boise.)

John has stated: This article is about an airplane crash that occurred over fifty year ago in a primitive area and can be classified as one of the greatest search and rescue missions, by ground and air personnel, in the history of the backcountry and the Northwest.

Penn Stohr, Idaho's "Miracle Pilot", played a major role in the search and rescue operations. During the initial search efforts John flew with Penn-- he also flew with him on other flights to backcountry airstrips.

The bomber was assigned to the 316th Squadron, 88th Bomb Group (Heavy) at Walla Walla, Washington.

While on a training flight the weather closed in at the base and the tower instructed the crew to fly on to Gowen Field at Boise. Around 8:00 PM the pilot, 2d Lt. Joseph Brensinger, estimated that about ten minutes of fuel remained and ordered the crew to bail out. He turned the landing lights on before leaving the plane. The aircraft continued on, flying to the northeast, east, and then to the southeast after the crew had parachuted from it.

Several people at homesteads along the Middle Fork of the Salmon River saw the B-17 flying along erratically, with lights on-not knowing that the crew had left it some time earlier.

Several Forestry officials in the Challis area saw the B-17 making an elongated circle, drifting towards the Pahsimeroi Valley to the southeast. Rangers were alerted to the situation, with Ranger Morin watching it disappear behind a ridge and crash in Crane Basin in the Lost River Mountain Range. (The plane had flown for one hour and twenty minutes and close to 150 miles from the time the crew bailed out. The estimate of remaining fuel had been an error.)

Forestry officials and military personnel were alerted and told that the wreckage had been searched, but no bodies found. Four military twin-engine UC-78 Cessna "Bobcats" arrived to begin search operations, along with several C.A.P. planes from Twin Falls, Idaho. Penn Stohr began his search missions from Cascade and McCall, and then out of Challis and Stanley. (Stohr flew some 101 hours and 30 minutes in Travel Air N 623H, which belonged to Bob Johnson, during the search.

On Saturday, April 3rd, one of the C.A.P. planes crashed within two miles of the B-17 wreckage when it encountered rough air and hit a ridge. The plane wasn't badly damaged and the pilot and observer walked away from it.

On April 5th, Capt. Bill Kelly and Lt. Arthur Crofts arrived from Hill A F. Base in a UC-43 Staggerwing Beech aircraft. It participated in search efforts and returned to Challis at 1:00 PM to refuel. Then, at 2:45 PM, along with the four UC-78 "Bobcats", it resumed searching.

Ranger Charley Langer thought the B-17 might have flown over the Cape Horn, Fall Creek-Soldier Creek area. He volunteered to fly along in the Staggerwing since the search efforts might extend to include his Ranger District. The "Bobcats" returned to Challis at 5:30 PM, but the Staggerwing did not.

On Tuesday, April 6th, a full-scale search was launched for the Beech aircraft and its occupants. The wreckage was finally spotted on Tuesday, April 13th, when planes were re-flying the area between Cape Horn, Soldier Mountain and the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. The plane was south of Vanity Peak, NW of Stanley and East of the Middle Fork. There wasn't any sign of life.

A Forest Service ground rescue party was quickly organized. Penn Stohr was ordered to Stanley in NC- 623H and flew eight men to Beaver Creek. Rescuers reached the crashed plane at 4:30 am on Wednesday, April 14th. Deep snow and the breakdown of a skiĀ­ toboggan hindered rescue efforts. During repair of the equipment Dan O'Connor lost part of a finger and had to be flown to the Pocatello Air Base. The Staggerwing had crashed at the base of a very deep snow-covered rock slide area with a heavy stand of timber. The rescue team removed the bodies and returned to the end of the road at Cape Horn at 3:00 AM. Penn Stohr flew the bodies and rescue team to Stanley, where the Victims were taken by ambulance to Challis.

In the meantime, five of the airmen had been found at the Indian Creek Guard Station and the search continued for the remaining four.

The five had gathered at that guard station along the Middle Fork, close to where the river makes a sharp bend to the east. At first they could not get the telephone to work, but then they found that the box with the cut-off switch was outside on a pole. That was late in the afternoon of the 5th, the date the Staggerwing crashed. They broke in on a call between Milt Hood and a woman neighbor, Fern Larsen. Word of their whereabouts was then called in to Challis.

Penn Stohr flew them from the Indian Creek landing strip in his ski-equipped Travel Air to Cascade, Idaho. The other four underwent some harrowing experiences but were eventually located and retrieved by ground searchers along the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. S/Sgt. Van Slager was never located, nor was his parachute. It was felt that he probably fell into the river and drowned. (There have been stories for many years of a ghost walking that stretch of river during all seasons.) He is believed to have fallen somewhere in the vicinity of Artillery Rapid. The last one to be located was the pilot, Lt. Joseph Brensinger, who was seen huddled under a tree near the bank, on the 6th of April, in extremely bad shape.

The rescue mission was finally halted on April 24th. Penn Stohr returned to McCall on the 25th, and one of the most spectacular search and rescue missions in the history of the nation was ended.