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The B-23 Crash Site at Loon Lake

by Craig O. Olsen
Originally Published in the IAMC Newsletter, May 2015

There are not many World War II era military plane crashes in Idaho, and one of those is a B-23 crash site, the only one in the state. It is located at the south end of Loon Lake, a small alpine lake measuring approximately 0.5 miles long by 0.4 miles wide and located about 22 miles northeast of McCall, as the crow flies, in a difficult to get to area of the Payette National Forest. Perhaps its remote location has played a major role in its preservation some 72 years later. 

A B-23 Dragon in USAAC markings during the early 1940s.

The story of the B-23 crash at Loon Lake is a fascinating one and deserves a brief retelling here. The B-23 Dragon was developed by the Douglas Aircraft Company as a successor to and refinement of the B-18 Bolo. While significantly faster and better armed than the B-18, it was not comparable to two other newer medium bombers, the B-25 Mitchell (North American Aviation Company) and the B-26 Marauder (Glen L. Mar:n Company). As a result, only 38 B-23 Dragons were ever manufactured between July 1939 and September 1940, and they were never used in combat overseas. They were primarily used as training aircraft, though 18 of them were converted to transports and redesigned as the 

Some of the B-23s also served as a testbed for new engines and systems, and that is where the story of the B-23 at Loon Lake begins. In 1942 the USAAC (United States Army Air Corps) commissioned the 34th Bomb Squadron of the 17th Bomb Group to fly several B-23s from McChord Airfield in Tacoma, Washington, to Tonopah, Nevada, where they were tested as torpedo bombers and failed. 

On January 29, 1943, en-route back to McChord Airfield, B-23 Dragon #-39052 with a crew of eight encountered a massive snowstorm after their midway point in the flight, and they were rerouted to the airfield in Burns, Oregon. With worsening weather they flew above the town for over twenty minutes but were unable to find the airfield at Burns. Momentarily picking up the Boise radio beam, they decided to head east hoping the weather would be better and they would be able to land at Gowen Field in Boise. However, their situation was exacerbated by loss of radio contact and severe icing of the cockpit windows. With fuel running low they realized that they were not going to make it to Gowen Field. Ini:ally preparing to abandon ship, they dropped in altitude for their parachute jump when they spotted a clearing through a hole in the ceiling of clouds, thinking it was a field. It turned out to be the snow-covered, frozen Loon Lake. [2-5] 

They made one circle over the lake below the level of the surrounding hills and decided to attempt a landing. On their first approach they could not get the wing flaps down due to icing, and they overshot the lake. They managed to make another circle as low as possible, but s:ll could not get the flaps to operate and were unable to set down in the small area of the lake. They cut the switches and mushed into the tops of the trees at the south end of the lake which bent before snapping, easing the plane down but stripping the wings from the plane outside the engine nacelles. The nose was smashed but the fuselage remained remarkably intact and came to rest approximately 100 yards from the lake shore. 

Amazingly, all eight crew aboard the B-23 survived the crash! Two of the airmen were injured-Lieutenant Orr suffered a badly cut hand from hitting the instrument panel on impact, and Sargent Hoover sustained multiple injuries including a broken knee cap, broken wrist, cut hand, lacerations on his face, and a broken foot. They made a makeshift shelter dug out of the snow and covered with wreckage from the plane to protect them from the elements. Sargent Freeborg, the radio operator, labored to get the radio working and was finally able to send out one Morse code message, “B-23, 29-052, all crew intact, 5000 feet, south end of lake, need food, clothing, axe.” 

Rescue efforts by the USAAC were hampered by the fact that they were searching for the crashed B-23 in the area of Burns and Pendleton, Oregon since the last received radio transmission was at an altitude of 70 feet and southeast of Burns. During eleven days of searching by the military, some 97 planes were in opera:on at various times trying to find the crash site, but all to no avail. On February 10, 1943, the search was discontinued. 

On February 2, the crew of the crashed B-23 decided a few men should walk out. The three most fit – Lieutenant Schermerhorn, Sargent Pruitt and Sargent Freeborg – were chosen, and they lea the following morning. Eleven days after these three lea, the five remaining crew – Lieutenant Orr, Lieutenant Kelly, Sargent Hoover, Sargent Loewen, and Captain Beaudry – spotted an airplane flying overhead. It was a Travelair piloted by Penn Stohr, a famous backcountry pilot, on a routine mail flight to Warren, Idaho. Upon landing in Cascade, Stohr reported to Gowen Field that he had found the missing B-23. Later that same day with Stohr’s help, an Army plane was able to drop off needed supplies, mainly food, near the crash site by parachute. 

The next day, Sunday, February14,1943, sixteen days after the B-23 crash, Stohr made two flights into Loon Lake, landing on the lake each time, and flew the remaining crew of five back to Cascade where they were taken by ambulance to Gowen Field Hospital in Boise for medical treatment. 

Now began the search for the three airmen who had begun walking out on February 3. A search party of five, who were flown into Loon Lake along with needed supplies, followed the three airmen’s tracks from the south end of Loon Lake down the Secesh River to Slick Rock Brown’s Cabin (located on Lick Creek Road about 1.4 miles south of Ponderosa Camp Ground) where they found evidence that the three airmen had been there earlier. 

It had taken the three airmen about eight days from their Loon Lake crashsite to reach Brown’s Cabin where they found food and stayed for three days. They then headed west over Lick Creek Summit (elevation about 7,000 feet) and down to the CCC camp (Civilian Conservation Corps) near Black Lee Creek. Sargent Pruitt, whose feet were too badly frozen, could no longer walk. After a few days rest, Lieutenant Schermerhorn and Sargent Freeborg lea him there with ample food and fuel for a fire. They followed the telephone lines west along the road to the Lake Fork Ranger Station where they found additional food and a telephone, and they made contact with the switchboard operator in McCall on February 16. By mid afternoon the following day, Wednesday, February 17, 1943, the three airmen were brought into McCall on a tractor-drawn sled. The three had hiked an amazing forty miles in snow up to their waists at times with only their flight gear as protection from the harsh winter conditions. [2-5] 

Since moving to Boise in 1988, I have heard sporadic reports about the crash site at Loon Lake that have peaked my interest with an increasing desire to visit it. That visit came in October 2014 when four of us road our motorcycles in there. Our journey began the day before when four of us – Dean Schultz and David Roylance on KTM 690s, and Steve Joyce and myself on DRZ 400s – lea Boise headed north through Emmett en-route to visit two of last year’s Challenge sites, Big Hazard Lake and Rainbow Lake. David Roylance burned up his clutch on the tricky ATV trail coming out of Big Hazard Lake. He was barely able to shift gears without using his clutch by modulating the throOle. He limped back into McCall with the rest of us closely following him, fortunately without ever having to stop un:l we got to his cabin where we spent the night. Denniis Whitmore hauled his 2-cycle KTM 250 from Boise to join us at Roylance’s cabin that evening. 

Dean Schultz, David Roylance, Dennis Whitmore and Steve Joyce at Roylance’s cabin in McCall.

Because of his clutch problems, David decided not to join us on our ride into Loon Lake since it involved several miles of single track getting in and out. Three of us road up the Warren Wagon Road heading northeast out of McCall to the Burgdorf turn off where Dennis, who drove his pickup, unloaded his dirt bike. From there we continued on the Warren Wagon Road to the turn for the Chinook Campground at Long Gulch. The campground is the trailhead for Trails #-080 and #-081. Trail #-080 follows the east side of the Secesh River all the way to the Lick Creek Road where Lick Creek empties into the Secesh River. Where Loon Creek empties into the Secesh River, Trail #-084 runs east to west along the north side of Loon Creek to the north end of Loon Lake, and there it intersects Trail #-081. This is one way into Loon Lake from the Chinook Campground; we took the other. 

We crossed the Secesh River bridge at the Chinook Campground and took Trail #-081, which is an approximate 4 mile fairly easy single track trail, to the north end of Loon Lake where it meets Trail #-084. These trails are used by both hikers and mountain bicyclists, so watch out for them along the way. 

At the north end of Loon Lake where Trails #-081 and #-084 meet, the rest of the trip to the crash site is on the non-motorized portion of Trail #-084 that extends west and then south to the south end of Loon Lake. This portion of the trail is about 1.5 miles in length to the crash site and has a lot of downed trees making hiking a liOle difficult. Dean and Dennis patiently waited at the junction of these trails while Steve and I hiked in the last 1.5 miles to the crash site. 

Steve starting off on the foot trail to the B-23 crash site. There is still much evidence of the 2007 fire in this region.

Once around to the south end of Loon Lake, you still near its junction with the Lake. It appeared to be a crossing point. There were some smaller 10 to 15 foot poles lying next to the tree crossing Loon Creek, and it appeared that you use them to balance yourself as you cross the narrow tree. This crossing looked intimidating to both of us, so we searched further upstream for another point to cross Loon Creek. The creek grew narrower and less deep as we proceeded upstream. 

Finally, we came to another log crossing Loon Creek. This log was much shorter and bigger than the first crossing log, but it sat lower in the water and had significant growths of moss on it. We tried our luck here. Unfortunately, there were no slender poles for balancing ourselves while crossing the log, so we had to fashion some of our own. Steve went first and crossed without any difficulty. I did not fair as well on my crossing; I slipped and fell in getting wet up to mid thigh. Steve documented it on camera. 

Crossing Loon Creek about 1/4 mile upstream from the main creek crossing site.

Once across, we headed in the direction of a stand of trees at the south end of the lake, making our own trail as we went. Before long we came upon the wreckage of the B-23 crash site – about 100 yards from the shore line. 

The fuselage of the B-23 is fairly intact with its twin motors s(ll attached. The remaining wings were sheered off as the plane descended through the trees. The Loon Lake shore line is about 100 yards behind the tail of the plane.

In the 72 years since the crash of the B-23 Dragon #-39052, many visitors have been to the site despite its remote location and the difficulty getting there. Many souvenirs have been collected over the years, and some critical equipment (machine guns and bomb site) were removed at the request of the military shortly after its crash. In 1999 several parts were salvaged from the wreckage at the request of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. They are to be used as templates in the reconstruction of another B-23 to exact military specification. [3] 

The salvage project in 1999 weakened the structural integrity of the fuselage which, along with the harsh winters and heavy snows, is beginning to take its toll. 

Inside the fuselage of the B-23 which is beginning to cave in.
Graffiti has taken over much of the tail from visitors scratching their names and initials into the aluminum sheeting. Some date from the early 1960s.
Craig standing next to what remains of the leY motor.

The Payette National Forest Service has installed interpretive signs in the area of the crash site which explain some about who was involved here and a little of the history behind the crash.

Shortly after encountering the section of the tail nearest the lake, we came upon the trail and followed it back to the main crossing of Loon Creek. Emboldened by our first crossing of Loon Creek and not wanting to walk the extra half mile to find our original crossing site, we attempted this one. Again Steve went first and did fine. I selected a long balancing pole and began making my way across. I took my time not wanting to fall in again, and if I did all in, it would most likely be up to my neck or over my head. As I approached the middle of the long skinny log, it bounced up and down and swayed back and forth with the weight of each of my steps. As you can well imagine, this only impeded my forward progress. After what seemed like a very long time, I final reached the other side without slipping or falling in. 

Steve standing next to a sec(on of the tail that sheered off close to the shore line on Loon Lake.
Main crossing point for Loon Creek at Loon Lake.

Back at the north end of Loon Lake, Dean and Dennis were still patiently waiting when Steve and I returned from visiting the crash site. We suited back up and retraced our tracks to the junction of Willow Basket Creek with Victor Creek. There we switched from Trail #-081 to Trail #-141, another fairly easy single track trail, and road the approximate 7.5 miles back to the Warren Wagon Road at its junction with the road to Burgdorf. 

Craig and Dennis coming down a section of Trail #-141 on our way back to McCall.
Craig coming up a section of Trail #-081 near Loon Lake on our way back to McCall.

This was a most enjoyable ride and fulfilled a long time wish to visit the B-23 crash site at Loon Lake. The DRZ400 was the right bike for this ride. Though the single track trails were fairly easy, they might be a handful on a larger bike. Having said that, Dean had no problem with them on his KTM 690. 

Researching the history of the Loon Lake crash has been most interesting. For more information about the history of the Loon Lake B-23 crash and the individuals involved in it, please see the following references.

winter2006Highlights.pdf 

1. Douglas B-23 Dragon. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Douglas_B-23_Dragon 

  1. The Real Story of the Loon Lake Bomber. R. H. Holm; 2002. http://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5422507.pdf
  2. The Lady of the Lake. http://ghar.org/Projects/Histpres/courses/ID2000/loonlake.html
  3. The B-23 “Dragon Bomber” Crash Site and Wreck. http://www.secesh.net/B23.htm
  4. Crash of the B-23 Dragon Bomber. http://airfactsjournal.com/2013/09/crash-of-the-b-23-dragon-bomber/
  5. 1943 Bomber Crash. Hearthstone Highlights; 2006. http://www.hearthstonemccall.com/images/pdfs/
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