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When Mars Crashed Near Boonville

This story is dedicated to AVA reader Richard Hargreaves of Redding, who is pushing 90 years of age and has vivid history memories. It’s how one story can lead to another, then another.

Several weeks ago I wrote about driving the circumference of Clear Lake looking at its history and geography. Mr. Hargreaves wrote a Letter to the Editor of the AVA reminding us the lake was an emergency landing field for amphibious aircraft durning WWII when the San Francisco Bay Area was fogged in. So here’s a bit of information on flying boats and one really bad plane wreck.

First, please note — I am NOT an aviation historian and am only sharing information in the most general way. But I am a Navy “brat” and grew up surrounded by military aircraft and always thought a plane that was also a boat was cool. What I didn’t know was how BIG they were!

”Flying boats” was a common term for aircraft that flew and floated from the 1930s to modern day. For Pan Am Airways the Glen Martin Company built three flying cargo transport boats starting in 1935. They were referred to as “Clippers” and the one of interest here was called the “Philippine Clipper.”

The M-130 cost $417,000 to build, had four engines, was 90 feet long, had a wingspan of 130 feet and had a range of 3,200 miles. As WWII approached these planes were hauling people all over the Pacific region and the Navy planned on using them for long range ocean patrols and had seven more built. The model name JRM MARS was applied to the military craft.

The worst aircraft disaster in Mendocino County occurred on January 21, 1943 when the Philippine Clipper, loaded with passengers from Hawaii, was diverted from the fog enshrouded Bay Area bases and told to land in Clear Lake, designated an auxiliary emergency landing zone. It was the proverbial dark and stormy night when the pilot came in too low over the foothills and crashed the plane about 7 miles southwest of Ukiah at an elevation of about 2,500 feet.

Authorities searched for this aircraft for 10 days before it was discovered. Legend had it that a ranch wife kept saying she had heard the plane pass over her house and crash but no one believed her until official investigators were finding nothing. The wreck was in a totally inaccessible area to vehicles and the 19 dead charred bodies had to be wrapped in canvas and slung over horses to be packed to the nearest road. After accident investigators were finished the site was dynamited to remove any traces of the accident and discourage visitors.

Among the dead was Admiral Robert H. English, Submarine Commander of  the U.S. Pacific Fleet, and a family friend of Richard Hargreaves. And as an aside, all three “Clippers” had crashed and burned by 1945. But what happened to the ones the military had built?

Four MARS aircraft survived the war and were converted to civilian use as flying water bombers. Instead of being scrapped, companies specializing in forest firefighting had 7,200 gallon water tanks installed in them. The planes had a scoop that could put 30 tons of water on board in 22 seconds as they took off and when the plane dumped its load it dampened four acres at once. I consider this an excellent re-use of military surplus.

Unfortunately these craft were too big for their own use and replaced with smaller more versatile aircraft. The sole surviving plane is in storage on Sproat Lake near Point Alberni on Vancouver Island in Canada. Hopefully there is an air history museum that will buy it and put it on display.

So there you go Richard Hargreaves—a bit more to the story. I find it interesting that in recent fire seasons extremely large passenger and cargo airplanes are being remodeled to dump water or fire retardant foam on wildfires. These rigs are so big they have to fly in and out of Central Valley airports to find runways long enough to take off and land., They are awesome to watch in action.

From the Healdsburg Tribune, Feb. 5, 1943

Naval Plane Wreckage With 19 Dead Found; Craft Crashes In Mountains Near Ukiah

The shattered and burned wreckage of the Honolulu Clipper seaplane, with 19 bodies, was found late Saturday afternoon in the precipitous Indian Creek Canyon in Mendocino County, about 15 miles west of Ukiah and seven miles north of Boonville. The wreckage was spotted by a marine pilot and it took ail day Sunday to reach the spot and to bring out the bodies. 

The plane struck the mountainside, traveling direct north, about 150 feet below the top of the ridge, during a severe storm. It struck the hillside head-on and somersaulted, the tail turning over and facing up the hill. There must have been a teriffic explosion, for part of the gasoline tank was 150 feet from the plane, untouched by the fire which devoured the ship and burned the grass for quite an area surrounding it. 

All aboard were dead. Ten of them were officer passengers, including Rear Admiral Robert H. English, commander of the Pacific submarine force; three naval captains, and Navy Lieut, (j.g.) Edna Owella Morrow, a nurse, of Pasadena. Nine were civilian personnel operating the great motored seaplane. The bodies were scattered inside the ship and burned beyond recognition. 

Because of the thickness of the chemise brush, great difficulty was encountered in bringing out the bodies. Army jeeps were used where horses could not go. The remains of crew and passengers were carried in canvas and sacks a distance from the wreck inaccessible to horses and were then placed on horseback to the armv and navy ambulances which traveled the Boonville road to the Redwood Highway a mile south of Ukiah, thence to Mare Island Navy Yard at Vallejo and from there to a San Francisco mortuary, where every effort was made to identify the individual bodies. 

Coroner B. G. Broaddus and Deputy Coroner W. D. White went to the scene of the wreck, assisted in removing the bodies and stayed until the ambulances were on their way to Vallejo. 

Mrs. Charles (Edna) Wallach of Anderson Valley, on duty at the observation post, was the last person to see the plane before the crash. She tried in vain to report the fact that the plane was somewhere in the hills just north of the station. The telephone connections were downed by the bad storm and the report could not be sent to authorities. It was not until a week later, Saturday, January 23, that word reached authorities of the crash.

(According to a subsequent review of the incident, until the crash, the flight was routine, as evidenced by radio transmissions during the night. A strong tailwind put the flight three and a half hours ahead of schedule. The Civil Aeronautics Board investigated the crash and decided the probable cause was pilot error caused by darkness and extremely poor weather.)

One Comment

  1. Betsy Cawn March 5, 2021

    There is a “private” campground at Lake Pillsbury called “Navy Camp” — the only story we have heard about it is that it was a place where “shell-shocked” Naval personnel were sent for “rehabilitation,” and rumors have it that some pretty strange things happened there that no one locally will talk about. Also, Clear Lake was designated as a military priority for landing those long-distance seaplanes when SF was fogged in, and it still hosts annual seaplane “fly-ins” that are a popular tourist attraction — or were before almost all events were prohibited by the pandemic. It seems strange that Lake County’s inland destination for air travelers has remained undeveloped all these years.

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