Park City bomber crash provides chilling backdrop to Memorial Day
It was just weeks before Dec. 7, 1941, when a B-18 bomber flew into a terrible storm above the Park City mountains, crashing into Iron Mountain in an accident that killed two of the seven crew members.
The Nov. 17, 1941, crash, largely forgotten by or unknown to the generations of people who have moved to Park City since, remains one of the worst disasters in the city’s history. A well-attended Memorial Day service on Monday at the Park City Cemetery on Kearns Boulevard recalled the accident, providing a chilling backdrop to what is already the solemnest of national holidays.
The sacrifices of the two airmen who died, Maj. Robert Pirtle and Sgt. Jack Anderson, were poignantly noted, and the other five aboard the bomber were honored alongside the two who were lost. Family members of some of the airmen were in attendance on Monday, one of the reasons for a crowd that was larger than is typical for a Memorial Day ceremony in Park City.
Some of the most moving moments of the event came from Rory Murphy, a Park City resident who suffered a serious injury as an Army paratrooper in the 1980s. Murphy, dressed in uniform, described what would have been the hellish moments as the people on the bomber realized the danger.
“In the dead of night and engulfed in a raging storm, the B-18 bomber was going down and the order was given to abandon ship. These aviators had to jump out of a plane that was on fire with parachutes into a black, stormy night with gale-force winds,” the text of Murphy’s prepared remarks said. “None of them had jump training and the conditions they were forced to jump into were as hostile as they could be. The courage and fortitude it took to make that jump into those conditions exemplified heroism and the spirit that is the United States armed forces.”
He said one of the men who perished, Anderson, is believed to have been knocked unconscious as the plane buffeted before falling to the ground. Pirtle told the others to bail out of the plane, Murphy said. His body was found in the area that is now the cemetery where the ceremony was held, he said.
“When the men jumped, the now pilotless plane began to bank sharply to the left. As the men drifted three miles north in freezing rain, the plane circled 180 degrees around and dropped in altitude until it intercepted the parachutes at exactly the wrong time at precisely the right altitude. The odds of that occurring are almost impossibly remote,” Murphy said.
He spoke about his experience as a paratrooper as well, describing a jump from a plane during a night of a storm with heavy winds. He suffered a broken back and a fractured hip. The accident ended his military career.
“To this day, I can remember every moment of the almost paralyzing fear I felt during that jump. Not before or since have I had such an experience and it was easily the most terrifying thing I have ever endured. The difference between me and these airmen was that I was a very highly trained and very experienced paratrooper with the best airborne division in the world,” Murphy said.
A flyover of the cemetery in honor of Memorial Day was done in the missing-man formation as the people at the ceremony looked skyward. There were other traditional elements as an honor guard from Hill Air Force Base presented the colors and mournful notes of taps were performed. A small piece of the crashed B-18, not found until the spring of 2017, was on display. Some of the people in attendance later visited the crash site.
Upward of 30 people from the Pirtle, Anderson and other crewmen’s families were in attendance as the crash was remembered. Frank Smith’s father, C.A. Smith, was the last one to leave the plane. He retired from the Air Force as a lieutenant colonel, worked in the logging industry, served as the mayor of Lava Hot Springs, Idaho, was a schoolteacher and has since died.
The son, who traveled to Park City from Idaho Falls, Idaho, for the ceremony, said in an interview his father met his mother while recovering in a hospital from the accident. He remembered that his father did not talk about the details of the accident, only describing he was in a plane accident. The plane was headed to Salt Lake City from Denver, he said, noting the crew was expected to fly to Pearl Harbor shortly after the crash in Park City.
“Most of that generation didn’t talk about what they did, what they went through,” he said. “To them it’s like doing a job.”
Ray Lynn Togersen’s father, Raymond Lloyd Togersen, was the radio operator and broke an ankle in the crash. His father, who died in the 1980s, spent his career in the Air Force, rising to the rank of senior master sergeant. The father said little about the crash over the years, Togersen said, describing that he had wanted more details about what happened.
“It’s just a true honor,” Togersen, who traveled from Bossier City, Louisiana, said about the ceremony on Monday. “It gives me more insight to what happened that day . . . more of what actually happened.”
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The Park City lodging industry in recent weeks experienced an uptick in projected occupancy numbers during the dates of the Sundance Film Festival, but the figures remain depressed from a typical year during the largest special event on the city’s calendar.