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Logger long-ago found missing McChord bomber

LISTEN: Logger long-ago found missing McChord bomber

The B-17 Flying Fortress designed and built by Boeing is one of the most recognizable bombers of World War II, and it was one of the most effective weapons in the battle against the Axis. But this story isn’t about the B-17.

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This story is about one of the planes that nearly beat the B-17 in the competition in the late 1930s to design, build and sell a heavy bomber to the US Army.

By the time Europe was at war and the US was ramping up production of material and launching a peacetime draft, the Douglas B-18 had been relegated to training missions and a few specialized applications, such as submarine warfare.

And it was a B-18 on a training mission that left McChord Field, now JBLM, around 10:20 a.m. on the morning of Thursday, Jan. 16, 1941.

The attack on Pearl Harbor was still 10 months away when the plane, with seven airmen aboard, headed south for Muroc Bombing Range in Southern California. Their first stop was to be the old air base at McClellan Field in Sacramento for refueling.

But the B-18 from McChord never arrived.

Bomber gone missing

Missing along with the B-18 bomber were pilot 1st Lt. Robert M. Krummes; co-pilot 2nd Lt. C.T. Nielsen; and other crew members 2nd Lt. John F. Geis; 1st Lt. L.E. Mackay; Technical Sgt. Hearn A. Davis; Sgt. L.H. Neitling; and Sgt. P.L. Maas.

It wasn’t much later that morning when a burly young logger in his late 20s named Harry Studhalter saw a silvery twin-engine plane flying very low over his house in Bear Valley near a place called Cinebar. Cinebar is in Lewis County off State Route 508, roughly midway between Onalaska and Morton.

When Studhalter heard a few days later that families of the lost airmen were offering a reward of a thousand dollars, he decided to go look for the plane, figuring it must be the same one he’d seen fly over. But the weather was too snowy.

When the weather finally cleared up on Monday, Feb. 3, Studhalter took his neighbor Tom Harper along for the search. They hiked up a trail about eight miles to a place called Little Rockies Lookout, where the US Forest Service maintained a fire observation post during the summer. There, through binoculars, they saw what had to be the wreckage. So they hiked right back down eight miles to the nearest telephone to tell the Army what they’d found and to stake their claim to the reward.

Harry Studhalter lived a long time and only passed away in 2007 in his 90s. His son Don Studhalter still lives in Cinebar, and he remembers his father talking about the 1941 bomber crash.

“The Army got ahold of him and they wanted to go back in there the same day, so my dad walked 32 miles in one day,” Don Studhalter said. “And he was always saying that all these Army guys [were all] played out. There was only one guy who was a State Patrol fella that actually got back to the crash site at night the same day. That’s what I remember most.”

According to newspaper accounts, Harry Studhalter and the State Patrol officer remained at the site overnight on Feb. 3.

Don Studhalter also says that his dad worked as a logger for much of the year when weather permitted and was a farmer the rest of the time. He was a mild-mannered guy with a gentle soul, Don Studhalter says, who in 1941 would’ve been “five foot eight, and 145 pounds of solid muscle.”

For the recovery operation, the Army came into Morton with somewhere around 100 soldiers and set up headquarters at an old lodge and livery stable that had been run by a pioneer family named Bergen.

Harold Cooper is Don Studhalter’s cousin. He was a teenager in 1941 and remembers all the hubbub in Morton when Harry Studhalter and Tom Harper found the lost bomber.

Rumors of high-tech equipment

Cooper is 90 now and he still lives in Morton. He’s seen it change a lot in his nine decades.

In the 1940s, Cooper says Morton was the “railroad tie capital of the world,” with dozens of small mill operations turning out lumber cut to railroad specifications and shipped all over the world. There were fewer than a thousand residents, Cooper says, but Morton “was one of the few places in the country where four major state highways met in one intersection . . . we had everything here that you needed . . . there was a hospital and good schools.”

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Cooper also says that when the bomber crashed, there were rumors that it carried a valuable piece of high-tech aviation equipment that the Army desperately wanted to get its hands on.

“The Army had made a headquarters there at the old Bergen place, which was right where the trail takes off,” Cooper said. “They came quick because it was rumored that they had that new Norden Bombsight on that plane. That was a new bombsight that had just been developed. And they didn’t want to let anybody in there until the Army got there.”

That rumor about the Norden Bombsight being aboard the lost B-18 was later denied by the Army.

The Army team went up the trail to Little Rockies Lookout on Feb. 4. They used packhorses, hired from a local farmer, to recover the bodies of the seven airmen. The B-18 was so badly wrecked, the Army scrapped their plans to dynamite it. There was no need.

Based on what they found of the wreckage, namely, a broken clock in the instrument panel and a broken wristwatch on one of the flyers, investigators determined that the B-18 had crashed around 10:50 a.m. It had been airborne for just half an hour.

For some reason, the bomber had actually turned around and was headed north, maybe back to McChord, when it crashed. Later in 1941, an Army report blamed pilot error, lack of training and bad weather for contributing to the crash.

Don Studhalter visited the crash site many years later with his dad, and they actually found a landing gear wheel with an axle attached.

“I imagine if it hadn’t have been so heavy, somebody would’ve probably packed it out and stole it,” Studhalter said. “And it wasn’t all that big, it was maybe one-and-a-half times [the size of] a wheelbarrow tire. We just left it where we found it.”

And while he was there, Don Studhalter saw clearly where the B-18 hit the side of the mountain.

“If the plane had been maybe, I don’t know, 50 feet higher in elevation, it would’ve cleared that rock and gone right on to McChord like it was going to.”

Don Studhalter says his dad, Harry Studhalter, did collect the reward; he actually split it 50/50 with Tom Harper, or $500 each, which was a lot of money in those days.

Does Harold Cooper have any idea what Harry Studhalter spent the money on?

“Oh hell, I don’t know. There was lots of uses for a little bit of money in those days because it was just starting after the Depression, you know,” Cooper said. “In ’41, things were just starting to kick up the way to get jobs around here. So it was a pretty important financial find for them.”

Don Studhalter concurs. “Probably survival,” Studhalter said when asked how his father spent the money. “It was lean times in those days.”

A twist

One bizarre twist concerns an airman who was aboard the doomed B-18 as a passenger. Hearn A. Davis had no official role aboard the flight and may have just gone along for the ride to California and back. As it turns out, it was the second time Davis had found himself aboard a doomed B-18.

Just five months earlier, on August 31, 1940, Davis was a crew member when a B-18 from McChord had engine trouble. Davis and seven others bailed out of the plane and parachuted to safety before the B-18 crashed in southwest Washington near Kalama. The safe recovery of the crew was heralded by the Army and reported in newspapers around the country.

And though decades have passed since the tragedy at Little Rockies Lookout, reminders of the crash and that era are still nearby if you know where to look.

Another member of the crew of the bomber that crashed near Morton in 1941 was Seattle native Lt John F. Geis. He’s buried in Calvary Cemetery just north of University Village.

The McChord Air Museum has a B-18 in its collection, but it’s currently undergoing restoration and not on public display.

NOTE: Special thanks to Lee Corbin for sharing his research on the 1941 B-18 crash.

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