Victims of 1943 military training accident remembered
Dick Mason Oct 20, 2017, La GrandeObserver
The full story behind the 1943 deaths of four young men in a military training plane crash near Tollgate may never be known, but they will not soon be forgotten. Lyle Schwarz and Armen Woosley of La Grande made certain of it Wednesday.
Schwarz and Woosley installed a plaque honoring the four members of an Army Air Corps B-17 bomber crew who died Aug. 16, 1943, when the plane they were flying on a training mission crashed in a forest on the northeast edge of Umatilla County. The plaque was mounted on a tree at the site of the crash near Lake Creek Trail in the North Fork Umatilla Wilderness.
The plaque’s inscription lists the names of the members of the crew and salutes them as heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
“It is important that their lives are commemorated,” said Schwarz, a retired Eastern Oregon University theater professor.
The crash claimed the lives of Master Sgt. Phillip J. Rogers, 27, of Duluth, Minnesota; 1st Lt. Lewis W. Hubbard, 22, of Monett, Missouri; 1st Lt. Francis L. Stephenson, 25, of Pontiac, Illinois; and 1st Lt. Walter P. Fitzmaurice, 25, of Anaconda, Montana. Their plane spiraled to the ground 75 minutes after leaving their training base at what was then the Pendleton Army Airfield. Stephenson, Hubbard and Fitzmaurice perished when the plane slammed into the ground, and Rogers died after he bailed out with a parachute. His body was found away from the plane’s wreckage.
The B-17 bomber hit in perpendicular fashion with such force that Woosley believes some of the remains of the men in the plane are likely still buried at the site. He anticipates that human remains may someday be found there.
“You definitely could say this is hallowed ground,” said Woosley, a retired City of La Grande public works employee who has worked extensively at aircraft crash sites while serving as a search and rescue volunteer.
He said it is not known why the crew lost control of their B-17 and why only one person attempted to bail out.
“They never reported (to the Pendleton Army Airfield) having any engine problems,” Woosley said.
The plane crashed after climbing to 20,000 feet, an altitude at which oxygen is needed. Woosley believes the bomber’s oxygen system may have malfunctioned, causing the crew to lose consciousness.
They may have gone to sleep,” he said.
Other possibilities for explaining why the crew did not abandon the aircraft could be that the sudden loss of altitude slowed their reaction time, or they could have been overpowered by centrifugal force in the out-of-control B-17, according to a passage in the book “Aircraft Wrecks of the Northwest” by David McCurry.
Woosley said he finds it intriguing that only two engines are at the site since the bomber had four. He believes that the two engines closest to the fuselage may have been thrust into the ground and buried because of the additional force they were subjected to due to their position on the plane.
He was also surprised that there is no evidence of the tail of the bomber.
“You almost always find the tail (at an airplane crash site),” he said.
The tail would have displayed the plane’s identification number.
Some of the metal at the site appears melted, which Woosley explained was likely because of the explosion following the accident.
Referring to the high octane gasoline the Army used to operate B-17s, Schwarz said, “It must have been an incredible explosion.”
Despite the explosion, the crash ignited only a small fire, according to the Aug. 17, 1943, edition of The Observer. Forest Service crews cooled the crash site with water from nearby Buck Creek, according to The Observer.
Schwarz learned about the 1943 airplane crash a year ago. He then determined its location with the help of information in books. Schwarz next found the site, which turned out to be an easy 1.5-mile walk in the forest from an area road.
When Schwarz found where the bomber had crashed, it seemed as if he were stepping into a time capsule.
“It really felt like that,” he said.
Schwarz then told Woosley, a good friend, about finding the crash site. Woosley, who said he first heard stories about the Tollgate area crash in 1980, jumped at the chance to later visit it with Schwarz and help install the commemorative plaqueThere is no litter at the crash site, but it is apparent that people have removed a number of smaller items from it over the years, Schwarz said.
“Grave robbers have been here,” he said.
Among the wreckage that remains are sections of wings, parts of the landing gear and wheels, batteries and large fuselage skins.
Schwarz said a large American flag had been attached to trees near where the B-17 crashed.
“It looked like it had been put up (last year),” he said.
The flag had become quite tattered, so Schwarz and Woosley replaced it with a new one Wednesday.
The plaque they installed will survive the elements better than the flag, for it is made of acrylic stone, Schwarz said. Acrylic stone is a non-absorbent, non-porous solid surface composite material known for its longevity.
Along with names of the four crew members, the new plaque has an inscription reading: “Please treat this place with respect due these young men who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.”
Schwarz and Woosley have looked into the backgrounds of the plane’s crew members and uncovered information with the help of a private investigator who was referred to them by Tim McCarthy, a retired police officer.
Some of what Schwarz and Woosley learned from Whittington was heart tugging. For example, they learned that Fitzmaurice had gotten married just four months before the accident. He was the only crew member who was not single.
Whittington found one surviving close relative of a crew member, Bob Hubbard of Branson, Missouri, the younger brother of Lewis Hubbard, the crew’s pilot. He said Thursday morning that he was happy about the plaque was installed at the crash site.
“I’m thrilled to hear about it. I’m happy that he is being honored,” Lewis Hubbard saidThe Branson resident has fond memories of his brother.
“He was a wonderful guy. He was happy and full of life,” he recalled.
After learning to fly a Piper Cub plane in college, Lewis Hubbard had a private pilot’s license when he entered the military. Bob Hubbard said his brother once shook up his hometown of Monett, Missouri, when he flew a plane over its main street not far above the buildings’ rooftops.
“He rattled things a bit,” he said.
The members of Lewis Hubbard’s crew had great confidence in his flying ability, according to “Aircraft Wrecks of the Pacific Northwest.” McCurry wrote in his book that the Army committee investigating the 1943 crash said the crew had such high regard for Hubbard that it was possible they delayed their attempts to bail out “believing that Lt. Hubbard would be able to regain control.”
Schwarz and Woosley said that learning the life stories of the four airmen was fulfilling.
“In a way I feel like I met them after learning about them,” Schwarz said.
Woosley voiced a similar sentiment.
“The human interest side of the crash, it really touches both of us,” Woosley said.