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Today is the Sixty Fifth Anniversary of Oregon's Cape Lookout B-17 Bomber CrashTim King Salem-News.com
Republished from one year ago today - Learn the story of ten men who flew their last flight together in 1943, through one that survived.
(TILLAMOOK, Ore.) - (Note: Sadly, the sole survivor of the Cape Lookout B-17 crash, Wilbur Perez, passed away March 20th 2009 in California. This is the link to our article, Sole Survivor of Cape Lookout B-17 Crash in WWII, Wilbur Perez, Dies.) I always thought old airplanes were great, but I became very interested the giant WWII B-17 bombers while researching a historic crash site at Cape Lookout in Tillamook County, Oregon in the early 1990's.
It was sixty five years ago on this date, that this four-engine plane and her crew of 10 U.S. Army aviators were lost in the fog, flying close to the ocean as they tried to find a landmark. The sole survivor of the crash, 2nd Lt. Wilbur Perez, was the plane's bombardier.
When my wife Bonnie and I began digging into the story in 1991 at the Tillamook Pioneer Museum, we learned that Wilbur Perez lived in Denver, Colorado with his now late wife, Maude "Jerry" Perez. They were newlyweds at the time of the crash, and they came to Oregon in 1992 for a documentary that we produced for Oregon Public Broadcasting.
The Museum's Wayne Jensen shared a number of important contacts he had collected over the story and we were soon in touch with two men who were key in the rescue and recovery of Wilbur Perez; Carl Green of Salem, Oregon and and Charles Schmid of Arcata, California.
On that morning, August 2nd 1943, this crew was flying along through the fog, unable to see the cape looming just ahead. Perez says they had started climbing but just a few seconds too late. They flew their plane into this coastal finger of land topped with old growth timber at 200 MPH. They almost cleared the 900 foot high cape, but trees began knocking parts off the plane as it lumbered in from the NE.
Perez said, "We only missed it by fifty feet or so I think." He became emotional and also held together well when describing his fellow crewmen. He was always particularly bothered by the fact that one of the nine men and about a third of the airplane, actually kept going along off the south edge of Cape Lookout and into the water and onto the rocks below.
Charles Schmid was the air warning guard who had the dubious honor of being probably the only person, who really heard the actual crash. At first he described the plane as clearly "a four motored job" and he said it, "Was droning, just a heavy heavy drone; and then they started to climb, but it was too late."
Schmid said he knew it was a heavy crash. His location was at a fire watch tower on a mountain called Buzzard Butte. This was about six miles east and slightly south of Cape Lookout and it was approximately 4,500 feet as I recall. Cape Lookout at a thousand feet looks very, very small from Buzzard Butte. Sixty five years ago today, this plane was flying along lost in the fog very close to the water.
It was supposed to be flying at 20,000 feet according to the flight plan, but instead the 'Flying Fortress' was down in the soup. Schmid's fire watch and air warning guard tower, was clear and well above the fog. The plane could have risen a few thousand feet and been in a safe zone at least. Schmid only heard the plane's final moments and crash, he never saw a thing.
As it crashed, aviation gas splattered all over this section of the cape and fires broke out on the cape by the virtual disintegration of the fuel laden plane. Its mighty wings with a span of over 100 feet broke into sections and parts and equipment and people went everywhere.
"It sounded like timbers breaking, just snapping." Schmid said. "Then it was over, and it was all quiet." His reports to the Army in Portland and the U.S. Forest Service were all initially dismissed. Schmid knew time was of the essence if any of the aviators were alive, which was the case.
Carl Green was in the U.S. Coast Guard and was part of the first search party sent up to investigate the crash. After it got dark on August 2nd, 1943, residents in Pacific City could see flames burning on Cape Lookout and they reported it. This finally mobilized the government and the Coast Guard sent a search party from Pacific City that drove along the beach all the way to the base of Cape Lookout.
Among the men in this search party was Salem, Oregon resident Carl Green. He, along with another sailor named Carl Jepsen and a third man, climbed an old steep and partly treacherous trail up the cape that is used today by surfers accessing the beach below the cape. Carl Green says they reached the top, and knew they had indeed found a plane. "We could see that it was a four motored airplane, and that it was probably a bomber, but we couldn't tell whose plane it was."
The search "We decided it was the better part of valor to turn around and retreat, and so we did. I knew there was an edge and a real steep drop off right there, but we couldn't tell how close it was."
The plane's bombardier and sole survivor, Wilbur Perez, flew in the far forward nose bubble of the aircraft, ultimately to deliver the bombs accurately over enemy territory. But none of these men would ever go to war. The lives of most of them came to what must have been a screeching halt that morning in the fog. Like Perez, they did not all die. But before rescue crews would finally arrive on scene, Perez was the only one alive.
Carl Green and his fellow Coast Guardsmen traveled back to their station at Pacific City, and then returned to the cape and arrived just as Perez was being brought down the trail to the beach on a stretcher. Perez vaguely recalled it, as he was already under anesthetics in shock. Green said, "I told him I was sorry that I missed him that night. It was sure good to see him today" Green said, fighting back tears with little success.
Our Director of Photography Dave Pastor of Cannon Beach, Oregon is known throughout the world for his travels as a broadcast television photographer. He has worked for every major network under the sun as a freelance photographer, some extensively for years. Dave brought the elements together when Bonnie and I were fairly young in our careers. We caught many important and candid moments with Perez, Green and Schmid when we brought them together for the taping of our documentary. I will try to get it published as soon as possible for all to see.
Fallen Fortress at Cape Lookout aired twice on Oregon Public Broadcasting in September and December, 1993. We do hope to recreate the program at some point to include a great deal of new data that has emerged regarding this story since the documentary initially aired.
For me, the documentary set into motion a permanent interest in these planes and the men who flew them. Many died; many children and grandchildren were never born. But the sacrifice of these airmen along with the rest of the allied war effort, allowed the destruction of the Third Reich, and the Nazi losers who fought ferociously for their fatherlands, for all of the wrong reasons.
This article by Tim King was originally published August 2nd, 2008.
Tim King is a former U.S. Marine with twenty years of experience on the west coast as a television news producer, photojournalist, reporter and assignment editor. In addition to his role as a war correspondent, this Los Angeles native serves as Salem-News.com's Executive News Editor.
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