By Gordon DuBois
On Jan. 15, 1942, a little over a month after Pearl Harbor, The Littleton Courier ran this headline: "Two Killed, Five Injured in Bomber Crash On Mt. Moosilauke. Last Night, Explosions Heard in Lincoln, North Woodstock." The article went on to read: "Two men were killed and five narrowly missed death when a bomber, described at a Douglass B-18 crashed on Mt. Moosilauke, between North Woodstock and Warren last night. It was reported that the big plane was loaded with four bombs, three of which exploded to shake the country side for miles around. Working feverously all night a crew of more than 50 volunteer searchers, including experienced woodsmen rounded up by the Parker Young Company at Lincoln, U.S. Forest Service Rangers and members of the State Police, made this morning a dramatic rescue of five of the seven man crew and rushed them to the Lincoln Hospital." The B-18 bomber crash site on Mt. Waternomee, a sub-peak on the east side of Mt. Moosilauke is just one of several plane catastrophes in the White Mountains that I have learned about over the past year. There are three other well publicized plane crashes that have occurred in the White Mountains since 1950.
In 1968, a Northeast Airlines Fairchild Hiller FH – 227C, with 39 passengers and a crew of three aboard – pilot, co-pilot and a stewardess – crashed into the north side of Moose Mountain on its approach to the Lebanon airport in foggy conditions. Seven people were fatally injured, while many more suffered severe injuries. The rescue effort was hampered by darkness, the remote location of the crash site as well as rain and freezing temperatures. On Nov. 30, 1954, another Northeast Airlines flight struck the southern slope of Mt. Success on its approach to the Berlin airport. The plane, a Douglass DC-3, had left the Laconia airport with three passengers and four crew members on board. (Who remembers regular commercial flights from Laconia?) The plane was flying in snow squalls, with limited visibility, attempting to make an instrument landing when it ran head long into the mountain. Everyone on board survived the crash, but two crew members succumbed to injuries following the crash. The remaining survivors were not rescued until Dec. 2 due to weather conditions and the remoteness of the crash site.
Another noteworthy tragedy occurred on Feb. 21, 1959, when Drs. Ralph Miller and Robert Quinn, Dartmouth Medical School professors and doctors at Mary Hitchcock Hospital, died when their single-engine Piper Comanche went down in the Pemigewasset Wilderness, northeast of Lincoln. They were on their way back to Hanover from making medical calls, when their carburetor iced up in severe winter weather. It wasn't until May 5, that their wreckage was spotted from the air, after a massive search involving hundreds of volunteers. The two men survived the crash, managed to build a fire to keep warm in the sub-freezing temperatures and even fashioned primitive show shoes in an attempt to hike out of the wilderness in deep snow. However, they died of exposure about eight days after the crash. The crash site is now marked with a memorial erected by Dartmouth Faculty, students and friends.
Two weeks ago, I planned the day hike into the B-18 crash site on Mt. Waternomee. The site can be accessed off Walker Brook Road, near the junction of routes 118 and 122 in Woodstock. This unofficial but well trodden path is fairly easy to follow, but offers a steep climb as you near the crash site. On this exploratory mission I was accompanied by hiking partners, Ken and Karen Robichaud, Steve Zimmer and our dogs Skipper and Reuben. As we progressed up the trail, about 2 miles, we began to spot large chunks of metal scattered about the forest floor. As we continued our investigation further into the crash site, we encountered the remains of the wings and propeller engines, along with parts of the fuselage. In the midst of the wreckage we found a memorial marker which read, "Honoring the World War II U.S. Army Air Crew Who Crashed in a B-18 Bomber on Mt. Waternomee in Woodstock, N.H., January 14, 1942". There is also a memorial plaque to Fletcher Craig who survived the crash and went on to fly a P-47 Thunderbolt in the European campaign. Throughout the area we found the remains of the bomber that was blown apart when the three 300-pound bombs exploded, ignited by leaking aviation fuel. As we sat contemplating the tragedy of the crash, we wondered about the circumstances surrounding the crash. How did it occur, why, who survived and how were they rescued?
These questions led me to the Mountain Wanderer Book Store in Lincoln to see if Steve Smith, the owner, could provide some answers. I was shown a small book titled "The Night the Bomber Crashed," by Floyd W. Ramsey. This account of the crash provided all the answers. The B-18 was a small bomber that was quickly put into service with the outbreak of World Warr II. It was used primarily for reconnaissance. The plane took off from Westover Field in Massachusetts on an anti-submarine patrol, almost reaching the coast of Newfoundland. On the return flight, the weather turned foul. Blinding snow and fierce winds drove the plane well off course.
1st Lt. Anthony Benvenuto, pilot, was unaware that the plane was flying almost 300 miles inland, believing he was over the ocean, when in fact he was headed toward the high peaks of the White Mountains. Compounding the problem was the fact the crew was trained to fly B-24s, a much larger bomber and subsequently they didn't have the necessary navigational skills to compute the drift factor caused by the storm off the New Jersey coast. When seeing lights on the ground, the crew assumed they were over Providence, Rhode Island, when in fact they were eyeing the lights of Concord, New Hampshire. As the pilot dropped to 3,000 feet to prevent ice build-up on the engines, with the crew finding the plane more difficult handle and, not even knowing their location, they smashed into the mountain.
The second part of this story concerns the amazing rescue effort launched within a half hour after the plane disappeared into the wilderness. In the towns of Lincoln and Woodstock residents heard the crash and the exploding bombs. They immediately began the search and rescue effort. Area citizens, Forest Service Rangers, state Fish and Game personnel, even woodsmen from the Parker Young Company joined together to reach the site and rescue five crewmen who amazingly survived the crash. Sherman Adams, an employee of the Parker Young Company, later governor of New Hampshire and chief of staff for President Dwight Eisenhower assisted in the rescue efforts. The survivors were brought down the mountain in a blinding snow storm and rushed to local hospitals. The bodies of the two crewmen killed in the crash were brought down the mountain by Army personnel who arrived at the scene the following day.
After spending time at the site and reflecting on the tragedy that occurred here, we began our trek back down the mountain. It was a sobering experience, knowing that two men had died here. The wreckage is a memorial to the victims of the crash who gave their lives in defense of their country. The U.S. Forest Service has posted a notice that pieces of the wreckage are not to be removed. It states, "Under the authority of the Antiquities Act of 1906 the historical remnants in the vicinity of this notice are fragile and irreplaceable." This isolated spot on the side of Mt. Waternomee serves as a memorial not only to the men who died here, but to all service personnel who put their lives on the line every day.
This is a moderately difficult hike of 4 miles round trip, climbing steeply as you near the crash site. The trail is well marked and maintained. It would provide a wonderful opportunity to share the story of the B-18 with children. There is also an impressive waterfall just off the trail that can be accessed quite easily. It serves as a nice place to cool off on a hot day and contemplate the experience of visiting the B-18 crash site.