As we closed out another season of wind-energy experiments on Lake Pepin last Saturday – validating earlier findings that a 19-foot sailboat can fly up and down the lake for months on just just a few cups of gasoline, for getting in and out of the marina – our keel struck something with a great, shaking thud.
This was toward the middle of the lake, and the tip of our swing keel is about 4 feet below the waterline, so whatever we hit was large, hard and near the surface.
Must be the bomber, I said to Sallie, referring to the B-24 Liberator that has lain in the lower portion of the lake for nearly 72 years now. With only the slightest of eye rolls, she directed my attention back to the Minnesota bluffs aglow in October light.
Good call. The bluffs are at their most beautiful this time of year, and though they look fine from any vantage point, I like them best when framed by a bronze mast and silver shrouds.
But the view was making me blue with its reminder of approaching ice. Also, the depth-finder readings were bouncing around more than usual, from 30 feet down to the lower teens, in a way that can’t be explained by any lake map I’ve ever found.
So, yes, I was thinking once again about a dramatic crash on the afternoon of Dec. 15, 1944, and how utterly, and oddly, it has been lost to modern memory.
If one in 200 visitors to this space is familiar with the story I’m about to tell I will be amazed, for in four summers at Pepin Marina I have asked dozens of boaters, anglers and townspeople what they might know about the crash, and exactly zero had even heard of it.
But every last one was interested in learning what had happened, so maybe you will be, too.
The B-24 was a four-engine heavy bomber that came into service during World War II, bringing advantages of a high cruising speed, a long range before refueling, and a big capacity for bombs.
It was also somewhat ungainly in flight and especially on takeoff; many crashed as a consequence of failing to gain sufficient airspeed. And it seemed especially vulnerable to flak, as well as fire from other aircraft.
Those are the observations of a South Dakota vet who flew three dozen B-24 missions over Italy in and around December 1944, winning the Distinguished Flying Cross for crash-landing a disabled one safely on an island in the Adriatic.
His name was George S. McGovern, and as he explained in an interview at the Strib editorial board some years ago, the Liberator was known wryly among pilots as the Liquidator because of its faults. It’s kind of hard to forget that when reviewing the War Department’s inquiry into the crash of Aircraft No. 44-49908.
According to the official report, the bomber left St. Paul at 1:39 p.m. on that December Friday for a ferrying flight to Mitchel Field on Long Island, via Kansas City. The first leg would take it to La Crosse, Wisconsin, and the pilot – 25-year-old Capt. Dan D. Mitchell – was assigned to fly at altitudes from 5,000 to 7,000 feet.
The weather was snowy, the ceiling was low, visibility was poor; investigators found that instrument conditions prevailed as the bomber reached Lake Pepin. Captain Mitchell at that point had only 18 hours’ flight time in the first seat, and another six as co-pilot, but only 2½ flying by instruments.
The flight plan he had been given would have brought him to the crash site off the Pepin town pier in 38 minutes but he got there in around 25. Investigators found that “no radio contact had been made to any station, requesting change of altitude, up to the time of crash, when he was observed circling at an altitude less than 1,000 feet.”
There has been speculation that Mitchell, lacking confidence in his instruments or his ability to use them, had simply decided to stay low and follow the river, and on reaching the middle of Lake Pepin was circling to find an airfield where he could make an emergency landing, possibly at Frontenac. But no one really knows.
Investigators first believed that Mitchell and two crew members, Buddy B. Beasley and Edward A. Demski, had tried to parachute out of the plane but later determined that the chutes hadn’t been used.
Witness accounts of the crash
The first report of the crash came at 2:08 p.m. L.W. Potter, a resident of Pepin, gave this statement:
I heard and saw the plane when it first passed over town. It was headed in a southeasterly direction and was about 800 feet over my head. It must have banked left over the south side of town because a few moments later I heard it again and the noise was coming from the east side of town and was getting louder. Then I saw it again and it was headed out over the lake in a south westerly direction. The plane seemed to be climbing and when it was about one-half-mile offshore, it began banking to the right, and the bank and turn kept increasing and the ship just kept spiraling down and crashed through the ice. It made a terrific crash and immediately after it hit, there was another explosion and smoke and flames erupted from the spot.
From the Minnesota side, Anton Falk of Lake City testified:
Around 2 o’clock, I was working with the highway maintenance crew, I heard the roar of the plane and looked in the direction the noise was coming from. We couldn’t see any plane, the visibility being reduced to about a quarter of a mile by a heavy snow squall, and then suddenly we heard a crash and simultaneously saw flames and smoke rising from the point about a mile or mile and a half offshore, out toward the center of the lake. I immediately went with Mr. Brow, a fellow workman, to the Maple Springs Tavern, and he telephoned the Lake City Fire Department.
If you sail out of the Pepin Marina and go about one-third of the way directly across the lake, toward Maple Springs, you will be more or less at the point of impact. But the wreckage isn’t there anymore.
Initial attempts to rescue the crew were hopeless. Fire trucks from Lake City responded but the ice, at about 2 inches thick, wasn’t going to be safe for even the smallest vehicles. According to an article by Bob Parrott in Big River Magazine, published in 2007,
Three Lake City firemen, Ben Simons, Woody Key and Willard Peterson, pushed their boat ahead of them across the ice to reach the scene… They were the closest responders, since Pepin had no fire or rescue service. When they arrived at the crash site, they found nothing but oxygen tanks floating amid the broken ice, and parts of the plane scattered over a wide area of ice.
Rescue efforts and remains
The Army brought a diver to the scene but his efforts were officially abandoned after six days. The depth was only about 24 feet, but the bottom was very soft and the jagged wreckage threatened to slit his suit and air lines.
The next spring, on April 19, divers returned to the wreckage and recovered the bodies of the three airmen. The official file says nothing about what was done with the wreckage, but Parrott’s piece has this interesting if unattributed conclusion:
The Army recovered about 60 percent of the plane using a barge with a clamshell dredge, also in April 1945. The Army was quite secretive about the salvage operation, because, according to some, it wanted the pieces back as a matter of national security, because the plane had been modified at Wold-Chamberlain Airfield in Minneapolis for a special mission.
The B-24’s remains and their resting place have been topics of high interest to military historians and/or salvage diving enthusiasts over the years, although I’ve yet to find an account of anyone actually finding them.
But from one of their sites comes the only other information I’ve ever found about where the wreckage may rest today, posted by a man who identified himself as the son of a Pepin commercial fisherman who witnessed the crash and both phases of the recovery work:
Dad and some of the other fishermen took a runner boat out to the crash site which was about ¾ of a mile off the Pepin pier but there was nothing showing. The Army tried to get the three bodies out but were unsuccessful due to ice on the lake. One of the pilots’ father was an oil man from Texas, and he tried to mount a recovery effort but was stopped by the Army….
Dad said in the spring when the ice went out, the Army brought in a barge with a clam type dredge on it…. The remains of the plane were loaded on the barge, and taken to the lower end of the lake which is the deepest spot (60+ feet) and dumped. Dad tried to keep one of the starter engines from the plane but the Army found out and confiscated from him, and threw it in the lake also. Over the years, fishermen of brought up misc. pieces of the aircraft. One of the props was in a private museum in Wabasha Mn for years.