Researching the Camel’s Hump Plane Crash

-Brian Lindner, Archives Month Committee Member, National Life

This month marks the 77th anniversary of Vermont’s most famous airplane crash.  It wasn’t the worst in terms of lives lost but it remains the one most often remembered.  Flying in perfect weather, on the very cold night of Sunday, October 16, 1944 an Army Air Force bomber barely nicked the western summit of Camels Hump.  The impact was just enough to send the 30-ton, 110’ wing-span bomber into a spectacular cartwheel around the south face of the summit.  Nine young airmen died instantly and the tenth barely survived but lost both hands and both feet.

Since the crash, there have been tremendous advances in how government (and private) files get archived.  New legal requirements and adherence to generally accepted recordkeeping principles, new technological advances, new appreciation for preserving history, new archival buildings, more highly trained archivists, and better guidelines on what must/should be archived all will serve future researchers very well.  Unfortunately, it hasn’t always been so.  But what has survived is often enough to provide a solid basis to seek other sources to complete the research at hand.  The Camels Hump crash story is a perfect example.

Colorized photograph showing the main wreckage three days after the crash.  Two days after the crash, the sole survivor was found seated with his back against the star.  The small bush on the right still stands on the mountain.  (Author’s collection)

You would think with a wide variety of official organizations involved (see below) there would be an abundance of files for any researcher to locate and review.  It just isn’t so.  Here is the list of organizations that were involved:

  • U.S. Army Air Force  (Before the Air Force became independent.)
  • Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles  (Served as State Police before 1947.)
  • Vermont State Guard  (Not the National Guard.  The VSG was/is a well-regulated militia.)
  • Office of Civilian Defense
  • American Red Cross
  • Westover Army Air Field, Massachusetts
  • Presque Isle Army Air Field, Maine
  • Grenier Army Air Field, New Hampshire
  • U.S. Army Arctic Search & Rescue Team
  • U.S. Civil Air Patrol
  • Vermont Department of Aeronautics
  • Vermont Council of Safety
  • Waterbury Police Department

Guess what?  Of all these agencies, only tiny portions of a couple files still exist.  What once consisted of several files and probably hundreds of pages has been whittled down to a dozen or two pages…and not a single photograph.  What happened?

Let’s start with the Army Air Force Report of Aircraft Accident.  This is the document that is supposed to summarize the findings of the Board of Investigation pertaining to the cause, the blame, the plane, the crew, the wreckage, and literally anything to do with the crash, recovery, and rescue.

Until the 1994 closing of Norton Air Force Base in California, that base was where all crash files for the “Air Corps” were housed going back to the beginning of flight.  Norton had the original paper files with the original photographs.  Somebody/somehow made the decision to archive only the reports themselves without the supporting documents or photographs.  The reports were microfilmed (often poorly because of old technology and spotty quality control) and the supporting paper files and photographs were subsequently destroyed.  The microfilm ended up at Maxwell AFB in Alabama where it remains today – easily accessible to researchers.  Gone were weather records, witness statements, maintenance notes and nearly all those priceless photographs of the crash scenes.  However, that basic report is always enough to provide the names and locations of the people and places involved so that any researcher can pivot and head in those directions looking for information, photographs, personal records, etc.  Often the most important part of the archived report is the list of the crewmen and their next-of-kin – with addresses.

Until 1996 all those microfilmed U.S.A.F. crash reports were legally classified and not available to any researcher.  (With good reason; it was to ensure witnesses could always testify without fear their testimony could somehow be turned against them.)  As a result, nothing could force the Air Force to release any report on any crash.  In 1976 I attempted to obtain a copy of the report for the Camels Hump crash.  I was thinking it would a very thick file and packed with witness statements, photographs, etc.  No luck; my request was denied.  Even a formal appeal failed – the witnesses must be protected. 

However, in response to a request about the general history of Westover Army Air Field (near Springfield, MA where the bomber was stationed) the U.S.A.F. sent a fantastic 16mm microfilm that provided several quarterly histories covering that airbase during World War Two.  And what do you suppose was accidentally included on that microfilm…it was a series of classified Report(s) of Aircraft Accident(s) that involved Westover Field bombers – including the one on Camels Hump!  They charged me $6.00.  What a deal!!!!  I now had the official report with the names of the investigators and the next-of-kin of all the crewmen.  This familial information had been archived and provided the basis for the next major step in researching the full story.

Page 1 of the Army Air Force official report.  Notice the “secret” classification.  This was declassified in later years.

The report was two pages.  Two pages.  Nine men died in a spectacular bomber crash and there were two pages to tell the entire story.  The information contained was truly excellent but – two pages?  I lived with that until the late 1990s when a fellow called me from New Jersey looking for info on the crash.  It seems his father had seen the wreckage in the late 1940s and he was just curious.

He casually mentioned the survivor’s official statement.  What?  “Oh,” he said, “it’s in the crash report.”  He had ordered a copy of the crash report from Air Force archives and (unknown to me) the U.S.A.F. had declassified crash reports (from prior to 1996) after I had made my request and unsuccessful appeal.  “Yea,” he said, “there are several pages after the first two.”  The next day, I ordered a copy of the now declassified report from the U.S.A.F. archives.  When it arrived, the report did indeed have several more pages and they provided excellent new information.  There were several new leads on what archive to check next.

So….ten airmen were involved.  They each would have had an Army Air Force personnel file, right?  Well, sort of.  In 1973 the National Archives Records Center in St. Louis accidentally burned taking almost all World War Two air force personnel files.  Of the ten files for this crew, only one page of one file was ever recovered.  (Although burned around the edges, this document described the condition of the copilot’s body.)  Fire has always been a dreaded threat to any archive and in this case, fire won.  Modern archives are generally far better protected from fire (and water) than in the past.

Searches for the Department of Motor Vehicles files, Waterbury Police, Red Cross, Civil Air Patrol, etc. etc. etc. all came up entirely dry.  Nothing.  Zero.  (Some officers remembered filing formal reports but never saw them again.)  But, once again, a few names on the crash report and from archived (microfilmed) newspapers provided the critical information that allowed me to track down and interview the folks who were there…..almost all with remarkably detailed recollections.

A call in 1976 to former Waterbury resident Alton Wheeler got some serious results.  He had been the officer in 1947 who shut down post-war operations of the Vermont State Guard’s Company B in Waterbury.  (The Vermont State Guard was not the National Guard.  The VSG was a home defense militia organized to replace the National Guard that had been mobilized and sent off to the world war.)  Wheeler told me he had wrapped their files in an old paper shopping bag, tied it with string, and placed the package on the bottom of a red end table in the attic of the Waterbury Public Library in 1947.  What are the chances?  Guess what was still in the exact same “archived” location 29 years later.  These files contained a report about Company B’s activity related to the recovery operations on Camels Hump including an exact list of every Guardsman who had participated.  That list allowed me to start finding and interviewing many of those men.  This was an archival treasure. 

Company B of the Vermont State Guard report of the men involved in recovery operations on Camels Hump following the crash.

In the official Army Air Force history microfilm for Grenier Army Air Field in Manchester, NH there is no mention of that base’s work in recovering valuable pieces from the Camels Hump bomber although archived newspapers made it clear that airmen from Grenier were handling exactly that task.  They were a tad sloppy.  They left at least two of the machine guns in the wreckage for civilians to find and remove…and the complete body of the Tail Gunner.  His remains were found by civilians the following spring.

Using the information I had on the next-of-kin from the Report of Aircraft Accident, I tracked down this airman’s last surviving brother.  He sent copies of his father’s “archive” related to the crash.  Here again was an archival treasure.  In the ¼” thick material was total confirmation of the identity of the body found months after the crash.  This personal “archive” solved an enormous mystery for me but, far more importantly, it explained to the brother all of the “strange” events his father dealt with six months after the crash.

In the Army Air Force history microfilm for Presque Isle Army Air Field in Maine there is a copy of Captain William Shearer’s report of his team’s (U.S. Army Arctic Search & Rescue Team) work in rescuing the sole survivor.  This is a well-written report with many critical details except it lacks names of some key individuals. This too was an archival treasure.  Without this report in the U.S.A.F. archives, I would never have known of Shearer or his team.  (I tracked Shearer down when he was in his 90s.  He very clearly remembered the entire mission and was able to add many details that were not in his 1944 report.)

The Civil Air Patrol (CAP) was the key agency that ensured the sole survivor was found and lived to tell his story.  They have not a single page of any report.  This is understandable.  The CAP is/was a “civilian” organization underneath the Air Force.  In this case, the key CAP participants were high school kids (CAP Cadets) and they were the ones who saved the sole survivor.  It was not very likely any of these kids were going to write any report to anyone.  However, their exploits and comments were well captured in the newspapers, which were archived on microfilm.  When contacted, they all graciously granted interviews and/or wrote down their recollections.  They were all remarkably consistent in their memories of that very scary night on the mountain with a badly injured crewman.

Page 1 of the Vermont Aeronautics report.  The ink was badly faded by the mid-1970s when this photocopy was made.

Richard Hurd was the long-time, post-war, Director of Operations at the Vermont Department of Aeronautics and always helpful in all my inquiries.  Ironically, he had also been the 1944 Army commander of the squadron to which the Camels Hump bomber crew had been assigned.  Hurd was even in charge of the recovery operation on the mountain in the days following the crash.  He once showed me the ½” thick file Aeronautics had maintained on the crash.  Hurd wouldn’t let me see it.  However, one day he relented and said, “I’ll make a photocopy of just the summary report on the condition you don’t tell anybody who gave it to you.”  He made the copy and I still have it.  Dick is deceased and I am now breaking my promise.  That report was packed with information that explained several mysteries surrounding the first search missions sent out to look for the missing bomber.

There is a lesson in this story.  The original paper files may have mostly vanished but just enough pieces survived in various archives to provide the names of individuals who participated.  In this case, the memories of those folks proved to be the primary source that replaced the missing files.  Sometimes material in an archive marks only the beginning of a research project.

Thankfully, because of all the improvements in archiving records since the Camels Hump crash, the likelihood of this situation ever happening again in Vermont is tiny.  I sleep well knowing professional archivists are working everyday to preserve Vermont history and that we have all learned lessons from the past.

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