The Lady of the Lake
Part 2

FEB 2, 1943


It was just past 4 o’clock in the afternoon of January 29, 1943 when eight miraculously intact young men stumbled from the wreckage of their bomber into the snowy Idaho dusk. It didn’t seem possible that a few cuts and one broken kneecap were all they had to show for a forest landing that had stripped the wings and tail from the airplane and demolished the bombardier’s compartment in the nose. The pilot, Lt. Bob Orr, had intended to put her down on the lake ice but with the flaps frozen and the starboard engine on fire the best he could manage was to mush into the trees on the southern shore. Now, as the dark and the silence and the temperature fell with the snow, their relief was replaced by the realization that they had no idea where they were – and neither did anyone else.

The aerial search was concentrated around Burns, Oregon where Orr, after trying unsuccessfully to find the airport in zero/zero visibility, had radioed that he was about to order the crew to bail out. But the flight had continued on long past then, its radio antenna iced up, to finally come down more than 150 miles away in a remote region of central Idaho. For five days the crew awaited rescue, subsisting on candy bars and melted snow and using the machine guns to cut firewood. They had gotten out one distress call before the battery died but they had no way of knowing whether anyone had heard it. On February 3rd three of the men decided to try to go for help.

FEB 11, 1943


Although the Air Force gave up the crew of 29052 for dead, all eight were still alive. One of the three who had tried to walk out had been left at an abandoned cabin with frozen feet while the other two pushed on. The five who had remained with the wrecked bomber lived on stewed chickadee and squirrel until, sixteen days into their ordeal, a bush pilot carrying mail spotted them waving from the wreckage near the shore of Loon Lake. The next day he returned with a plane on skis and brought them out. Two days later the two hikers, having covered 42 miles in fourteen days, reached a telephone and reported their plight. They were soon rescued, as was the man left at the cabin.

Three weeks later the bush pilot, four Forest Service employees, and an Army Air Force Warrant Officer retrieved the machine guns, Norden bombsight, and other sensitive material from the wreck. Bob Orr was later killed in action in the Pacific.

The Wreck in the Woods

Weather-proof placards installed by the U.S. Forest Service tell visitors the story of the airplane and its crew. TIGHAR photo by R. Gillespie.

The wreck of 29052 was largely forgotten until, many years later, groomed trails through the woods and bridges over the rushing mountain streams brought hunters and hikers into the Payette National Forest. As humans have done since time immemorial, visitors left their mark, scratching their names and the dates into the fading paint and soft aluminum. The earliest of these graffiti date from the late 1960s. Some pieces of the plane were carried off, most probably as souvenirs. A few components, such as engine cylinders and the tail gunner’s position, may have been salvaged for use on other aircraft.

By the time TIGHAR conducted an archaeological survey of the site in July 2000, the local U.S. Forest Service office had published pamphlets which told the story of the plane and its crew and included a map of how to get there. At the site, weather-proof placards again told the story for visitors. The B-23 was like a museum exhibit deep in the woods, except everything was real. The public could see, and touch, and clamber about on, a largely intact World War Two bomber, just as it had come to rest in a real-life crash. They paid no admission other than the effort to get there. No velvet ropes separated them from history. It wasn’t pretty, but reality often isn’t. The teeth of time had taken a toll, but that too is a fact of life. What we found upsetting was the clear evidence that, very recently, someone had greatly hastened the natural process of deterioration by cutting away, drilling out, and removing large portions of the structure, robbing it of the structural integrity that had kept it intact for more than half a century.

When we returned to civilization we learned from the U.S. Forest Service that the destruction was not the work of clandestine looters but of officially sanctioned salvors from the United States Air Force Museum (USAFM) at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio. Forest Service archaeologist Larry Kingsbury was kind enough to provide us with copies of some of the paperwork (which is public information) from which we were able to determine that the initial request had come to the Idaho State Historic Preservation Office in August of 1991 and had been for removal of the entire aircraft. It was not clear who had made the request, but under the Historic Preservation Act of 1966, any “undertaking” involving a property that is within the jurisdiction of a federal agency, and that might be eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, must be reviewed prior to approval. In 1991 the Forest Service determined that the B-23 at Loon Lake was not eligible for inclusion on the Register but, for whatever reason, no removal was accomplished at that time. Nothing further seems to have happened until the fall of 1998 when Terry Aitken, then head of Plans and Programs at the United States Air Force Museum, conducted a recon of the site in anticipation of a salvage operation to obtain parts needed in the rebuild of the museum's B-23. The original determination of non-eligibility for the National Register was signed by the Forest Service line officer on November 11, 1998 and the actual removal of parts seems to have been accomplished in September or October of 1999.

The “Record Copy”

To get the rest of the story, a TIGHAR delegation went to Wright-Pat where we met with Terry Aitken, now USAFM Senior Curator, on November 14, 2000. At the outset of the meeting it was apparent that Mr. Aitken was not familiar with TIGHAR. I explained to him that the purpose of our visit was to fill in the gaps in our knowledge about how the museum’s salvage operation at Loon Lake had come about and to learn how the parts that had been taken from the B-23 were to be used. I began by reviewing for Mr. Aitken what we had done at Loon Lake and showed him several photographs taken during our archaeological survey of the site. I also showed him the three-ring binders TIGHAR member Margot Still had assembled containing copies of the accident report and numerous historical photos of B-23s. He commented that we had a bit more information than the museum had. He was particularly interested in the interior views of the wartime aircraft, saying that such photos are valuable in the restoration effort. I told him that TIGHAR would, of course, be happy to share any information that might be of use. He did not, however, make a specific request for any of our material.

I also said that I assumed that he knew that we had found and recovered the gimballed gunner’s ball that had once been in the very nose of the aircraft and that I hoped that he had received it from the Payette National Forest office in McCall, Idaho where we had left it with assurances that it would be forwarded to the museum. He had no knowledge of the artifact and seemed curiously unconcerned about it.

I explained that, despite our pre-expedition coordination with the Forest Service, no one had mentioned to us that any approved salvage had been done at the site. We were, therefore, surprised and somewhat alarmed to discover that significant components had been removed from the aircraft quite recently and by someone with good tools and expertise. I showed him the copies of the paperwork we have via the Forest Service which shows that an initial request to remove the entire wreck was made in 1991. I asked Mr. Aitken if he knew who had made that request. He replied, “It wasn’t us. It may have been somebody like McCord.” (The McCord Air Force Base Museum is part of the USAFM system and has a B-23.) I later asked Mr. Aitken how he had become aware of the B-23 at Loon Lake. He replied, “From the recon that McCord did.”

Mr. Aitken explained that the aircraft in the USAFM collection at Wright-Patterson AFB are the “record copies” of types used by the service. The USAFM system currently has no fewer than four B-23s: one at McCord AFB, one at Castle AFB, one on loan to the Pima Air Museum, and one at the main USAF museum at Wright-Pat. All of these aircraft have, at some time, been converted to civilian use and have lost some of their military features. In preparation for making the Wright-Pat airplane the “record copy”" B-23, museum representatives visited each of the other aircraft and determined which components would be taken from each. For example, the McCord airplane will lose its nose. It was found that despite the cannibalization of the other aircraft in the collection, there were still significant wartime configuration components lacking. Apparently the only surviving examples of those components were on the Loon Lake wreck and “there was no alternative to salvage.”

He said that the museum was careful to inquire as to the Forest Service’s interest in the wreck at Loon Lake but it was apparent that preservation of the site was “not on their scope.” Recovery of the entire wreck had been approved in 1991 and Mr. Aitken explained that it would have been easier to simply sling out everything and then remove the needed parts in a more convenient setting but they decided it would be better if they “left something for the tourists.”

Other B-23s in the U.S. Air Force Museum collection will be cannibalized for parts to create the “record copy.” This one is at Castle AFB in California. Photo courtesy R. Kelley.

In the late summer of 1999 (he did not recall the exact dates), a team of three museum mechanics and two Idaho Army National Guard mechanics spent a week on site removing parts from the aircraft which were then airlifted out by Blackhawk. They had a portable generator and a wide assortment of tools. Some parts were removed because they were reusable. Others were too damaged to repair but could serve as templates for the fabrication of new parts. Some parts that they had hoped to get and that had been present during the recon were missing by the time the salvage operation took place.

I asked Mr. Aitken what the museum’s policy was toward historic aircraft crash sites as cultural resources. He laughed and said, “Well, this one sure turned out to be a good cultural resource for us.” He said that the museum's policy was to leave a crash site intact unless there was some overriding consideration such as parts needed to complete a “record copy.” I commented that the salvage done had pretty much destroyed the aircraft’s structural integrity and that a few hard winters would almost certainly leave it flat. Mr. Aitken expressed his opinion that the aircraft gave him the same impression when he looked at it before the salvage was done.

At the restoration hangar we were permitted unrestricted access to inspect, videotape and photograph the museum’s B-23. The wings have been removed from the aircraft, the interior has been stripped out, and the nose forward of the cockpit has been removed. The tail gunner’s position is intact. One crate of parts salvaged from the Loon Lake aircraft is beside the aircraft. No salvaged parts seem to have yet been installed.

The museum's reproduction “record copy” of a wartime B-23 faces some interesting and formidable problems. In converting the aircraft to commercial use, a co-pilot position had been added. Due to the way the airplane is constructed, the co-pilot’s control yoke was about three inches lower than the pilot's yoke, a unique and fascinating feature which will now be removed. Of greater concern to the restoration staff is the presence of a coating of thick black hardened goo reminiscent of automotive undercoating on the entire interior surface of the airplane. At this time they apparently have no idea how they're going to get it off.

Some of the parts taken from the Loon Lake B-23 by the U.S. Air Force Museum. Most will be used only as patterns for the fabrication of new components. TIGHAR photo by R. Gillespie. Tailgunner’s position under construction on the USAFM “record copy” B-23. TIGHAR photo by R. Gillespie.

Meanwhile, back at Loon Lake, what’s left of 29052 will degrade much more rapidly than it would have otherwise. The structure is now much more open to the elements and it seems likely that one more hard winter will flatten the fuselage. Hikers will continue to visit the site and the Forest Service pamphlets and placards will continue to tell the airplane's story, but the feeling of connection with the past will be lessened as the wreck becomes more and more unrecognizable.

The story of the Lady of the Lake raises some profound questions about the management of airplane crash sites as cultural resources.

  • Do such sites have value? Are they, in fact, cultural resources in themselves or are they only valuable as sources of parts or patterns for rebuilds, reconstructions, or restorations?
  • If some aircraft crash sites do have value as cultural resources, how do we decide which ones merit protection?
  • And how can they be protected? Clearly the present system does not work. The B-23 at Loon Lake is only the latest in a growing list of important sites that have been sacrificed in the name of “preservation.”

We at TIGHAR do not pretend to have all the answers, but our direct experience with this case leaves us with the feeling that somehow, through perfectly legal actions by well-intentioned people, something valuable and important was irretrievably lost.

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