On October 24, 1941, Capt. F. C. Nelson and his crew of four were killed when their B-18A bomber slammed headlong into Twin Sisters Peak near Fairfield, California. The obsolete bomber hit the south peak of the Twin Sisters in a dense fog at about 09:45 in the morning. Capt. Nelson and his crew were killed instantly, and the entire bomber was consumed by the intense post crash fire.
The full story of this tragic accident will be in the new book "Aircraft Wrecks in The Mountains and Deserts of California" (3rd edition) due for release in late November of 2001. The story tells of the events leading up to this crash almost two months before Pearl Harbor was bombed. When this bomber crashed, the United States had not yet entered World War II, and the proud U.S.S. Arizona was still sailing under peace time orders enroute to the Hawaiian Islands.
When I wrote the story for the new book, the bomber had not yet been located, so there were no pictures of the site available. The crash site is located on private property and is literally on the very peak of the mountain. These two predominant peaks northwest of Fairfield, California rise up to about twenty-four hundred feet, and until recently there was no road going all the way to the top.
The crash was investigated soon after the accident and the remains of the unfortunate crew were recovered. However, the crash report states that the aircraft was a total loss with nothing left to salvage. The events of December 7, 1941, and America's entry into World War II would soon dominate the newspaper headlines. So the bomber was forgotten and was soon lost in time.
Recently, a businessman began construction of his new home on the top of the south peak. The peak is so pointed that thirty feet of the top had to be removed to allow for construction. The road was completed to the construction site and paving of the road started from the top down. The only terrain higher in the area, is the north peak of the Twin Sisters which looms five hundred feet above. I'm told that the only reason the new home was not built on the north peak, which is about a quarter of a mile away, is because it is simply too steep and rugged to get equipment up there. One look up from its base and you would agree. The slopes are not only steep, but are covered in thick brush.
Last summer, while doing research for the story, I was able to locate the property owner and obtained permission to search the peaks for the lost bomber. It was suggested that we postpone our expedition until the road to the top was complete. So in early October 2001, Jim Rowan and David Osgood, a System Analyst from Half Moon Bay, California made the first trip to the mountain and began the search. Early newspaper reports indicated the crash site was on the "highest peak of the Twin Sisters." Since the north peak is the highest, Jim and David started their search there. They spent the day climbing up the steep slope through the four-foot high Manzanita, not once but twice, and from two different directions. Jim received numerous cuts and scrapes to his forearms and stated that it was the worse climb he had ever been on. He also stated that if the crash site is on the north peak, we weren't going to find it, because he wasn't going up that "Hell" again.
At days end, the thoroughly exhausted duo rested at the construction site and spent some time talking with the workers there. The workers stated emphatically that there were no airplane crash sites on the peak, or they would have found them. They have been all over the area during construction, and there is nothing up there. As is Jim's custom, he gave the workers his business card with his phone number, just in case something turned up.
It was a long and depressing ride home for both Jim and David. Both had definitely earned the right to be the first to investigate the site in sixty years. This was not the first time we have hiked all over a mountain looking for a long lost crash site, only to meet with failure at the end of the day. However, there is only one other site, near Angwin, California that has continually eluded us.
Fortunately that would not be the case with this B-18A. Later that night, Jim received a phone call from one of the workers on the south peak. He was late getting to work, and was not among the group interviewed after the unsuccessful search that morning. The story he related went through Jim like an electric shock.
It seems he had hiked all over the mountain and never saw any airplane wreckage, but there was this odd area behind the construction site which is just over the crest of the south peak. The area, as he described it, looked like a farmer's trash dump site with small bits of junk scattered everywhere. When asked by Jim to describe the "junk", he said it was just small pieces of aluminum and some burnt Plexiglas. BINGO!
Jim almost couldn't contain himself as he called me on the phone later that night. I could hear the excitement in his voice. He was barely out of the shower when he got the phone call from the worker and couldn't wait to tell me the news. Jim, a very experienced wreck chaser, knew what the worker had found. The sweat and torture of the morning search was soon forgotten and the second trip was planned. Jim didn't think that David would want to go up there again, especially after the torturous attempt that morning. But Jim was wrong, and David agreed to join us on the next trip.
As it turned out, the site is located on the western slope of the south peak. Unbelievably, it was only one hundred feet off the driveway leading to the new home. And the best part was, it was a horizontal hike with no brush. There was even a deer trail going right through the center of the debris. The "farmer's trash dump", as seen by the construction worker, was indeed the final resting place for the long forgotten B-18A.
I must say, we were somewhat disappointed with what we saw. At first glance there didn't appear to be much left of this prewar World War II bomber. But there was no mistake, this was the crash site. The area was on a fairly steep slope and was completely devoid of all vegetation. There was tall dried grass covering the mountain, but in the immediate area of the crash there was nothing but loose dirt shaded by the overhanging limbs of ancient Oak trees. As we approached the site, we began to find the telltale signs of an airplane crash site.
Jim found the first verifying piece. It was a four-inch piece of aircraft aluminum with evenly spaced rivet holes. Soon we were finding small rusted pieces of iron and steel. We even found a surprisingly large amount of, what appeared to be, two layer automotive glass. Apparently some real glass, as well as Plexiglas was used in the construction of the bomber.
The amount of wreckage found on the surface was physically small in size, and the quantity would barely fill a two gallon bucket. It appeared the site had been cleaned up by someone many years before. The amount of wreckage we find is not important to us, as long as there is enough to verify the site.
As we began to dig in the loose soil, it became apparent that most of what was left on the mountain was buried about eight inches below the surface. At about that depth, there was a distinct layer of ash and globs of melted aluminum. The more we dug, the more we found. Over the last sixty years, soil from the top of the peak has been moving downward, until it covered the site with a layer of dirt and generations of fallen leaves.
Some of the items found buried in the soil were of a personal nature. It was surprising to find so many personal effects at one site. We found a very mangled set of aircraft radio earphones, two military class "A" uniform buttons, a belt buckle, a suspender snap and a metallic pencil with the pocket clip still attached. The word "Sheaffer's" was imprinted on the pocket clip. Other items included a window latching mechanism and what appeared to be an engine throttle control lever with eight inches of control cable still attached.
Eight inches below the surface it was rich with
but we weren't there to excavate the site. So after a few items
recovered, and a series of photographs taken, we left the site pretty
as we had found it. There appears to be many more artifacts just
under the surface at the site. Digging them up would be fairly
easy. However, that wasn't our intentions.
We just wanted to find and document the site so that future generations will know exactly where the bomber crashed, and where Capt. Nelson and his crew died. That being done, we left the area to history once more.
See a photo of the artifacts recovered.
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