On December 18, 1955, Staff Sergeant John M. Horan, an Army paratrooper, is en route from Larson Air Force Base, Moses Lake, to Paine Air Force Base, Everett, aboard an Air Force C-45 transport plane, when the pilot loses control in a snowstorm over the Cascade Mountains and orders all the passengers to bailout. Horan is the first person to jump, but just after he leaves, the pilot brings the aircraft under control and returns to Moses Lake. Sergeant Horan, wearing only his winter dress uniform, leather jump-boots and an overcoat, will survive four days in a snowbound wilderness before hiking 12 miles out of the rugged mountains to safety. The story of his four-day battle for survival in the Cascade wilderness captures newspaper headlines and the public's imagination during the week before Christmas.
The Beech C-45 Expediter was a light, twin-engine transport and trainer aircraft used by the U.S. military during World War II (1941-1945) and continued to serve on active duty with the Air Force and Navy more than 20 years after the war’s end. Originally developed in 1937 as a six-to-eight seat commercial airliner (Beech Model D-18), it was used to haul personnel and cargo, and as a trainer for navigators, aerial gunners and bombardiers. Although the plane had a service ceiling of 20,000 feet, it was restricted to flying at lower altitudes when hauling passengers because the cabin was unpressurized.
Staff Sergeant John M. Horan, age 25, a paratrooper attached to the 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, was en route to Seattle on a 15-day furlough to meet his wife, Teruko, and their three children arriving on Navy transport USS Frederick Funston from Japan. He had been traveling cross-country on military flights as a space-available passenger and on Sunday afternoon, December 18, 1955, found himself sitting at Larson Air Force Base (AFB) in Moses Lake (Grant County), waiting to hitch a ride to the Puget Sound area.
Major Glen Pebles, Commanding Officer of the 757th Aircraft Control and Warning Squadron, Blaine Air Force Station (Whatcom County), was flying a C-45 Expediter on a training mission with two jet-fighter pilots, Lieutenant Robert Rigney and Lieutenant Richmond Apaka, from Paine AFB (now the Snohomish County Airport or Paine Field) near Everett. The men had spent the weekend at Larson AFB and were heading back to Everett on Sunday morning, hoping to beat an arctic storm blowing in from Canada. Major Pebles was preparing his plane for departure and offered Sergeant Horan a ride. Horan, the last man to board the aircraft, sat next to the door.
As the plane flew west toward the mountains, the weather deteriorated, requiring Major Pebles to fly entirely by instruments ("instrument flight rules" or IFR). The C-45 was flying over the Cascade Mountains, west of Ellensburg, at an altitude of 12,000 feet, when things started to go wrong. There was a blinding snowstorm and turbulence, then ice on the wings, causing the aircraft to go into a flat spin and loose altitude. Major Pebles ordered his passengers to put on parachutes, then, at 7,800 feet, gave the order to bailout. Horan was the first man out of the door, but as soon as he jumped, the pilot regained control and nursed the aircraft back to Larson Field.
Lost in the Mountains
Sergeant Horan waited three seconds and then pulled the ripcord on his parachute. He watched the C-45, rocking from side to side, disappear into the storm, then realized he was alone and possibly the only survivor. Horan, a veteran of 28 jumps, expertly guided his parachute past a stand of trees into a clearing, and landed without incident or injury. He landed on Keechelus Ridge, southeast of Mount Margaret (5,600 feet) in the Alpine Lakes Area of the Wenatchee National Forest.
Fortunately, Sergeant Horan had received Arctic survival training with the 82nd Airborne at Fort Drum, New York, in 1953. He knew what to do, but had no survival equipment to accomplish the mission. At 1:30 p.m., he located a logging road and, after bundling up his chute, started south, struggling through snowdrifts eight-feet deep, hoping to find signs of civilization. That night, the temperature dropped from 25 degrees to five degrees Fahrenheit. Horan kept walking to keep warm and at 8:00 a.m. Monday morning, December 19, he discovered an unoccupied cabin in the woods near Kachess Lake, approximately six miles from where he landed.
A Cabin with Some Cocoa
Sergeant Horan, exhausted, cold and hungry, broke into the cabin through a window, found matches and wood, and started a fire. The only food in the cabin was a can of cocoa powder, which he mixed with melted snow and drank for nourishment. While thawing out and resting, Horan thought he could faintly hear the sounds of trucks and trains in the distance. He found some cedar shingles, made some crude snowshoes and set out to find help. But after 500 feet, the shingles broke, so he returned to the cabin and slept.
For the next two days, December 19 and 20, Sergeant Horan stayed warm and dry in the cabin, but his supply of cocoa was running low and frostbite had swollen his feet so his boots no longer fit. He tried again to improvise a set of snowshoes that would support his weight in the soft, powdery snow, but was unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, the search for Sergeant Horan was underway. Major Pebles, the C-45 pilot, thought Horan had jumped over the rugged Teanaway River country, some 15 miles northwest of Ellensburg. Ground parties on snowshoes and skis concentrated their search efforts in this area, but they were several miles away from where Horan had landed. In addition to some 50 soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division, Fort Lewis, experts in mountain and winter warfare, the Army dispatched three M-29 amphibious “Weasels” to Cle Elum. But the tracked vehicles were heavy, 4,000 pounds or more, and proved almost worthless in the soft, deep snow. Except for a few hours, poor visibility and bad weather throughout the Cascade region kept all the search planes grounded. An air rescue unit and the Civil Air Patrol remained on alert, however, waiting for a break in the weather.
Hoping for Deliverance
On Wednesday morning, December 21, Sergeant Horan woke up and decided if he ever wanted to see his family again, he had to make it out. This time, he found a couple of wire shelves in an old icebox to make a set of snowshoes. He cut open his boots, to accommodate his swollen feet, and used strips of parachute silk to attach the wire shelves to his footgear. At about noon on Wednesday, Horan started out again, hoping for deliverance.
The improvised snowshoes worked after a fashion, but Sergeant Horan made slow progress. He was weak from hunger and the wire racks sunk a foot or more in the snow with each step. Horan decided to follow the trace of a road that headed southwest and from where he thought he had heard the sounds of vehicles. He trudged through the snow all afternoon and throughout the night without stopping. Then an icy rain began to fall, soaking his wool clothing. But to stop was to die, so Horan kept plodding along, thinking about his family and wondering what had happened to the airplane.
On Thursday morning, December 22, it was raining harder than ever, but Sergeant Horan was not about to quit. Toward midday, the traffic noises were becoming clearer and louder and, for the first time, he began believing he would survive his ordeal. Suddenly he came over the crest of a hill and could distinctly hear vehicles on the Sunset Highway (now Interstate 90) and people talking. He struggled down to the highway, rounded a bend, and limped into the Rustic Inn near Easton, some six miles from the cabin. Innkeepers Kelly Page and Paul Hayes knew about the lost paratrooper, but they were surprised to see him walk through the door.
Safe at Last
Cold and suffering from exposure, Sergeant Horan was hustled into bed and fed bowls of hot soup and cups of tea by the innkeepers. They told him his family had arrived in Seattle and the men in the C-45 Expediter had returned to Moses Lake and landed safely. Dr. William Merrill, a Seattle physician who had stopped at the Rustic Inn to fix a tire chain, treated Horan’s feet for frostbite and administered sedatives. Page notified Kittitas County Sheriff Robert Dorsay and Major W. H. Maxwell, U.S. Army, who had been directing the search efforts since Sunday, that Horan was alive and well at the inn. Major Pebles, pilot of the C-45, told reporters that news of Horan’s survival was the best Christmas present he could have.
Horan expressed concern about damaging the Kachess Lake cabin. “About that window I had to break at the cabin -- I’ll arrange to pay for it” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer). Ironically, Stanley Thomas, the cabin’s owner, had been planning to go there on Monday to shovel snow off the roof, but instead he joined the search for the missing paratrooper. “The sergeant doesn’t have to worry about paying for the window he broke to get into the cabin,” said Thomas (The Seattle Times).
John and Teruko
The innkeepers located Horan’s wife, Teruko, at the Fort Lawton Hostess House, then carried him to the telephone in a chair so he could speak with her. After watching a telecast on KOMO-TV of his wife receiving news of his safety, Horan settled back in bed and went to sleep. At midnight, an ambulance arrived at the Rustic Inn and transported him to the Madigan Army Hospital near Tacoma.
On Friday morning, December 23, Sergeant John Horan was reunited his wife, Teruko, and their three children at the hospital. “Every day will be Christmas for me from now on,” he told reporters (The Seattle Times). The following day, Teruko Horan and the children left Tacoma for Maynard, Massachusetts, to stay with John’s mother, Mrs. James McGhee, until his discharge from the Army.Colonel Robert B. Dickerson, Madigan’s chief of cardiology and an expert on frostbite, optimistically informed Horan he was in no danger of loosing his feet or even so much as a toe, and should recover in four to six weeks. The official diagnosis was second-degree frostbite with multiple ulceration and lacerations. Meanwhile, Horan’s discharge date, January 11, 1956, would be postponed until he was fully recovered. However, he was still in the hospital in September 1956, having had all of his toes amputated. After his eventual discharge from the Army, Horan settled his family in Stow, Massachusetts where he sold real estate and was the town’s postmaster from 1965 to 1986.