Historians will recount World War II plane crash in Park City
A dark, stormy night on Nov. 17, 1941, a B-18 Bomber hit the peak of Iron Mountain, soared a few miles east before turning 270 degrees and slamming into the mountain’s saddle in a fireball.
Shortly after the first impact, six of the seven crew members tried to parachute to safety.
“As the wind blew their chutes the plane had doubled back and flew straight at them, catching one of the chutes, which belonged to Major Robert E. L. Pirtle, who was the flight commander of the 88th Squadron, on the wing,” said historian Steve Leatham. “He was thrown over the fuselage and fell to his death, ironically, in the Park City Cemetery.”
The other casualty was Sgt. Jack D. Anderson, the flight’s engineer, said historian David Nicholas, Leatham’s research partner.
“He was only 20 years old and was engaged to get married,” Nicholas said. “We don’t know if he was knocked unconscious.”
What the two historians do know is that Anderson didn’t have time to reach the parachutes stored in the back of the plane before it crashed.
“We know that he was burned and decapitated in the crash,” Nicholas said. “In talking with his family, the only way he was identified was by his bomber jacket.”
Leatham and Nicholas will share their findings during a free lecture titled “Abandon Ship! Part 2” at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 13, at the Park City Museum’s Education and Collections Center, 2079 Sidewinder Drive.
The presentation is an updated version of their lecture they did a few months ago, Nicholas said.
“We have a couple of distinguished guests, including the son of the navigator of the B-18, and a gentleman named Rory Murphy, who served in the Airborne Corps, who will be joining us,” Nicholas said. “Rory will talk about what it’s like to parachute out of a plane on a dark and stormy night.”
“Abandon Ship! Part 2,” which will run about an hour and a half, is designed to commemorate the heroism of the crew, Nicholas said.
“We were first interested in the crash site, but the more we learned and studied, we decided to honor and salute the courage of the five guys who survived and the two who were killed,” Nicholas said.
Nicholas first heard about the crash during one of the Park City Museum’s historical hikes up Iron Mountain six years ago.
“[Park City Museum Executive Director] Sandra Morrison mentioned that a plane had crashed, but she didn’t know a lot of the details,” Nicholas said. “I later spoke with longtime Park City resident Gary Kimball about it and, he, too, told me he was aware of the crash, but didn’t have other details.”
Nicholas’ interest grew stronger after he contacted two brothers — Kenny and Jim Hewitson — who are fourth-generation Park City residents.
“They told me they were aware of the crash and that Ken had visited the crash site twice in the summer of 1942,” Nicholas said. “That’s when we got after the research in a big way.”
Nicholas had worked with Leatham on other research projects and the two decided to work together on this project.
“Steve he puts me to shame with his research skills, and he also has something that I will never have is that he’s a third-generation Park City guy,” Nicholas said. “He also has a direct connection to the crash. During my research, I came across another Leatham, Cliff Leatham, who, as a 17-year-old found the body of one of the people involved in the crash. When I asked Steve about it, he said, ‘Hey, that’s my uncle Cliff.’”
“My uncle was 18 years old and that plane drew such attention that he and a couple of his high school friends joined a couple of military people in the search,” Leatham said. “It took nine hours to find Pirtle’s body, and once his body was found and identified, it was easy to figure out who the rest of the crew on the flight were.”
The surviving crew members were the pilot, 1st Lt. William E. Basye, co-pilot and 2nd Lt. Mabry Simmons, passengers 2nd Lt. C.A. Smith,, Staff Sgt. Eugene V. Bynum, and the radioman Pfc. Raymond L. Torgerson, according to the flight roster.
Nicholas and Leatham decided to split the research, with Nicholas delving into the economy and politics of the United States at the time and how the B-18 came into production.
Leatham took on the task of finding out more about the plane’s navigation issues, the weather, the crew and the plane’s ill-fated flight.
“The country was in the grip of the Great Depression in the mid-1930s and no part of our society, including the military, was spared,” Nicholas said. “The Army had a program to develop what they called a modern bomber replacement for the 8-10 bombers that [had] been the backbone of the Air Force.”
The Army put out what is now called request for proposal that went to Douglas Aircraft, the Morton Corporation and Boeing Corporation.
“At the end of the day the Pentagon was dealing with budget cutbacks and a strongly isolationist political environment,” Nicholas said. “So they ended up going with the cheapest of the three products that was submitted to them. And that was the B-18 bomber.”
A total of 351 planes were built by Douglas Aircraft over two production runs in 1936 and 1937, he said.
“They weren’t capable of doing much,” Nicholas said. “It was a cheaped up product and militarized version of a DC-2 airliner.”
The DC-2 in the early 1930s carried 12 passengers, and was considered a respectful passenger plane, he explained.
Still, Nicholas, who said he has extensive knowledge of World War II-era aircraft, had never heard of a B-18.
“They weren’t a very stable aircraft, and they were quickly reassigned to reconnaissance patrol, primarily in warm climates in the Caribbean,” he said. “By the time the one crashed in Park City, half of the B-18s had been destroyed through nonmilitary activities, primarily crashes. And by 1944, all of them had been retired.”
The B-18 that crashed in Park City was based at Fort Douglas in Salt Lake City.
“There is some mystery involving the crash,” Nicholas said.
The plane took off on Sunday afternoon to go pick up Pirtle who had driven his wife and three daughters to Denver, where they were going to stay.
“There was an operation called Operation Plumb that was a secret plan to move men and materials to the Philippines in anticipation that the Japanese were going to attack the islands after the first of the year in 1942,” Nicholas said.
The plane took off from Salt Lake to go pick up the commanding officer because there had been an order issued to move equipment, in particular, a squadron of B-17s, to the Philippines on Dec. 5, he said.
“The plane didn’t like dark and stormy nights, regardless if it was night or day,” Nicholas said. “When something is cheaped out, you get what you pay for.”
During their research Leatham and Nicholas hiked up to the crash site five times this past summer.
“Most of the crash site has been obliterated by development, but through the help of John Lehmer and Walt Brett, who marked off the crash site, we were able to get close to where the crash was,” Nicholas said. “On our first hike, Steve found a scrap of metal from the plane.”
Nicholas and Leatham said they had an abundance of help digging up the information about the plane.
“We had help from many people from in and around Park City, but from the U.S. Army Research Agency, the folks at Fort Douglas, the folks at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio and the folks at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama,” Nicholas said. “The information we were able to gather of not only the airplane, but the times and the circumstances of the crash would not have been possible without the help of a lot of people.”
During the lecture, the two will announce a memorial fund.
“Our goal is to raise money for a plaque that will memorialize the crash and honor the crew,” Leatham said. “It is our goal to have a ceremony of sorts at the cemetery over Memorial Day weekend. We’ll go into that more during the lecture.”
Historians Steve Leatham and David Nicholas will present “Abandon Ship! Part 2,” from 5-6 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 13, at the Park City Museum’s Education and Collections Center, 2079 Sidewinder Dr. The event is free and open to the public. For information, visit http://www.parkcityhistory.org.
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