Visiting B-17 crash site at Telegraph Pass
Now that summer is officially over and temperatures are gradually dropping, hikers may be thinking about what desert trails they want to tackle in the months ahead.
If you happen to be among the real avid hikers who don’t mind some climbing over rugged ground, might I suggest the site of a World War II-era crash of a B-17 bomber on a mountain just south of Interstate 8 at Telegraph Pass. You’ll need to wear sturdy boots and watch where you step, but more on that later.
The Army Air Corps bomber, which had been stationed in Yuma, had been on some sort of training flight when it slammed into the third peak over from what is now the interstate, shortly before 2 a.m. in June 1944.
All five crew members were killed. An archived newspaper story at the time said the fireball could be seen in Yuma.
The crash site was about two-thirds up the side of the mountain, and some friends and I made two hikes up to see it, the first in 2001. The remains of the airmen, of course, had been recovered immediately, but I was struck my how much of the plane’s wreckage remained and how well it had stood up to the elements after nearly 60 years.
I picked up a few hunks and shards of aluminum, figuring to bring back a souvenir from my visit. But in the following days, I felt a little bad about having done so, feeling like I had just robbed a grave or a shrine.
I went on to write a couple of columns about the crash for The Yuma Sun’s website, then put it out of my mind.
Until about a half-year later when I got an e-mail from one Fred Richell, resident of New York state. His older brother William had been on the bomber, and Fred had come across one of my columns while seeking information about the crash on the internet.
So I called up Fred and we got to talking. Fred wanted to know about the crash site, never having seen it, so I told him as much as I could remember from my visit. I, on the other hand, wanted to know more about William, so I could write about him.
We made arrangements for me to call Fred at a later date for a phone interview about William.
And by the way, I mentioned to Fred while I had him on the line, I had these tiny airplane pieced that I picked up at the scene and ... would Fred by any chance want them, for sentimental value or any other reason?
Well as matter of fact, Fred said, he would. So I sent them off to Fred and called him a few days later for our interview.
Fred, who was growing up in Tonawanda, N.Y., and just turning 16 at the time of the plane crash, recalled his brother was a high school jock who liked to tinker under the hood of an automobile, do woodworking projects and raise rabbits and other animals. After Pearl Harbor brought the United States into World War II, William joined the Army Air Corps, learned to fly and become a pilot.
“I remember talking to him and sort of asking him, ‘Is it hard work, is it fun to do’,” Fred recalled. “‘Well,’ he said, ‘ the night flying is a little scary.’ I remember those words because three weeks later, he was dead, and night flying was the cause.”
I wrote the column, all the time wishing I could find the relatives of the other crash victims in order to know and write their stories.
The second time I visited the site was early 2002, and maybe it was my imagination, but it seemed like the scene had been picked over by souvenir hunters. Of course, there were some huge, heavy pieces of airplane wreckage that a person could not physically carry off that mountain, and they may still be there.
I recall some boulders were marked with large whitewashed crosses, showing about where the impact occurred. There was a steel plate at the site that had been fashioned into a plaque honoring the airmen. I don’t know if that came from the plane itself or whether it was made from a separate piece of steel brought up to the site, but I hope it’s still there.
I’m also told at the very top of the mountain is a shrine made to honor the airmen, although I never climbed far enough up to see it.
To get the site follow the South Frontage Road to the east from Foothills Boulevard. At some point, asphalt gives way to a dirt road. At some point, you’ll have to park and walk, then start climbing once to reach the base of the mountain.
It’s not one of those climbs that requires ropes and such, but make sure your knees, calves and thighs are well-conditioned. I was sore for several days after I did it the first time.
If I were going to do it again, I would wait till late November or December when its cooler and the critters aren’t out. The terrain looks like prime rattlesnake country, so if you go now, watch where you put your hands and feet.
And be careful not to step on any unsteady rocks. When I visited the crash in 2002, one guy in our party slipped, fell and badly hurt his knee and ankle on the way down.
We all pitched in to help him back to the car. He was over 6 feet tall and weighed over 200 pounds.
I can say from experience that it got to be a pain in the rear hauling his rear off that mountain.