Friday, December 19, 2014

The Legacy of the Clobbered Turkey Tragedy

Apologies to my regular readers, as this article ended up going very long...none of the sources I found had the complete story, only various parts of it. But the story was so compelling I decided the whole thing really needed to be told in one here it is.

Today's photo is another case where a rather innocuous-looking print was hiding a pretty amazing and tragic story, that of the Clobbered Turkey. The 8x10 is one of three that originated at the 72nd Reconnaissance Squadron; my source found them at a flea market (the other two were featured in this post).

The Clobbered Turkey in flight over Alaska sometime between mid-1946 when the 46th RS was stood up, and December 1947 when it crashed.

The plane shown, named Clobbered Turkey, is a Boeing F-13 photo reconnaissance variant of the B-29 (serial 45-21775; earlier in its life it apparently was also known as the Forlorn Turkey; if anyone has diffinitive information on when the name changed please comment below!). The photo was most likely taken some time between mid-1946 and when it crashed in December, 1947. The crash, and the subsequent disasterous search-and-rescue efforts, led to major and lasting changes in how the Air Force prepared for and conducted rescue operations. The Clobbered Turkey was assigned to the 46th Reconnaissance Squadron (Very Long Range, Photographic), which was activated on June 1, 1946 and was based at Ladd Army Airfield, Fairbanks Alaska; on October 13, 1947, the squadron was redesignated the 72nd Reconnaissance Squadron. Known as "The Secret Explorers", their mission was to provide long range reconnaissance over the Arctic for the new Strategic Air Command, especially along the Soviet Union's northern border, as part of Project NANOOK. The unit was also tasked with deep-penetration reconnaissance missions, which were kept classified Top Secret until 2001.

On Tuesday, December 23, 1947, the Clobbered Turkey departed Ladd Air Base for a supposedly ordinary 15-hour training mission, with a crew of eight, pilot Lt. Vern H. Arnett, co-pilot Lt. Donald B. Duesler, navigator Lt. Frederick E. Sheetz, flight engineer Lt. Lyle B. Larson, radar operator Lt. Francis Schaack, electrical mechanic T/Sgt Wilbur E. Decker, radio operator Sgt Olan R. Samford and photographer S/Sgt Leslie R. Warre (this National Park Service web page has a good photo of the crew). On the return leg of the flight, the plane crashed while flying straight and level into the rising slope of Hot Springs Mountain (though it's named a "mountain", it really is more like a hill) on Seward Peninsula, 95 nm north of Nome, Alaska. The elevation of the crash site is a mere 870 feet MSL. Later, after being rescued, Duesler described the incident to the press: "I asked the pilot if he was getting sleepy. He said, 'No,' and said he did not need me to spell him. Just then one of the crewmen yelled that the ground was coming up. I grabbed the wheel and pulled it back. The nose came up and the tail hit, breaking off. Then the rest of the plane smacked into the hill with a terrific crash and turned over."

This was not Lt. Arnett's first crash in a B-29. That had been a year earlier, in 45-21853, which had crashed on takeoff and caught fire at Ladd Field on December 12, 1946, though the whole crew had escaped safely; early reports indicated that two of the engines had failed. Then, on February 21, 1947, Arnett was leading the crew of sister F-13A Kee Bird (45-21768) on a polar navigation mission in which they were supposed to fly from Ladd to the geographic North Pole and then back again. On the return leg, they became lost in a storm, ending up over northern Greenland instead of Alaska (if you look at the world from the top, Greenland is a lot closer to the North Pole than Alaska is). Running low on fuel, they had to set down on the ice. A massive search-and-rescue effort ensued, and eventually the entire crew was airlifted home in a C-54. The Kee Bird became well-known in 1995 when Darryl Greenamyer and crew attempted to resurrected it and fly it back home. An improperly secured APU fuel tank led to a fire, though, which tragically destroyed the Superfortress.

The Clobbered Turkey's crash site on the Seward Peninsula, not all that far from Soviet territory.
All eight crew members of the Clobbered Turkey had actually survived the crash, the worst injuries being a crewmen with a broken leg and two with burns, one serious. The official investigation found the cause of the accident to be a defective altimeter. While the pilot thought that they were cruising at 10,000 feet, there were actually at less than a 1,000 feet, meaning that this was a classic case of CFIT, or controlled-flight-into-terrain. Though the plane broke up, the snow on the gentle slope cushioned the impact somewhat, allowing all the crew to survive. They took shelter in the tail, but after 48 hours of fighting the cold, on Christmas night, the pilot, Lt. Arnett and the navigator, Lt. Sheetz, decided to hike out for help. Sheetz believed their location to be on Ear Mountain, about twenty miles south of the Inuit village of Shishmaref. He was wrong, and the crash was located sixty miles further east than where he believed, and Shismaref was a good fifty miles to the west-northwest. According to other crew members, the two left wearing arctic clothing and had wrapped themselves in parachutes, and were carrying maps, compasses, knives and rations. They never made it.

For four days after the crash, a severe storm prevented search and rescue efforts by forces from both Ladd AFB and Marks AFB in Nome from finding the Turkey. On the evening of Saturday December 27, the storm finally abated enough that the F-13 was located by a P-51 Mustang that also spotted four figures near the plane, leading to widespread news reports that there were four survivors. As a part of the massive SAR response, the squadron started maintaining a constant overflight of the scene with B-29s. Supplies and radios were dropped to the scene, but the weather stayed nasty, with blowing snow and intermittent ground fog up to 7,000 feet thick.

Two civilian bush pilots, William Munz of the Munz Airline and Frank Whaley of Wien Alaska Airline, both extremely experienced with flying in the area, had offered their services to the Air Force, but were repeatedly rebuffed by Air Force officials.

The rescue efforts came close to further disaster on Sunday, when a C-47 Dakota towing a glider to the scene lost power to both engines, supposedly due to the effects of the extreme cold on the plane's fuel. Air Force officials had decided that the terrain near the crash site was too rough to risk a landing by a powered aircraft, and that a glider would be better suited for a rescue attempt. (During the war, the Army had determined that gliders were too expensive to abandon after one landing, and so developed the technique of airborne pickup, or "snatch pickup" of a glider by a C-47 tow plane; the C-47 trailing a hook would fly low and snag a line rigged between two poles connected to a braked drum inside the glider, and the glider would be accellerated from standstill to 120 mph in about seven seconds. This method of rescue had been used quite successfully in a well-publicized operation in May 1945 that rescued the injured survivors of a C-47 which had crashed in Hidden Valley, New Guinea. The method had also been considered during the Kee Bird operation.)

After losing power, the C-47 cut loose the CG-4A glider, which landed safely, and the crew of the C-47 attempted a dead-stick, wheels-up landing in the Imiruk Basin, sixty miles from the Turkey's crash site; according to news reports, the C-47 "crumpled" its belly. No one onboard was hurt, though, and a ski equipped C-54 (many early news reports called it a C-45, an easy dislexic mistake, but a big difference in aircraft types!), also on its way to the F-13 crash site, landed and picked up the five C-47 crewmen. The radio calls from the C-54 announcing it was landing were mistakenly interpreted to mean that it, too, was having an emergency, and the Nome Commanding Officer, Col. H. N. Burkhalter, then announced to the media that it, too, had crashed; this was shortly thereafter clarified. The two glider crewmen remained behind, well equipped with provisions, to prepare the glider for pickup by another C-47 tow plane.

Continuing to be shunned by the Air Force, Munz and Whaley (with Jack Cross, another Wien employee) decided to go check on the wreck themselves in their single-engine bush planes on Sunday. The winds were still gale-force, which whipped up the snow, and caused visibility to drop to less than a mile. Munz was unable to find the wreck site, and returned to Nome. Whaley managed to locate it, and circled it a few times, but saw no survivors. He described the wreckage as having broken in half, with the front part of the fuselage looking like it had burned, while a canvas covering had been rigged over the aft end of the fuselage. He also noted that the site sat about a thousand feet below the ridge line, and the strong winds were blowing perpendicular to the ridge, which would make landing there very difficult. A few miles away, though, he found a small frozen lake on which to land, and determined that it might make a good base camp for an overland rescue. Back at Nome, Whaley and Munz again approached the Air Force to describe what they'd found, and suggested that they be permitted to participate in the rescue operation. According to Munz's memoir of the incident, their offer was "politely but firmly declined".

Sunday night, three Air Force men volunteered to jump to the crash site, Flight Surgeon Lt. Albert C. Kinney, Jr. (news reports at the time initially identified the doctor incorrectly as Capt. Aiken Mays) and paratroopers 1st Sgt Santhell O. London and Airman T/5 Leon J. Casey. They flew to the site in a B-17 purportedly flown by General Everest, and paracuted down at about 8 pm (in winter there, just 50 miles below the Arctic Circle, the sun sets around 2pm on a clear day; it gets dark even earlier when overcast, so the jumpers went in completely blind, in the pitch-dark). After jumping, they disappeared, didn't call on the radio and never made it to the wreck. Initially, it was supposed that they merely had a radio failure, and an additional radio was dropped to the wreck site, but still no radio calls were received.

On Monday, the 29th, true to the spirit of Alaskan bush pilots, Munz and Whaley decided to ignore the Air Force's brush-off and organize their own rescue effort. Munz took a local dentist who also had some medical experience, Dr. M. R. Kennedy and Bud Richter, a local photographer, with him in his 1933 Stinson Reliant Junior. Whaley took dog musher Chuck O'Leary, a local legend, three dogs and a sled, expecting to have to go from the lake to the wreck site to make the rescue. Whaley had battery issues, so Munz arrived first at the scene, and though the weather was still much the same, he managed to find the wreck and land up-slope a few hundred yards away from it.

They found six very tired and cold survivors, three uninjured, one with a broken leg, one with minor burns and one with fairly serious burns. All six survivors were guided up the slope to Munz's Stinson and the injured plus one of the others were loaded on board. With the engine at full throttle, and the able-bodied men pushing, Munz taxiied to the top of the ridge just as Whaley and O'Leary finally arrived and joined in the pushing. Once cresting the ridge, the Stinson picked up speed going down the other side into the stiff wind, and was almost at once airborne. Whaley left O'Leary and his dog pack behind with Kennedy and Richter, and took off with the other two survivors. When both planes arrived back at Marks AFB, they were mobbed by Air Force personnel thrilled to have their comrades home.

Munz then returned for those that had been left at the crash site. This time, he landed on the crest of the hill, and during the takeoff, O'Leary pushed and then jumped in as the plane picked up speed, and there was some difficulty experienced as the other two men tried to pull him fully in and get the door closed as the plane climbed away. Finally he was in and four men and three dogs were squeezed into what was normally just a four-seat plane.

The search and rescue effort continued looking for the other five missing men, and the Air Force, under the glare of national media attention, was getting desperate. The Air Force sent out a B-17 to fly a grid pattern at low level with orders that if they spotted anyone alive, they were to crash-land if necessary in order to get the survivors into a semblance of shelter.

Munz continued to participate, and on January 5, flying with O'Leary as an observer, they found the body of Sgt. London, who had frozen to death, probably in the dark, about 500 yards from the crash site. They were unable to land to recover his body, though, and a couple of days later Whaley flew O'Leary and another musher to the frozen lake to set up a base camp. The dog teams would then go and recover the body and bring him back to be flown out. More dog teams arrived from Shishmaref, and the search grew.

Four days later, the military announced that the search teams had found a two-mile-long furrow in the snow, believing it to be from one of the paratroopers being dragged by his chute. Unable to see the ground in the dark, it is likely that he was injured in the landing and thus was unable to release his chute and the high winds had carried him off. On the 12th, the body of Casey was located seven miles away from the crash site.

That same day, the bodies of Arnett and Sheetz were also found, about four miles from the wreck site. It appeared as if they had decided to turn around and were trying to return to the downed Turkey.

The search was finally called off for Flight Surgeon, Lt. Kinney. Instead, the Air Force offered a reward of $300 to whoever found him. It took another six months, until July 2, 1948, for that to happen. He was finally spotted by bush pilot John Cross.

The subsequent investigation showed that the three jumpers were doomed because of a lack of training and lack of equipment. Lt. Kinney had no jump experience, and none of them had sufficient survival gear, nor even proper Arctic clothing. They had jumped in the dark and misjudged the 25-40 knot surface winds, and two were dragged across the tundra for long distances by their cutes.

All this, and the media attention that this incident received, resulted in the Clobbered Turkey crash becoming pivotal in the development of the Air Rescue Service, and helped show that the challenges faced by a pararescuer could be far different than ordinary paratrooper training was designed to address. This helped speed the process of developing pararescue teams with specialized training and equipped with the right gear. The idea of specific squadrons dedicated to rescuing downed aviators started in earnest during World War II, but other than a general mission statement that "Rescue forces must assume survivors in each crash until proved otherwise", there was little standardization in training, equipment and methodology. The Clobbered Turkey changed all that.  Shortly thereafter, the Air Force instituted the Air Rescue Specialty Course at their School of Aviation Medicine.

Because of the national media coverage, the Air Force finally changed their attitude towards the civilian pilots, and Munz and Whaley were awarded the Air Medal by President Truman.

No tragic crash story is ever quite complete without a little bit of a mystery and cover-up added in, and this one has an interesting twist. While the official story is, as was mentioned above, that a defective altimeter resulted in an incident of controlled-flight-into-terrain, there were persistent "rumors" floating around at the time that the situation was actually quite different, and much more dire for the crew. These stories are attributed to Alaskan locals, and conversations they had with the crew. According to the stories, the Clobbered Turkey had been on a mission to photograph the Soviet side of the Bearing Strait (the nearest Soviet land was a mere 125 miles due west of the crash site, or a half-hour at a B-29's cruising speed; in contrast, the crash site was 430 nm from their home base at Fairbanks), had been shot at and sustained damage, and at least one of the crew members had been injured when they took fire. The pilots had been struggling to keep the aircraft airborne until they could get back over Alaskan territory.

The local rumors contributed to a larger story which made national news with an Associated Press article published on April 15, 1948, under the headline Russ Planes Reported over Alaska. In the article, the publisher of the Ketchikan Chronicle, William L. Baker, is quoted as confirming what Representative Margaret C. Smith (R-Me; later Senator from Maine) had said publicly about Russian aircraft violating Alaskan airspace. His statements came after a three-week tour of Alaska in which he gathered evidence of the violations.

Now, keep in mind, the hype of the Red Scare was just starting to hit full-stride in the American media at this time, but Smith wasn't one to fan those flames. A moderate Republican, Smith served on the House Armed Services Committee, had voted against making the House Un-American Activities Committee permanent, and spoke out long and loud against McCarthyism. And yet, she also confirmed publicly that Soviet aircraft had been violating US airspace over Alaska, and complained that the Soviet media routinely referred to Alaska a part of Russia's territory.

As part of his fact-finding mission, Baker referred to reports from the local aviation community which said that when the Clobbered Turkey went down, it "had a Soviet shell in her belly". Supposedly, the crew had told the local pilots that they were struggling to keep their wounded Superfortress in the air, and had hoped to at least "get their asses over Alaska before going in". What's more, the local aviation community had become convinced that the reason the Air Force had refused help from the bush pilots was because of concerns about the classfied and thus highly sensitive exposed photographic plates that likely had survived the crash, and thus would be gravely harmful to the mission if discovered and publicized by civilians.

Thus, it isn't at all surprising that after the crew was rescued, an Air Force team went back and burned the wreckage, and then subsequently bombed it in order to destroy any evidence of the actual mission, an act that begs the question: if this were just a routine training mission, why would there be any sensitive data onboard worth such efforts to destroy?

So was the Turkey really shot down by the Sovs? We'll probably never really know, but if so, maybe it was a good thing that it was covered up at the time, as such an incident could easily have led to a shooting war.

The wreckage of the Clobbered Turkey remains to this day, protected as part of Bering Land Bridge National Preserve.

Some interesting links:

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