IDAHO FALLS, Idaho — The fading memories of a downed World War II-era flight crew are coming into sharp focus thanks to a rediscovery by a local historian and archaeologists at the Idaho National Laboratory.
In March, archaeologists pinpointed the location of Aircraft 42-73365 — a consolidated B-24J Liberator bomber that crashed in the Acro Desert during a 1944 training mission.
The entire 7-man crew compliment died in the crash: 2nd Lt. Richard A. Hedges, 25, 2nd Lt. Lonnie L. Keepers, 23, 2nd Lt. Robert W. Madsen, 28, 2nd Lt. Richard R. Pitzner, 23, Sgt. Louis H. Rinke, 19, Sgt. Charles W. Eddy, 22, and Sgt. George H. Pearce Jr., 25.
"I think that was the most touching part — that we know that seven people died right here,'' archaeologist Julie Williams said. "And it's not that we haven't found other places (on the INL site) where people have died, but this was in context . because we know where and how they perished.''
The rediscovery of the long forgotten site began thanks to Marc McDonald, a Pocatello historian and airplane enthusiast. While studying World War II-era plane crashes in eastern Idaho, he came upon the story of aircraft 42-73365. He contacted INL with the suspicion that the crash may have been close to or on the site.
"Julie told me that they'd heard rumors of the plane, but had never seen nor found anything,'' McDonald told the Post Register. "So I requested the incident report from the Air Force, got a hold of several news articles, and working as a group, we started to put this whole thing together.''
The incident and news reports don't give an explanation for the crash, but do provide insight into the day and night when it happened.
The training mission took place the night of Jan. 8, 1944. It was a frigidly cold night in Bingham County with temperatures near zero, but, by all accounts, the sky was clear, winds were minimal and a nearly full moon was shining.
It was an ideal night for flying, which would have boded well for the rotating bomber groups and fighter squadrons based at the Pocatello Army Air Base. During the height of World War II, pilots and their crews frequently practiced high-altitude bombing and air combat training in the sky above what today is INL.
That night, one of the training missions was led by pilot Richard A. Hedges, and co-pilot Lonnie L. Keepers, members of the 464th Bombardment Group. They were to take Aircraft 42-73365 on a nighttime practice bombing run. They were to drop sand-filled practice bombs, with black powder spotting charges, on wooden pyramid targets.
Reports show that earlier in the day, the seven-man crew passed a pre-flight medical check. They were found to be sufficiently rested and "have no physical or mental defects,'' according to Medical Corps. Capt. Dabney von K. Moon.
The accident report showed that before the crash, Hedges had hundreds of hours of flight time as pilot on the B-24.
The plane took off at 8:05 p.m. and entered the desert bombing range at about 8:40 p.m., according to the flight controller.
Bombing range tower operator Sgt. Nickerson observed the plane make three bombing runs 10 minutes later at an estimated altitude of 20,000 feet.
As the bomber began its fourth run, something went wrong. Technicians later suspected failure in one or two of the aircraft's four main engines. But, whatever happened, the plane fell into a dive and within three minutes dropped from 20,000 feet to about 100 feet off the ground, according to witnesses.
Somehow, Hedges and Keepers, managed to stabilize the plane before impact. It flew directly over a livestock herding camp where George Hansen of Firth was working. He observed the plane "very close to the ground'' trying hard to regain altitude.
"I believe the airplane was having trouble and trying to make a landing. I could not see whether all the engines were running or not,'' he said in a statement to the military.
The plane regained about 500 feet of altitude and tried to initiate a tight turn, but the maneuver turned out to be too much for its already weakened frame. The stress tore the left fin and rudder from the plane, causing it to spin out of control. It fell very quickly, crashing into the desert and resulting in a bright, loud explosion observed by both Nickerson and Hansen.
The herder jumped on a horse and rode to the burning plane. He looked for injured crew members, but found none. He later guided military personnel to the crash site.
It is unknown when the Army recovered the bodies and large pieces of wreckage. A Jan. 14, 1944, news article from the Acro Advertiser reported five bodies had been recovered, and that a search was underway for two additional crew members. Eventually, their remains were found underneath the wreckage.
The bodies were returned to the crew's families living in various parts of the United States.
Within the next decade, the crash site became part of a restricted area that would house the Idaho National Laboratory. The remaining wreckage sat relatively undisturbed for 70 years.
Most of the Aircraft 42-73365 crew appear to have had no siblings and historic records indicate their lines may have died with them. But a couple crew members did have larger families including pilot Richard Hedges.
Nephew Charles Hedges was 4-years-old when the accident happened, but he still remembers the impact the death of Richard had on the family.
"My grandfather never really talked about it, because I think it really devastated him,'' Charles Hedges said. "My dad always said that (my grandfather's) hair went totally grey within two week of Richard's death.''
Richard Hedges was married at the time of his death to a woman named Ruth, who the family later lost contact with. He also has two living brothers who also served in World War II, but neither could be reached for comment.
Another memory comes from flight engineer Frank Ramsey in a history book about the Pocatello Airport. He was a member of the flight crew, but did not take part in the training because he was taking a furlough day.
"I have some good memories of Pocatello and a sad one — you see I lost (seven) men in my crew in a crash there,'' Ramsey said. "This was the only flight I ever missed. Thank God.''
McDonald and INL historians had no idea where the crash might be. The only clues were some photocopied photos of the wreckage, conflicting eyewitness accounts and a 70-year-old hand-drawn map to the crash site.
"There were so many discrepancies within the report . the whole thing was very confusing trying to determine where it was,'' Williams said. "But we started to recognize some of the places and we made some assumptions based on information in the accident report.''
Eventually, they turned to Google Earth and satellite imagery to find scars that may have been caused by a plane crash. They identified three potential sites and went out to investigate with GPS locators.
The first two sites returned no results. But at the third site, Williams stumbled across an aluminum gauge, which led them to the main debris field.
"The debris was covered in vegetation in a slight depression — it wasn't a scar or crater left by the airplane, just a natural dip,'' she said. "If you had walked by there not looking for the airplane, we would not have paid any attention to the wreckage.''
McDonald said the amount of wreckage was about as expected. The large pieces had been carted off, but there was a large swath of smaller aircraft debris and even some personal items belonging to crew members.
"After 70 years, you couldn't really tell anything crashed there,'' McDonald said.
One of the artifacts appeared to be a high school class ring, bearing the year 1935. It was the only artifact removed from the site. The hope is the owner can be identified and the ring returned to a family member. McDonald has found a few relatives of crew members, but is still searching for more information.
The crash site is not likely to be processed further, unless family members want to memorialize the area. Even if that doesn't happen, the investigation has at least brought some recognition to the lost crew of Aircraft 42-73365.
"Most of the things we find (at archaeological sites on the INL) you don't know who was there,'' Williams said. "But in this case, we know who the crew members were; their ages, hometowns, and so when we were looking at this debris, we were thinking of those people — and that really struck home for us.''