U.S. Army Air Corps Douglas B-18A Bolo, with seven airmen aboard, disappears after takeoff from McChord Field on January 16, 1941.

  • By Daryl C. McClary
  • Posted 12/14/2011
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9923

On January 16, 1941, a U.S. Army Air Corps Douglas B-18A Bolo bomber with seven airmen aboard takes off from McChord Field (Pierce County) in clear weather en route to Muroc Field in Southern California to participate in training at the Muroc Dry Lake bombing range. While flying south through the Chehalis Valley, the pilot encounters strong winds and rain squalls and turns east in search of better conditions. Low clouds cover the higher elevations of mountain foothills and 30 miles due south of McChord Field, the aircraft crashes in the Snoqualmie National Forest in a remote area called The Rockies. Search and rescue aircraft, hampered by continuing bad weather, are able to fly only sporadically and ground searches prove fruitless. After two weeks, the aerial search for the missing bomber is suspended until spring. On February 3, 1941, two woodsmen, conducting an independent search, find the wreckage of the aircraft on Deschutes Peak (elevation 4,322 feet), the highest point for miles in any direction.  There are no survivors. The official cause of the accident will be listed as pilot error.

A Routine Flight

The Douglas B-18A Bolo was a twin-engine medium bomber used by U.S. Army Air Corps from 1937 to 1941. It was the military version of the Douglas DC-2, a commercial transport developed in 1934. With the advent of World War II (1941-1945), it became readily apparent the aircraft was unsuited for anticipated long-range bombing missions. It lacked speed, range, defensive armor and armament, and carried a relatively small payload, just 4,400 pounds of bombs. The B-18A was replaced in 1942 with more advanced and heavier bombers such as the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and the Consolidated B-24 Liberator.  The Bolos were then used as trainers for navigators, aerial gunners, and bombardiers or modified for anti-submarine patrols off the coast of America. The bomber typically carried a six-man crew consisting of a pilot, copilot, bombardier, navigator, radio operator, and flight engineer.

At 10:20 a.m. on Thursday, January 16, 1941, U.S. Army Air Corps B-18A Bolo, No. 37-523, from the 17th Bombardment Group, 73rd Bombardment Squadron departed McChord Field (now McChord Air Force Base) in Pierce County.  The bomber was en route to Muroc Field (now Edwards Air Force Base) in Southern California to participate in training at the Muroc Dry Lake bombing range. According to flight operations, when the plane left the field, the weather was fair with an 8,000-foot cloud ceiling. The pilot was scheduled to fly a standard route, used by commercial airliners, over Portland, Oregon, to California.  Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA) ground stations at Seattle, Ethel (Lewis County), Portland, and points south, broadcast radio directional signals to insure aircraft stayed on course and pilots were required to communicate progress and any deviation from flight plans.

Missing in Bad Weather

The pilot of the Douglas B-18A, First Lieutenant Robert M. Krummes, age 27, was well experienced, having flown from Washington state to California on numerous occasions. But as the plane flew south, the weather quickly deteriorated with strong west winds, rain squalls, and a low cloud cover. When Lieutenant Krummes failed to communicate with the CAA station in Portland and stations further south, authorities thought perhaps his radio had failed. When the bomber failed to arrive at Muroc Field as ordered, the Army Air Corps considered the aircraft downed and immediately ordered an intensive aerial search. Unfortunately, unsettled weather had moved into the Pacific Northwest, severely hampering a fleet of some 30 military and commercial aircraft, poised to scour the countryside for the missing bomber. United Air Lines pilots were asked to keep a sharp lookout for the plane on their seven daily round trips between Seattle and Portland.

There were sporadic breaks in the weather, but persistent low clouds, rain, and ground fog made searching by air fruitless. Search and rescue teams investigated numerous reports of a low flying aircraft in the region between Mount Rainier and Mount Saint Helens, but they came up empty. The hunt for the missing bomber eventually shifted to Oregon and Northern California, but to no avail. Finally, on Friday, January 31, 1941, the Army announced it had abandoned the search for the missing aircraft until spring when snow in the mountains had melted.  The plane had now been missing for 16 days and it seemed there was little hope any of the crew members could be alive.

Searching and Finding

On Monday, February 3, 1941, two woodsmen, Harry Studhalter (1912-2009), age 28, and Tom Harper, age 39, notified the Lewis County Sheriff they had sighted the wreckage of an aircraft in the Snoqualmie National Forest, approximately eight miles northwest of the town of Morton.  The crash site was just below the summit Deschutes Peak (elevation 4,322 feet) in a remote area called The Rockies. The plane had narrowly missed hitting the U.S. Forest Service fire lookout station, shuttered for the winter.  On the morning of January 16, Studhalter had seen a large twin-engine plane fly over his farm in Bear Canyon, approximately 10 miles due west of Morton.  The plane was so low, he could read the numbers on its wings. Later, he learned the Army had a bomber missing and there was a $1,000 reward being offered for its discovery. In Studhalter's estimation, the plane couldn't have flown far into the mountainous country at that altitude, so began searching areas in the direction of its flight path.  After hunting almost continuously for two weeks, Studhalter and Harper decided to explore the wilderness surrounding The Rockies, the highest point for miles in any direction.. 

While scanning the higher elevations with field glasses, the men noticed a burned area near the mountain top and large pieces of wreckage scattered on the mountainside below.  Studhalter and Harper couldn't reach the crash site because of snow and the extremely rugged terrain, and the trail leading to the lookout station on the summit was on the other side of the mountain.  The men decided hike back to Morton to notify the authorities.

On Monday night, the Army established a base camp in Bear Canyon on the north fork of the Tilton River. Major Charles Overacker, commander of the 73rd Bombardment Squadron, and First Lieutenant William A. Hatcher, group operations officer of the 17th Bombardment Group, arrived with a cadre of specialists to recover the bodies, investigate the accident and destroy any large pieces of the airplane with explosives.  Brook Haynes of Morton organized a pack train to carry provisions and equipment to the crash site and carry back the crew's remains.

Information about the exact location of the bomber was restricted and civilians were barred from the general area until the flight instruments and classified documents could be recovered or destroyed. Because of the secrecy, newspapers speculated the ship was carrying a top-secret Norden Bombsight. Major Overacker, however, claimed it was standard operating procedure and flatly denied the instrument had been onboard. Aircraft were only equipped with the bombsight when carrying ordnance on an assigned mission.

Reaching Wreckage, Recovering Bodies

Shortly after midnight, a scouting party, led by Harry Studhalter, started out on the four-hour trek to the crash site.  They were followed a few hours later by a detachment of 30 Army officers and enlisted men, led by Lieutenant Colonel Walter Peck, operations officer at McChord Field.  At daybreak, the scouting party radioed they had positively identified the wreckage as the missing Douglas B-18A and there were no survivors.  At 8:00 a.m., Major Overacker permitted an assemblage of state patrolmen, sheriff's deputies, Civilian Conservation Corps workers and newspaper reporters and photographers to leave camp for Deschutes Peak. 

Lieutenant Colonel Peck established a base camp at the 3,000-foot level of The Rockies where he could survey the crash site through a telescope.  Except for the tail assembly, the debris was unrecognizable as an aircraft. Pieces had been strewn over a wide area and the recovery team had to rappel down the steep face of Deschutes Peak to reach the debris. They found six of the victims inside the mangled fuselage and the seventh near the mountain top, 100 feet above the wreckage.  The team wrapped the bodies in army blankets and hauled them up the cliff with ropes.  Stretcher bearers then carried the bodies down to the base camp where they were put onto packhorses and taken to Morton. Army ambulances delivered the victim's remains to mortuaries in Tacoma to await burial instructions from relatives.

The Investigation

Meanwhile, investigators combed through the wreckage looking for clues to the cause of the accident.  The bomber, carrying approximately 1,000 gallons of aviation gas, struck the mountain top at full speed and instantly exploded. The point of impact was on the south face of Deschutes Peak, indicating that the pilot was heading back toward McChord Field. The plane hit at a 45-degree angle suggesting the pilot was climbing in an attempt to clear the ridge. The aircraft's flight chronometer, recovered from the wreckage, had stopped at 10:51 a.m., only 31 minutes after leaving the runway. The damage was so extensive that Lieutenant Colonel Peck deemed it unnecessary to further destroy the airplane with explosives.  Back at McChord Field, an Aircraft Accident Classification Committee was formed to study the evidence, draw conclusions and submit a report for the record.

On Friday, February 7, 1941, Colonel William H. Crom, commandant of McChord Field, held a press conference, reconstructing the circumstances and events which led to the destruction of the Douglas B-18A Bolo and the death of seven airmen. According to the flight plan, filed with the CAA traffic control office in Seattle, the bomber was to fly an established commercial-airline route to California, which had the advantage of radio directional signals enabling aircraft to stay on course. The weather was clear, the cloud ceiling high and visibility 10 miles when the bomber left McChord Field.  Lieutenant Krummes, described as an excellent navigator, had flown the route many times and presumably didn't bother to use his radio direction finder, choosing instead to fly VFR (visual flight rules). "After he had been out about 15 minutes, he ran into a strong west wind and light rain and clouds.  He either turned east to avoid the storm or was blown off his course without realizing it.  And after that, when he tuned in on the (radio) beam, he was miles away from it," Colonel Crom said.  "Perhaps, until the last few minutes, he did not realize he was so far east. Then he apparently turned north to come back to the field" (All Men Err...") 

According to investigators at the crash site, the aircraft would have cleared Deschutes Peak if it had been flying 50 feet higher or had been 100 yards to right or the left.  The Aircraft Accident Classification Committee concluded that the primary cause of the accident was pilot error.

Casualty List

  • Hearn A. Davis, Technical Sergeant, (flight engineer), age 30, Tacoma, Washington
  • John F. Geis, Second Lieutenant (navigator), age 27, Seattle, Washington
  • Robert M. Krummes, First Lieutenant (pilot), age 27, Boise, Idaho
  • Paul L. Maas, Sergeant (bombardier), age 25, Quincy, Illinois
  • Lewis E. MacKay, First Lieutenant (passenger), age 27, Lincoln, Nebraska
  • Charles Thomas Nielsen, Second Lieutenant (copilot), age 22, Eau Claire, Wisconsin
  • Leo H. Nietling, Sergeant (radio operator), age 28, Scio, Oregon

Sources: "Mystery Still Veils Fate of Army Bomber," Centralia Daily Chronicle, January 18, 1941, p. 1; "Fate of Plane Sill Mystery," Ibid., January 23, 1941, p. 1; "Will Send Bodies of Victims to Relatives, February 6, 1941, p. 1; "Bomber Only 50 Feet From Top of Cliff," The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 5, 1941, p. 1; "Air Liners And Army Join Hunt For Plane," The Seattle Times, January 17, 1941, p. 1; "Army Gives Up Bomber Search," Ibid., January 31, 1941, p. 9;  "Army Men Reach Spot Bomber Fell," Ibid., February 4, 1941, p. 1; "Flyers' Bodies Sent to Tacoma Fell," Ibid., February 5, 1941, p. 12; Paul O'Neil, "All Men Err; So Bomber Crashed. In Air Speed Makes a Difference Fell," Ibid., February 7, 1941, p. 10.

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