Bomber Mountain:
A Mystery in Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains

As America entered World War II, thousands of young men from all across the US were drafted to serve their country. While some were as young as seventeen and had no real-world experience under their belts, others had led full lives complete with careers and families. Once drafted, these men put their personal lives on hold, but some would never be given the opportunity to return to the prewar life they had known. One such fated flight crew made it only as far as Wyoming’s vast Cloud Peak Wilderness Area, and the circumstances surrounding their death remain an intriguing mystery with questions that will likely never be answered.

After completing their various forms of training, ten men reported for flight duty to the 318th Bomber Squadron at the Army Air Base in Walla Walla, Washington. Under the command of pilot, 2nd Lieutenant William R. Ronaghan, the crew was reassigned to the Plummer Provisional Group at Pendleton Army Air Base in Oregon. The Plummer Group was required to have thirty B-17F Bombers in its unit. Since one of the original crews was unable to accompany the group, Ronaghan’s Bomber was ordered to fill the thirtieth spot on June 27th, 1943. In addition to being a replacement, Ronaghan’s plane was also missing one of its original ten members. In this man’s absence, assistant radio operator Charles E. Newburn, Jr. became the crew’s unlucky tenth member.

Upon arriving at Pendleton at 4:00 PM on June 28th, 1943, Ronaghan and the rest of the crew were to fly to the Plummer Group’s home base in Grand Island, Nebraska later that evening. After filling up with fuel and picking up the remaining cargo in Grand Island, the Plummer Group would leave to participate in the bombing campaign against Nazi Germany.

At 8:52 PM on June 28th, Ronaghan’s B-17F Flying Fortress was cleared for take-off along with one other remaining B-17F from the Plummer Group. Ordered to fly in formation with the other plane, Ronaghan’s flight plan was a four-hour direct flight at 15,000 feet. At 9:00 PM, Ronaghan and his men departed Pendleton with all of the crew’s records on board. The plane never arrived at its scheduled destination, and the crew was never seen alive again.

Around midnight on June 28th, Pilot Ronaghan radioed in the plane’s position near Powder River, Wyoming, forty miles from the then operating Casper Army Air Base. Following this report, nothing further was heard from the ten men. On June 29th, Pendleton was notified that the plane was missing, and on July 18th and July 21st, notices were sent to the crew’s next of kin that the plane was missing. No further details were released, leaving family members to speculate that neither the plane or crew had yet been recovered.

As the Army set out to search for the missing aircraft, several problems were encountered. First, all the crew’s records and flight orders were on board the plane. Since the group had been a replacement crew, little was known about the crew’s members. The group’s former assignment at Walla Walla was able to provide information on the crew’s four officers, but nothing was known about the six enlisted men. The Adjutant General of the Army had to supply this information. Another problem arose from the flight’s last position report. If the crew had been flying at cruising speed and was following its flight orders, the plane should have been in Nebraska by midnight on June 28th. Instead, it appeared that Pilot Ronaghan believed he was flying south of Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains. Unsure where the plane crashed, officials from the Casper Army Air Base searched the central third of Wyoming from the Idaho border to the South Dakota border from June 29th to July 5th. Finding no sign of the plane, the search was called off and the US War Department notified the crew’s families that over a quarter of the US was searched, but the plane was still not found. The War Department also stated that nothing would really be known about the crew’s fate until a hunter or some passerby discovered the wreckage.

Since the plane was still missing in August 1944, the Army suggested a search of Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains, Absaroka Mountains, and the Bighorn Mountains. Despite help from the Utah Mountain and Ski Corp, no wreckage was found. When the Army contacted forestry officials for each of the three ranges, the Bighorn Mountain Forest Supervisor suggested that the only area untouched during the previous year was a five-mile radius around the Bighorn’s tallest peak, Cloud Peak. Mysteriously, the wreckage was still not spotted.

Then, on Sunday, August 12th, 1945, Wyoming cowboys Berl Bader and Albert Kirkpatrick noticed something shiny on the skyline. Climbing up the unnamed mountain ridge to investigate, the two discovered the wreckage and the deceased crew. Reporting the wreckage to the nearest Forest Service work site, men from Rapid City, South Dakota’s Army Air Base and personnel from Colorado’s 2nd Air Force Headquarters joined in the recovery effort on August 13th. Civilians enjoying Wyoming’s mountains who encountered the recovery team were asked to help in transporting the bodies down the mountain. On August 17th, 1945, the crewmembers were taken to Rapid City to be returned to their families, and on August 18th, the Army began contacting families with word that the plane and their loved ones had finally been found.

The conditions surrounding the crash have continued to puzzle Army officials and family members. Although the plane reported its last position 40 miles northwest of Casper, the wreckage was found 110 miles north of Casper, indicating that the plane was either off-course or its navigational instruments were malfunctioning. This factor alone was significant in the delay of finding the missing plane. Weather may have also been a factor in the crash. No moon was visible on the evening of June 28th, 1945, so it is likely that Pilot Ronaghan would not have noticed the approaching unnamed mountain peak rising before him until it was too late. Secondly, area residents reported a freak snowstorm on that evening which may have played a role in the plane’s crash. Army reports indicate that the crew was young and likely inexperienced, and the plane was flying too low. When Ronaghan noticed the looming peak, the engines were put to full throttle. While Ronaghan pulled up the plane’s nose at the last minute, the tail section could not clear the mountain and the plane ripped in half, explaining the disbursement of wreckage on both the east and west sides of the mountain. It appears that the plane needed just 50 to 100 feet more to have cleared the mountain ridge. No matter what caused the plane to crash, it is surmised that the plane simply was not found earlier as its paint allowed the wreckage to blend in with the mountain’s giant rocks. Not until the paint began to wear off and the shiny aluminum reflected in the sunlight was the plane spotted.

All ten members of the crew died in the tragic event. Some rescuers, however, feel that at least one of the crew may have miraculously survived the crash. During the recovery operation, one well-clothed man was found propped next to a rock. Beside him were an open Bible and his open billfold with family members’ pictures lying next to him. Among the wreckage were letters to and from sweethearts and wives of the crewmembers, an artist’s kit of paints, well-preserved clothing and flight jackets, and several other personal effects of the crew. Several items are surely buried underneath the massive boulders. Today, much of the wreckage remains, although more and more curious spectators are carrying off pieces of the plane as mementos instead of preserving the site. Dispersed across a wide radius are the plane’s engines, landing gear, pieces of the fuselage, the plane’s tail section, the horizontal stabilizer, a radio, pieces of a gun turret, and several other massive pieces of twisted aluminum that smashed into the mountainside.

In honor of the fallen men, the Sheridan, Wyoming War Dads and Auxiliary suggested that the Forest Service name the undistinguished mountain, Bomber Mountain. Following this recommendation, the Forest Service christened the 12,887-foot ridge on August 22nd, 1946. The Sheridan War Dads and Auxiliary also placed a plaque recognizing the fallen men 1.5 miles southwest of the crash site on the shores of Florence Lake in late August 1945. The memorial reads: “The following officers and enlisted men of the United States Army Air Force gave their lives while on active duty in flight on or about June 28th, 1943. Their bomber crashed on the crest of the mountain above this place. Lieutenants: Leonard H. Phillips, Charles H. Suppes, William R. Ronaghan, Anthony J. Tilotta; Sergeants: James A. Hinds, Lewis M. Shepard, Charles E. Newburn, Jr., Lee V. Miller, Ferguson T. Bell, Jr., Jake E Penick.”

Despite the mystery surrounding their tragic deaths, this crew is now forever memorialized in Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains. Their sacrifice to their country will always be remembered.
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