Park City remembers World War II-era bomber crash on Iron Mountain
The attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into World War II were just weeks away as a B-18 Bolo bomber encountered a horrifying storm as it flew at an altitude of 14,000 feet above Park City.
The crew was apparently unaware of the plane’s location and the bomber was destined to crash as a bailout order was given while the seven-member crew struggled in the awful conditions on Nov. 17, 1941. The plane flew above the Park City Cemetery and what is now Kearns Boulevard as it hurtled toward Iron Mountain. It crashed on the mountain, in a location that is visible from the western stretch of the Kearns Boulevard corridor. Two crew members — Maj. Robert Pirtle and Sgt. Jack Anderson — died. The plane hit Pirtle as he attempted to parachute to safety. The others survived the crash after suffering, at the worst, a broken ankle.
To Parkites of today the crash remains a little-known event in Park City’s history, greatly overshadowed by silver mining-era disasters like the Great Fire of 1898 and the Daly West Mine explosion of 1902 or modern-era triumphs like the 2002 Winter Olympics. On Monday, Memorial Day, a ceremony honored the bomber crew as the tragedy was recounted and a plaque in tribute to the crew was unveiled. The plaque will be placed outside Squatters Roadhouse Grill, in a location with a direct view toward the location of the crash.
The commemoration of the bomber crash added poignancy to a day that already is a solemn tribute to the nation’s war dead. What appeared to be an unusually large crowd gathered at the Park City Cemetery for a Memorial Day ceremony and many of the attendees just afterward arrived at Squatters Roadhouse Grill to pay tribute to the crew of the bomber. Thirty-six descendants of the crew were in attendance on Monday.
“I’m so grateful for what they’ve done. As a family, there’s not much anybody can do,” said Jean Anderson Ellsworth, a niece of the sergeant who died in the bomber crash.
Anderson Ellsworth, who lives in Farr West, was part of a contingent of Anderson family members who attended the ceremonies at the cemetery and Squatters Roadhouse Grill. She was a child, just 5, when her uncle died. She recalled him tending to the younger children when her mother was away and his playful ways.
“He and his friends showing off on the back porch, flicking matches with their thumbnails,” she said.
The ceremony and the unveiling of the plaque were moving for Anderson Ellsworth as she remembered her late uncle and Pirtle as some “of the first casualties of the war.”
“We didn’t have a story, but now we have a story,” she said after seeing the plaque. “That’s great. We were so appreciative.”
The horrific flying conditions at the time of the crash were recalled as Rory Murphy, a Park City Army veteran who was badly injured in a parachuting accident in 1986, spoke of the 1941 crash. It was a terrible rainstorm as the bomber flew above Park City, he said, describing “conditions are as bad as they can get.” The plane was “being torn out of the air by the weather,” he said. The plane turned 180 degrees, hitting Pirtle in midair.
The body of Pirtle landed close to the present-day location of Squatters Roadhouse Grill. Anderson’s body was found with the wreckage on Iron Mountain.
“These guys had never jumped before,” Murphy said.
It was the second consecutive year the bomber crash was prominently recalled during the Memorial Day ceremonies in Park City, following a year after the gathering at the cemetery provided a tribute to the crew. The unveiling of the plaque, though, added special meaning this year. The plaque calls the crash a “previously forgotten incident” and says the “event and the heroism of the crew were overshadowed by December 7, 1941.”
The Memorial Day ceremony at the cemetery was similar to those held in earlier years as a crowd gathered for short remarks honoring the sacrifices of the fallen members of the military, the playing of taps and a three-plane flyover. The crowd appeared larger than some years as it appears people were drawn to the ceremony by the plans to honor the bomber crash.
“It tells me people don’t forget. … It tells me our Parkites don’t forget,” said Doug Cherry, a brigadier general in the U.S. Army Reserves who is based at Fort Douglas and lives in Ranch Place.
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