All That Remains

Old aircraft crash scenes are littered with story fragments.

Air & Space Magazine

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Macha is occasionally called upon to help solve an aviation mystery—identifying debris stumbled upon by hikers and forest rangers, for instance. Two years ago, he received a call that topped them all. The caller was Ken Whitall-Scherfee, a Sacramento attorney; his wife, Laura, is the great-niece of Gertrude Tompkins Silver, who had flown with the Women Airforce Service Pilots, the only group of women to fly U.S. military aircraft during World War II. One evening in 1944, Silver took off in a factory-new P-51 Mustang from Mines Field (now Los Angeles International Airport), detailed to ferry the aircraft to New Jersey for shipment overseas. Her first stop was Palm Springs, and she never made it. Silver became the only WASP to go missing. Whitall-Scherfee asked if Macha was interested in helping solve the riddle.

Macha was. He had long considered Silver’s disappearance one of the more intriguing aviation mysteries of the Second World War. After studying the official Army Air Forces report, Macha theorized that Silver had become disoriented shortly after takeoff when she flew into a fog bank that had rolled in over Santa Monica Bay, just a mile and a half from the end of the runway at Mines. Last September, Macha and a group of volunteers began planning a survey of the bay’s bottom with sonar scanners they’d been able to borrow. Unfortunately, technical and logistical problems (after the September 11 attacks, “we didn’t want to have to explain to the Coast Guard what we were doing under the flight path to LAX,” he says) forced the team to halt its efforts. Macha hopes to try the survey again sometime this year.

Trey Brandt has also worked with family members to help them find out what exactly happened to their loved ones. He recalls a recent example: During his first trip to the Stratofreighter crash site on Gray Mountain last year, Brandt spotted a wadded-up blue airman’s jacket wedged under a boulder. In one pocket he found a medal of St. Anthony, patron saint of, among other things, shipwrecks and seekers of lost items. In another pocket he found a set of dog tags belonging to one of the Stratofreighter’s crew members. The jacket, Brandt guesses, had been left there by a member of the Air Force recovery team, who had pocketed the dog tags while scouring the site. Brandt continued to search, and ended up finding the dog tags of four other crew members, along with personal effects, including a watch stopped at 8:54 a.m.—a little more than 30 minutes after the airplane made its last position report.

Back home, Brandt began doing what he does so well, eventually tracking down survivors of three of the five crewmen and returning the dog tags. One of the survivors was Doris Dees, widow of the Stratofreighter’s copilot, Charles Darwin Dees. Brandt contacted her at her North Carolina home in June 2001. “I thought it was some sort of scam,” she recalls. “I kept waiting for him to ask me to send him money.”

Once convinced of Brandt’s sincerity, Doris told him about her life after losing Charles. She had moved back to the small town she had grown up in and where she had met Charles at the high school for black students. She went back to teaching, raised her son and daughter, became a grandmother, retired. She never remarried; Charles was her one true love.

In all those years, the question of what had really happened to Charles hovered over her like the old photo of him she kept on her mantel. The Air Force had never produced a body, instead interring the crew’s remains in a single casket at Arlington National Cemetery, outside Washington, D.C. Over the years, Doris often wondered whether Charles might not still be alive somewhere. What if he had bailed out and been injured, perhaps suffering amnesia, wandering the country like some real-life Manchurian Candidate?

Those questions were finally laid to rest a few days after she spoke with Brandt, when an envelope arrived from Phoenix. Inside were Charles’ dog tags. Doris took them out and held them, then hung them from his photo on the mantel. She says she hasn’t felt quite the same since. I ask her whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. “Oh, its a good thing,” she quickly responds. “Now I know.”

Little stands between most wrecks and oblivion. The Air Force washed its hands of the majority of its crashes when a fire destroyed the titles to all aircraft wrecked before 1961. “After that, the Air Force decided any wreckage sites from before that date would be considered formally abandoned,” explains Brad Smith, who heads the Air Force’s disposal and donation program, located at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. Anyone wanting anything from a pre-’61 wreck needs only the permission of whoever owns the land where the wreck resides. As for post-1961 wrecks, Smith’s office reviews salvage requests on a case-by-case basis.

The Navy takes a much more proprietary view of its wrecked craft. “The Navy basically considers all wrecks—both ships and airplanes—to be its property forever,” says Wendy Coble, a Naval archaeologist in Washington, D.C. The Navy takes a dim view of salvagers, she says, because wreck sites often are the last resting places for their crews. (Most everyone who has visited a fair share of sites has come across human remains.) The Navy’s policy is also based on the danger of unexploded ordnance. Then there’s the fact that the aircraft were purchased with taxpayer money: “They should belong to everyone,” Coble says. Some salvagers disagree with the “keep off” policy, pointing out that the Navy itself does not salvage many of its wrecks and thus risks losing valuable artifacts to neglect and exposure (see “Whose Planes Are They Anyway?” Oct./Nov. 1998).

Even though people may have died at them, most wreck sites aren’t considered significant historically, so they are offered no protection under the National Historical Register. The only recognition such sites will ever receive comes from the wreck chasers themselves, some of whom have erected simple memorials. Jim Fusco put one up last year at a site in southeastern Arizona where in 1943 a B-24 exploded in mid-air while being ferried from Texas to Arizona. The Army Air Forces removed the large pieces of the bomber, but small bits are still scattered over the area like shells on a beach. In the middle of the debris field stands a simple aluminum cross listing the aircraft type, the date of the explosion, and the names of the four crew members who died in it. The cross is hidden by thick creosote and ocotillo and set back from the nearby freeway. I ask Fusco why he installed a monument that so few will ever see. “I just felt like I needed to give something back,” he says.

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