Bomber Mountain: A Mystery in Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains
Part 2 of 3

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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 onboard 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 continued that not until a hunter or some passerby discovered the wreckage would anything really be known about the crew’s fate.

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 who were enjoying Wyoming’s mountains and 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 likely could 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.

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