The Curtis Commando (C-46/R5C) was the largest and heaviest twin-engine transport aircraft used by the U.S. military during World War II (1941-1945). Originally developed as a 36-seat commercial airliner, it was used to haul cargo and personnel and for towing gliders. Although the plane had a service ceiling of 24,500 feet, it was restricted to flying at lower altitudes when hauling passengers because the cabin was unpressurized.
At 10:36 a.m. on Tuesday, December 10, 1946, six Curtis Commando R5C transport planes carrying more than 200 U.S. Marines departed El Toro Marine Air Station near San Diego on a six-and-a-half hour, non-stop flight to Naval Air Station Sand Point in Seattle. The flight encountered extremely bad weather over southwestern Washington and four of the planes turned back, landing at the Portland Airport. The two remaining aircraft, flying entirely by instruments (IFR), pressed onward toward Seattle.
At 4:13 p.m., Major Robert V. Reilly, pilot of aircraft No. 39528, radioed the Civil Aeronautics Administration (now the Federal Aviation Administration) radio range station at Toledo that he was flying IFR at 9,000 feet and, with ice forming on the leading edges of the wings, requested permission to fly above the cloud cover. The plane was estimated to be approximately 30 miles south of Toledo, the mid-point between Seattle and Portland. When Major Reilly failed to contact Toledo, establishing his new altitude, air traffic controllers became concerned. Although buffeted by the storm, the fifth Curtis R5C flew through the weather without major difficulty, landing at NAS Sand Point shortly after 5:00 p.m.
Under normal circumstances, the powerful Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) radio range station at Everett should have been able to receive transmissions from Major Reilly’s aircraft by 4:30 p.m., but heard none. Frantic efforts by the CAA, as well as the Army and Navy, to contact the plane were fruitless. The CAA’s ground transmission network queried other airfields around Western Washington, but there was no trace of the missing transport. All of the Curtis R5C’s had sufficient fuel to fly for 10 hours, giving officials hope that Major Reilly had landed his plane safely at some remote location.
At dawn on Wednesday, December 11, 1946, Army, Navy, and Coast Guard search planes were poised to start an intensive search of the area where the aircraft was presumed to have disappeared. But poor visibility and bad weather throughout southwestern Washington kept all the search planes grounded. Air rescue units remained on alert, waiting for a break in the weather. Another concern was the missing aircraft's color, black, making the wreckage extremely difficult to spot from the air. Most search activity was limited to investigating leads provided by local citizens who reported hearing airplane engines around the time Curtis R5C disappeared.
Although it was well off Major Reilly’s designated flight plan, the search for the aircraft was concentrated around Randle, Longmire, and Paradise in the southern foothills and slopes of Mount Rainier (14,410 feet). John Preston, Superintendent of Mount Rainier National Park, and other park rangers reported hearing a plane fly over the area about 4:15 p.m. on Tuesday afternoon, just minutes after Major Reilly’s last transmission to Toledo. Many of the rangers thought the aircraft might have crashed into the Nisqually Glacier on the south slope of the mountain.
On Friday, December 13, 1946, Assistant Chief Ranger William Jackson Butler (1909-2000) and Paradise District Ranger Gordon Patterson climbed to Panorama Ridge, elevation 6,800 feet, in a desperate effort to scout Nisqually Glacier for signs of the missing aircraft. But visibility there was almost zero and they were driven back by a blizzard. The rangers reported hearing the roar of avalanches on the glacier, which could have easily buried any wreckage forever.
Bad weather in Western Washington continued for the next five days. High winds and heavy rain caused flooding at lower elevations, severely hindering search efforts and disrupting communications. More than five feet of snow fell on Mount Rainier, making it almost impossible to locate any trace of the plane on the mountain.
On Monday, December 16, 1946, the weather cleared for the first time in a week and conditions were ideal for an aerial search. Twenty-five Army, Navy, and Coast Guard aircraft were launched to search the slopes of Mount Rainier and as far south as Toledo in Lewis County for any sign of the missing Curtis R5C transport. But all the search planes returned without sighting any trace of wreckage. An intensive search around and west of Nisqually Glacier by air and ground units failed to uncover a single clue to the plane’s whereabouts. Still, authorities suspected that the aircraft had crashed on Mount Rainier or somewhere in the vicinity.
Two weeks of searching produced nothing and at that point chances of the Marines' survival were nil, so in late December efforts to find the aircraft were suspended. Park rangers thought that recent heavy snows on Mount Rainier would have covered any signs of wreckage.
Reconstructing the Event
Still, the lost Marines would not be forgotten. The search for the missing plane resumed the next summer, after some of the snow had melted. Meanwhile, the Navy conducted a thorough investigation into the facts and circumstances surrounding the aircraft’s disappearance. Families of the missing men offered a $5,000 reward to anyone finding the plane.
After analyzing the evidence, Navy officials concluded the missing plane, traveling at approximately 180 m.p.h., crashed into the side of Mount Rainier. Major Reilly was flying an IFR course, corrected for a southeast wind. However south of Portland, the wind changed direction, blowing from the west at 70 m.p.h. This wind shift, unknown to the pilot, pushed the plane approximately 25 degrees to the east, directly on a path into Mount Rainier. Their analysis was bolstered by reports from persons on the ground along the supposed line of flight where the Curtis R5C disappeared, who reported hearing a plane flying overhead. They believed the wreckage, if it could be located, would be scattered on one of the glaciers on the south or southwest side of the mountain.
Bill Butler's Eagle Eye
On Monday, July 21, 1947, Assistant Chief Ranger Bill Butler, age 38, was hiking up Success Cleaver on his day off, monitoring snow levels and climbing conditions, when he spotted some aircraft wreckage, including a bucket seat, high on South Tahoma Glacier. The following day, Butler flew over the area in a Navy reconnaissance plane to assist photographing the area where he saw the debris. The wreckage couldn’t be seen from the air, but Butler was able to pinpoint the location without difficulty.
It was at about the 9,500-foot level on a huge snow-field rife with deep crevasses and sheer ice precipices, below an almost perpendicular 3,000-foot rock wall. The terrain was so treacherous that none of the park rangers or mountain climbing guides recalled anyone ever traversing the glacier’s face. As gravity drags the glacial ice down the mountainside, at an approximate rate of 10 inches per day, fissures open and close, causing avalanches and rock slides and collapsing snow bridges over crevasses.
Searching for Wreckage and Remains
On Wednesday, July 23, 1947, the Navy established a radio relay station and base camp at Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground, altitude 5,800 feet, on the slopes of Pyramid Peak. That afternoon, Butler, accompanied by seven expert mountaineers, hiked five miles from the Longmire Ranger Station to the base camp, where they spent the night. They planned to embark at 4:00 a.m. the following morning, but bad weather delayed the mission.
Finally, at 9:00 a.m. on Thursday, July 24, 1947, the search party started the arduous three-and-a-half mile climb towards South Tahoma Glacier. They split into three groups, each taking a different route, making the search of the glacier safer and more efficient. Because it was believed that vibrations from aircraft motors could trigger avalanches and rock slides, endangering the climbers, all planes were warned to stay clear of Mount Rainier.
That afternoon, the first fragments of an aircraft were found at the 9,500-foot level, strewn over a quarter-mile-wide area and partially embedded in the ice. Initial efforts to free pieces of the wreckage with ice axes proved unsuccessful. Although no bodies were located, searchers found a Marine Corps health record, a piece of a uniform, a seat belt, a temperature control panel and fragments of an aircraft’s fuselage. At about 5:30 p.m., the mountaineers returned to the base camp at Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground with their discoveries. There Navy officials positively identified the health record as belonging to a marine aboard the missing Curtis R5C transport.
On Friday, July 25, 1947, the mountaineers returned to South Tahoma Glacier to search for signs of the 32 missing men, but the weather had deteriorated, greatly increasing the hazards on the glacier. Throughout the day, the climbers, battling rain and snow, were constantly bombarded by falling rocks and encountered two large crevasses that had opened overnight. They recovered additional evidence identifying the wreckage, including a knapsack containing Marine Corps health and service records, and saw considerably more that could not be extricated from the ice. But no bodies were found although searchers dug several feet down into the ice at various locations to inspect debris.
On Saturday, July 26, 1947, Navy officials announced that, due to the extremely difficult and dangerous conditions on the glacier, the search for the missing men had been suspended. Photo reconnaissance aircraft would continue monitoring the crash site so that if and when conditions on the glacier improved, further attempts could be made to find and recover the bodies.
On Monday, August 18, 1947, Assistant Chief Ranger Bill Butler was on a scouting trip around the South Tahoma Glacier with two park rangers when he spotted a large piece of wreckage at the 10,500-foot level. The rangers investigated and found the crushed nose section of the Curtis R5C, which had been buried under several feet of snow since winter. The sun had melted the snow down to the glacial ice, revealing the nose section with the bodies of 11 men tangled inside. The rangers returned to park headquarters at Longmire and notified officials at Naval Air Station Sand Point of their discovery.
The Navy responded immediately, establishing a base camp at Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground. Over the next few days, Navy and National Park Service officials discussed the feasibility of the removing bodies from the glacier for burial. The general census was it would take at least 20 experienced mountain climbers, at great personal risk, about two weeks to bring 32 bodies from the crash site to the base camp. Butler explained that conditions on the glacier were so bad, it took four hours to get to the site of the original wreckage. Snow bridges, which were there previously, had collapsed and new crevasses had opened up all through the ice. Although it was only another half mile up the glacier, it took another four hours to reach the wreckage of the nose section. Before making any decisions, Navy officials advised they would seek expert advice from the Army’s famous Mountain Division about recovery efforts.
Meanwhile, the Navy Department and National Park Service had been planning a memorial service for the lost Marines on Sunday, August 24, 1947 at Longmire. Parents and relatives were due to arrive in Seattle as early as Tuesday. Although circumstances had changed dramatically, the decision was made to proceed with the service.
On Friday, August 22, 1947, 17 climbers, led by Assistant Chief Ranger Butler, returned to the glacier to survey the new site and search for more bodies. In addition to the 11 men found in the crushed nose section, 14 more bodies, most encased in ice, and a considerable amount of the broken plane, were discovered wedged in a crevasse. A heavy volume of rocks and boulders falling from the glacier’s headwall forced the search party to withdraw, but they brought out wallets, rings, watches, and personal papers of many of the men who died. The Naval Public Information Office in Seattle announced that all 32 Marine bodies had been located; 25 had been seen and there was no doubt the other eight were there also.
At 2:00 p.m. on Sunday, August 24, 1947, a memorial service for the 32 Marines was held near Longmire. The ceremony took place on a knoll at the 4,000-foot summit of Round Pass, overlooking Mount Rainier and South Tahoma Glacier. Approximately 200 persons attended the solemn service, including the families of 14 of the men. Marine Corps Commanding General Leroy Hunt presented each family that had lost a Marine with a folded American Flag as a memorial. The ceremony concluded with a bugler playing taps and the traditional 21-gun salute. Before leaving, the families decided to hold a memorial on Round Pass in August every year to honor the dead Marines.
On Monday, August 25, 1947, 13 climbers, led by Assistant Chief Ranger Butler, returned to South Tahoma Glacier to assess the feasibility of removing the bodies for burial without undue hazard. Included in the survey party were nine experts in mountain and winter warfare from the Army’s Mountain Division. The following day, officials from the Army, Navy, and National Park Service met at Fort Lewis to discuss the recovery problems. After careful consideration, all the experts agreed to abandon the mission because it would endanger the lives of the recovery parties. Clinching the decision was a letter written after the memorial service by parents of six of the Marines aboard the ill-fated plane, stating that sufficient effort had been made to recover their son’s remains:
“It is our wish that the vicinity be properly posted to defeat any efforts of curious and uninterested parties who enter near this hallowed area and that all further activity be abandoned, leaving our sons in the care of our Creator” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer).Parents who had left Mount Rainier before the letter was written, also expressed the desire that no more lives be risked in recovery efforts.
Honoring the Fallen
On Wednesday, August 27, 1947, Captain A. O. Rule, Commandant of Naval Air Station Sand Point, announced the official decision to cease all recovery efforts on South Tahoma Glacier. A dispatch from the Navy Department, Washington, D.C., concurred with the decision and approved mass burial at the site. In effect, the 32 Marines would stay where they died, among the wreckage of the Curtis R5C.
Officials at Mount Rainier National Park affirmed that there were no predatory animals or insects on the glacier at 10,500 feet and the wreckage and bodies would be covered by several feet of snow which would start falling at that altitude in early September. “By next spring, this snow will be compressed into several feet of glacier ice and there should be no visible evidence of this tragedy left” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer).
On September 15, 1947, the Department of Washington Marine Corps League asked Secretary of the Interior Julius Albert Krug (1907-1970) to rename South Tahoma Glacier the United States Marines Memorial Glacier, stressing that “No finer memorial to our Marine dead could be found or erected” (New York Times). Instead, the National Park Service affixed a bronze plaque, bearing the names of the Marines, on a large granite boulder at Round Pass, overlooking South Tahoma Glacier.
On August 18, 1948, the first annual gathering of the families of the Marines interred on South Tahoma Glacier was held at Round Pass. During the ceremony, Assistant Chief Ranger William J. Butler was presented with the Distinguished Public Service Certificate and lapel pin, the Navy’s highest civilian award, for his determined efforts to find the lost Marines. The award was the first of its kind presented in Washington state. In his presentation address, Colonel D. A. Stafford, USMC, told the audience that Butler had declined the $5,000 reward offered by the parents for locating the missing plane, explaining that he had only been discharging his duties as a park ranger.
Butler was honored again by the National Parks Service during a meeting at Grand Canyon, Arizona. On October 3, 1948, he was awarded the Department of the Interior’s highest award, the Distinguished Service Medal, and given a promotion that netted him a salary increase of $126 per year. A year later, he was the subject of a full-length article in the Saturday Evening Post, entitled “Mountain Rescue Man.”
The Department of Washington, Marine Corps League, in conjunction with the families of the men buried on South Tahoma Glacier, had been conducting an annual memorial ceremony at Round Pass each year on the last Saturday in August. However, in the mid 1990s, the road to Round Pass washed out, making the area inaccessible to everyone except hikers willing to walk four-and-a-half miles from the Longmire Ranger Station. Consideration was given to moving the granite memorial from Round Pass to the new Tahoma National Cemetery near Kent, dedicated on September 26, 1997. But extracting a 10,000-pound boulder from a wilderness area wasn’t feasible and it would require an act of Congress to allow its removal from a national park. Also, the family members and local Marine veterans believed the monument should stay in its original location.
In 1998, the newly established Mount Rainier Detachment of the Marine Corps League received authorization to duplicate the monument. They located a similar boulder and had it moved to Veterans Memorial Park in Enumclaw, approximately 45 miles southeast of Seattle, in the foothills of Mount Rainier. After creating a flat space on the rock, the league affixed a replica of the bronze plaque on boulder at Round Pass. The new monument was dedicated on Saturday, August 21, 1999, at the 51st annual memorial ceremony held to honor the 32 Marines entombed forever on Mount Rainier.
In 1946, the loss of the Curtis Commando R5C was the worst accident, in numbers killed aboard a plane, in United States aviation history. Although there have been more than 325 fatalities in Mount Rainier National Park since it was established by Congress in 1899, the plane crash on December 10, 1946, remains the greatest tragedy in the mountain’s history.
Roster of Marines on board the Curtis Commando R5C, No. 39528
- Major Robert V. Reilly, Memphis, Texas, Pilot
- Lt. Colonel Alben C. Robertson, Santa Ana Heights, California, Copilot
- Master Sergeant Wallace J. Slonina, Rochester, New York, Crew Chief
- Master Sergeant Charles F. Criswell, San Diego, California
- Private Duane R. Abbott, Minneapolis, Minnesota
- Private Robert A. Anderson, Raymondville, Texas
- Private Joe E. Bainter, Canton, Missouri
- Private Leslie R. Simmons, Jr., Kalama, Washington
- Private Harry K. Skinner, Confluence, Pennsylvania
- Private Lawrence E. Smith, Lincoln, Nebraska
- Private Buddy E. Snelling, Columbus, Ohio
- Private Bobby J. Stafford, Texarkana, Texas
- Private William D. St. Clair, Los Angeles, California
- Private Walter J. Stewart, Austin, Texas
- Private John C. Stone, Los Angeles, California
- Private Albert H. Stubblefield, Bakersfield, California
- Private William R. Sullivan, Ardmore, Oklahoma
- Private Chester E. Taube, Fresno, California
- Private Harry L. Thompson, Jr., Kansas City, Kansas
- Private Duane S. Thornton, Biola, California
- Private Keith K. Tisch, Marne, Michigan
- Private Eldon D. Todd, Fort Collins, Colorado
- Private Richard P. Trego, Denver, Colorado
- Private Charles W. Truby, Anthony, Kansas
- Private Harry R. Turner, Monroe, Oregon
- Private Ernesto R. Valdovin, Tucson, Arizona
- Private Gene L. Vremsak, Calexico, California
- Private William E. Wadden, Cedar Rapids, Iowa
- Private Donald J. Walker, Hoquiam, Washington
- Private Gilbert E. Watkins, Tuscon, Arizona
- Private Duane E. White, Ottawa, Kansas
- Private Louis A. Whitten, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma