17 Airmen Killed in B24 Crash Over Death Valley


Two Liberators Hit in Mid-Air. 8/4/44 - Seventeen officers and enlisted men, some of whose bodies have been found, were believed to have perished when two B24 Liberator bombers crashed in mid-air over Death Valley. The accident occurred over Furnace Creek. The planes were believed to be from Muroc (Edwards) Air base.

Army vehicles in charge of Col. Gerald Hoyle, Muroc Army Air Base Commander, reached the scene of the crash , but it was announced that not all of the bodies have been identified.

The official announcement said it was believed only Pfc. Newton J. Steven, 21, of Alamoso, Colo., who parachuted to earth escaped death.

Three Californians believed to have met their death in the crash included 2nd Lt. Samuel B. Johnson, 24, Fillmore; Cpl. Richard A. Lire, 20, El Centro; and Pfc. Robert Thomas, 19, Fowler.

The crash was the worst air tragedy to hit Inyo County since nine men perished when a B24 hit the high Sierra crest about two years ago near Birch Lake.

WRECK SITE VISITED


During the Spring of 1997, I visited the site of the B24 crash. After searching a mile-square area for about two hours, I stumbled upon one propeller, and then another propeller, and then yet a third propeller! The "props" that had been buried in a salt marsh were severely deteriorated, yet the blades that were not exposed to the elements were in surprisingly good shape.


I continued my search and located a debris field with scattered 50 cal. bullets, plexi-glass, aluminum pieces and other assorted airframe parts. After the accident occurred the military did a thorough job of cleaning-up the site. In places on the dry lake bed, you can still see the tracks left in the soil from the Army vehicles that were here more than 50 years ago.

This air tragedy occurred in clear weather over the vast expanse of California desert known as Death Valley. Death Valley received its name from pioneer miners and settlers who died or nearly died crossing the Valley on their way to the gold rush of 1849. A reporter for the "New York World" fifty years later called Death Valley, "the loneliest, the hottest, the most deadly and dangerous spot in the United States." Perhaps because of its reputation, as well as its barren and stark features, it took a while for Death Valley to be recognized by the public and politicians as an important place worth preserving. Just three and half years ago, on October 31, 1994, it was finally promoted to National Park status, with the signing of the historic Desert Protection Act.

During the war years, Death Valley was a popular training area, it offered spectacular scenery, year-round clear weather (although temperatures sore to over 120-degrees in the summer months),and vast expanses of open desert where mock aerial battles could be played out. Many aviation accidents have occurred in the Valley; like: an SR71 crash near Shoshone, two separate F100 jet crashes near Badwater, an Albatross sea plane in Townes Pass, numerous private aircraft are scattered throughout the area, a KC135 aerial tanker lies in the southern end of the Valley, and many other WWII, Korean and Vietnam era war planes litter the Valley. As time permits, I will be investigating many of these crash sites and will report my findings in furture articles.

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