If you’ve been in Gustavus more than a few days, somebody has asked you whether or not you’ve been out to the plane crash. If you are a typical visitor here, you have either added your foot prints to the well beaten path or are making plans to do so. It’s an easy, though disturbing ¼ mile hike, located 2 miles north on Mountain View Road.
As you approach the wreckage area, distorted metal pieces strewn on all sides begin to announce the catastrophic scene that occurred one dark and cold, snowy night half a century ago.
Over the years, visitors have scavenged parts and pieces, others have scratched names and dates in faded paint, but the main fuselage remains very much intact... a monument, of sorts, rising, lost and out of place, deep in the silence of a remote Alaskan forest.
One can’t help but wonder . . . .
What on earth happened here?!
(Click Above for Photo by Homesteader, Leslie F. Parker, November 24th, 1957)
Date of Crash: Saturday, November 23rd, 1957 – about 8PM.
Type of Aircraft: Twin engine Douglas C-47 “Gooney Bird” (a military version of the DC-3).
Note: The mission of the National Guard had just changed from that of a fighter-interceptor squadron to that of a transport squadron. This particular transport plane was so new to the Alaska National Guard that its name designation on the side of the plane had not yet been changed from Pennsylvania to Alaska.
Who Was On Board?
- 4 National Guardsmen (cockpit crew)
- 6 Army National civilian employees
- 1 last minute Army “hitchhiker”
Where Had They Been? The Air National Guard had flown the 10 Guardsmen and civilian employees from Anchorage, Alaska to a National Guard training school at the Presidio in San Francisco, California. With the holiday season approaching, they were anxious to get home.
Homeward Bound: The morning of the crash, they departed from McCord Air Force Base near Tacoma, Washington, where they had picked up “hitchhiker” Corporal Timmons and then flew northward. Radio difficulties developed necessitating a return to McCord. Soon remedied, they departed once more for their first fuel stop, Annette Island, near Ketchikan, Alaska, enroute to their final destination, Anchorage, Alaska.
Weather Changes Plans: High winds and severe turbulence prevented them from landing at Annette Island. The crew was given a choice – either return to a Canadian airport behind them or proceed north to Gustavus where runway lights and equipment for instrument landings offered better facilities for night landings than even Juneau in those days. The weather in Gustavus was reported as “clear and no winds” to “very slight winds”. The crew elected to go to Gustavus.
The Gustavus Approach: Although the California pilot was well-trained in multi-engine instrument approaches, he was relatively new to Alaskan conditions.
As the plane approached Gustavus, it was dark and beginning to snow. The passengers on the plane realized they had arrived in the Gustavus area, momentarily spotting lights through the dark and snow as they anxiously looked out the windows.
The fuel supply was very low, so there were no options of returning to Annette or proceeding to Anchorage. The captain was leery of making the standard instrument approach to Gustavus because it would have required him to fly well beyond the airfield, far out over Glacier Bay with an aircraft that was running precariously low on fuel. So apparently, while attempting to keep the airfield in sight, he elected to circle and make a “short” visual approach to the runway.
Survivor Harry Aase reported what he observed from the passenger compartment, “We made one approach and we could see the lights as we went over but we did not land. Then the pilot went back and tried it again. This is twice now we had seen the lights of the airport. We were beginning to worry a bit in the passenger compartment.”
The Crash: On the next attempt – now the third time over the airport area in what the locals described as a snow squall, Mr. Aase reported that, “The pilot was in line for the runway, but got a bit low and the right wing caught a tall tree that made the aircraft start to spin and (it) nosed into the ground.
“The front of the plane was badly damaged. At the same time the plane was twisting, the tail slowly lowered into the trees which cushioned it. It set down gently into the trees so that the fuselage from the wall aft was just about in perfect condition.”
Immediately Following The Crash: But for all the plane’s “gently (settling) into the trees”, it had been a grinding, deadly impact. Mr. Aase continues, “We were all knocked unconscious, except for our hitchhiker, who was sitting toward the rear of the plane. He apparently just rode the plane down. And as he recounted later, he just kept hollering for the plane to land, land, land!
“When I awoke from being unconscious, I could see our little auxiliary engine, which was forward of me a bit and on the opposite side of the aircraft. Fires were spitting out of it where apparently the exhaust had pulled loose from the fuselage. One of our passengers had watched (the crew) fire up the engines on take off and had some idea where the controls were. It was absolutely pitch black inside the aircraft with the exception of those little blasts of exhaust. Finally the engine turned off and, of course, we were really worried about fire.
“We decided to get out the Mae West jackets that were in the aircraft and get the little bitty flashlights that were on them. We passed out the flashlights and since we could see a little bit, we kind of looked each other over.
“The people on the plane were Lt. Bill Caldwell from Nome. He had sat closest to the bulkhead. He had teeth knocked out and a broken arm and his jaw was also broken. He probably had the worst obvious injuries of any of the passengers. The next was Lt. Wally Harrison, who was from Bethel. He apparently was uninjured, but shaken up, of course.
“We had been sitting all on one side of the plane, military style, instead of in rows in commercial fashion. Across from our seats were a washer, dryer and other household objects that the captain was moving to Anchorage for his new home there. On impact, I lunged forward and hit the seat next to me, which was empty.
“We decided to get out of the plane. We picked our way to the aft portion of the plane and finally got out into the trees. We decided we would try and make ourselves a camp. We got hold of the radio which was a crank type radio and emergency set, which would put out a signal for location. The decision was made that we would not use it until morning when we could be seen. It would be a waste of time when we couldn’t be seen in the dark. We climbed into sleeping bags as we were really stiff and sore.”
One Homesteader’s Account: Anne Chase remembers that evening well, “It was night time, after supper, and we were thinking about going to a movie at the Riverside Lodge. It was snowing so hard and such big flakes that we decided to stay home.
*The Chases were temporarily living ¼ mile north of the bridge along Salmon River.
“Just before 8 o’clock, suddenly, we heard this airplane circling. It was a large plane with a heavy motor going around and around. We stuck our heads out the door to hear it better and it went around again. Then we went back into the house. We heard a thump, but did not think much of it (we use to have 2 dogs that went under the house through a hole in the skirting and they would bang their heads once in awhile. We thought the thump was the dogs).
“The sound of the plane had stopped. A few minutes later Les Parker called from the (Riverside Lodge) and said ‘Did you hear that plane? Did you hear where it crashed?’
“They were asking all around to find out where people heard the crash so that they could pinpoint it.
“To this day, every time I hear a plane circling, I try to remember where I heard it last, so that later I will be able to know where it crashed. That was a terrible feeling.
“We thought maybe it was north of the house because it was the north side of the house where the dogs were and we had thought the thud we had heard was the dogs. Leslie thought it was up by the Salmon River and other people from the park thought it was down this way towards the airport. Most of the people thought it must have crashed between the towers and the airport, so they started searching that area.
“Gene thought the crash area was off on the west side of Salmon River, so he decided he was going to go look there. The snow was about 2 feet deep, so he put on his boots and put new batteries in his big flashlight and took one of the dogs, thinking that the dog would help him find the plane. Gene said that he walked past Archie Chase’s place off to the left. He thought he could hear the crackling of the metal of the plane cooling off and a kind of tingling. So he went that direction.
“While Gene was walking, he saw a big black bear and just turned his flashlight in the bear’s eyes to blind it and walked on by. Gene came out on the main road north that goes over to the park (editor’s note: now called Mountain View Road).
“Later, Gene found out that he had gone within 75 yards of the airplane, but his flashlight was so dim that the men at the plane crash site thought it was a light in the distance. They saw Gene’s dog and thought it was a wolf. The people on the plane had decided that no one would search for them until morning and it would be best for them to stay put by the plane.”
The Rescuers: Nearly every available homesteader along with Ken Youman, whose family lived at Glacier Bay National Monument, Jim Cole (Cole & Paddock), who was putting in a dock at the monument and the other construction workers, began organizing and helping in the search for the plane. Gene Chase’s tracks were spotted where he had come out on Mountain View Road. Believing the tracks might be a survivor, the rescuers decided to follow the tracks back into the woods. While the snow continued to fall, the group of searchers fanned out along the length of Mountain View Road and then facing toward the east, in unison, made their way into the woods and darkness, walking toward Salmon River until they eventually reached the crash site and found the survivors huddled in their sleeping bags, waiting for morning.
7 Passengers Survive: Of the 11 souls on the aircraft, all 7 passengers, though in shock, survived the crash with varying degrees of injuries. One was carried out of the woods on Ken Youman’s back and others on makeshift gurneys made of sturdy branches. Some were able to walk out on their own. Once out of the woods, the survivors were transported to the Riverside Lodge (now the Gustavus Inn).
*Nearly 30 years later, one survivor returned to Gustavus to visit the crash site and tearfully thanked Les Parker who had been the one responsible for transporting him out.
Injured Passengers To Juneau: The next day, a Coast Guard Albatross from Annette Island with a medical doctor on board, rendered assistance and picked up the survivors, flying them to Juneau where they were admitted to St. Ann’s Hospital for examination. 2 were released that same day and 5 were retained until the full extent of their injuries could be determined.
The 7 surviving passengers were;
- Lloyd Timmons, attached to an Army security station on the Kenai Peninsula.
- 2nd Lt. Harry S. Aase, 28, chief of personnel for the territorial military department, Juneau.
- Captain Robert D. Ellis, 33, staff assistant for the 208th infantry battalion, Alaska National Guard, Juneau.
- Warrant Officer (J.G.) Richard J. Mueller, 38, administrative specialist for the National Guard, Juneau.
- M-Sgt James E. O’Rourke, 39, unit caretaker, headquarters 207th infantry battalion, Anchorage.
- 1st Lt. Wallace J. Harrison, 29, staff assistant, headquarters 1st scout battalion, Bethel.
- 2nd Lt. William W. Caldwell, 27, staff assistant, headquarters 1st scout battalion, Nome.
Fate Of The Crew: The 4 men in the cockpit were killed. They were;
(1) Captain Robert E. Kafader, 37, a Californian recently transferred to the National Guard in Anchorage due to his multi-engine qualifications.
(2) 1st Lt. Dennis V. Stamey, 29, Anchorage, was in training getting hours in transition for a transfer to the Florida National Guard where he planned to fly jets.
(3) Staff Sgt. Floyd S. Porter, 29, Anchorage, nicknamed “Red” and the only single man.
(4) Staff Sgt. David A. Dial, 34, Anchorage, Radio Man.
It is believed that one of the crew may have survived the crash, but bled to death before help could arrive.
Following a crash site inspection on Sunday by authorities from Juneau, the bodies of the 4 crewmen were removed from the scene and flown to Anchorage on Monday.
Sadly, 3 of the 4 crew members, Kafader, Stamey and Dial left behind 13 children between them, all under 15 years old.
(Click here for photo of National Guardmen removing personal effects from crash site)
Take a Moment to Remember….
Today in a silent place, deep in the woods of Gustavus, one can stand and only imagine the disaster unfolding as the ill-fated plane hit and broke off the tree tops, drove its nose into the forest floor, stood on end and then turned and came to rest right side up.
As you pause, take a few minutes to remember those who lost their lives and the families that were forever impacted…. Families whose loved ones were bringing home wrapped Christmas presents that held great promise of joyful times, now scattered here and there among the wreckage in the dark and cold – and sadly, never received.
Also, take a moment to honor the brave residents of Gustavus who once again provided proof that in spite of their remote location and lacking any professional assistance, took the matter into their own hands and got the job done.
Where to Go To Hike to the Wreck
Researched and Submitted by Rita Wilson
Produced in Collaboration with Gustavus Historical Arhcives and Antiquities (GHAA)
© All Rights Reserved Rita Wilson & GHAA 2006