1946 AOA at Crash Hill

Originally posted 05 June 2013.

Yes, another book review, but I am working on something much more interesting (although it would be nice if these posts generated some interest for these books). I’ve been going through a partial crash report for USAF 51-13721 an RB-36H which crashed in Burgoyne’s Cove/Nut Cove, near Clarenville, in 1953. There is still a lot of interest in this crash and I am just wondering how to best present it. As I said, I have a partial accident report to work with. The full report is available from AAIR, but I currently don’t have the budget for a $185 USD report. I’m also trying to get my hands on a copy of Under the Radar: A Newfoundland Disaster, which I think will involve a visit to my local library. Plus there are a number of websites who have done quite a bit of research on this crash, so I may have to break this up into multiple posts. And finally I plan to visit the site, and write up a final report after that. I have visited the site before, but seem to have lost all of my pictures on an old hard drive. Anyway, eventually I will figure out the best way to post the information, and to keep it in small, readable segments.

On to the repost from 2013…

 

I was given a copy of this book by a friend. His father died when flying into Gander, NL, on 14 February 1945. While I have helped with the archaeological research done on this site (DgAo-01, sometimes called The Eagle Crash, sometimes The Dolan Crash), most of the documents that I, as an archaeologist, had were military reports. Bill managed to find some interesting information about his father through this book and author.

Wreckage from DgAo-01, the Dolan or Eagle Site, in Gander.

Wreckage from DgAo-01, the Dolan or Eagle Site, in Gander.

Camp Rimini and Beyond: WWII Memoirs by David W. Armstrong, Jr. is a memoir of Armstrong’s war service overseas. As an American, serving in Newfoundland was considered to be overseas. Armstrong was first stationed at Camp Rimini War Dog Reception and Training Centre as a sled dog trainer, then stationed at Search and Rescue units in Newfoundland for two years during the war. His memoir talks about his time both in Rimini and Newfoundland, and discusses the more everyday aspects to Search and Rescue using sled dogs.

Camp Rimini

This book was interesting for a number of reasons. First, I am always looking to find more information about Newfoundland during the war era and Newfoundland history in general, and this book provides an outsiders experience. Most of his interactions are with the American and Canadian forces serving in Newfoundland, but he does often encounter Newfoundlanders, whom he refers to as Natives, in his travels. In two different stories, Armstrong talks about Newfoundlanders and lobster, first buying lobster for cheap, and the second about locals who were showing off a giant lobster claw.

I can relate. I stayed in Belburns for a night last summer and my hosts were showing off a claw of similar size. Photo by Shannon K. Green.

I can relate. I stayed in Belburns for a night last summer and my hosts were showing off a claw of similar size. Photo by Shannon K. Green.

Second, Armstrong is very concerned with what most reports would consider too mundane to document, such as food. If you’re out in the cold and the snow, what you ate will certainly be important. And, if a large concern is feeding and caring for the dogs in your team, then that will stick with you. Armstrong talks in specifics about the kind of food they had, which rations they would request versus what most others ended up eating (his team often had steak whereas the others usually had ‘K’ rations which consisted mostly of hard biscuits). The search, rescue and salvage teams had to work hard and went to difficult and pretty inaccessible areas to find the crash sites (I know, I’ve been to some of them), and it is nice to read about their exploits.

Finally, Armstrong was in Search and Rescue, so a big part of his job was to go to these crash sites. He served at Harmon Field in Stephenville (which he calls Stevensville) and went to a couple of crash sites in the area, ones I hope to visit some day and hopefully survey. His account will help recreate the story of the site. He also talks about how he searched the area around Hare Hill, with the goal of climbing the mountain to locate a crashed B-24. The B-24 was not located on that trip, and was not found until 1997 fifty miles north of Hare Hill, but the account was interesting because Hare Hill was renamed Crash Hill after the 1946 AOA crash which is of interest this summer. Some of the locations he talks about on his trip are familiar as I passed by them last summer.

What remains of the logging camp Armstrong stopped at on his way to Hare Hill in 1946. Photo taken in 2012 by Shannon K. Green

What remains of the logging camp Armstrong stopped at on his way to Hare Hill. Photo taken in 2012 by Shannon K. Green

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Armstrong mentions a small pond next to a smaller pond. Possibly it could be Alder Pond, seen here, with Crash Hill (Hare Hill) seen in the background. There is another small pond at the base of Crash Hill. Photo by author.

Armstrong was transferred to Gander and worked on a number of sites of interest. He mentions two of the three crashes that are on the other side of Gander lake from the town. He says it is a B-17 and a B-24 crashed on the hill, but it is actually two B-24s, both of which and a Canso in the same area, are of interest to archaeologists. Most interesting, is a long account of working on the Dolan site, including the trip out to the site and much of the recovery work done. Armstrong talks about making a camp and using a turret ring as a campfire ring. Although this site has been extensively surveyed by archaeologists, there was no evidence of a burnt turret ring, but another look at the site and a search specifically for that would indicate where the recovery camp was located. His story also agrees with what archaeologists found, such as the pilot and co-pilot chairs about 60 feet from the initial impact point. After all of the sterile military documents, it is wonderful to see the human element involved in WWII recovery efforts, especially the small anecdotes, such as how the crew were given a bottle of whiskey and another of rum, but the rum was accidentally dropped in the fire pit, and with a blue flash and shattered bottle, was completely consumed in seconds.

Armstrong served at Harmon Field and Gander Airport. Crash Hill and the Dolan site are marked as well. Map from MapSource 2010.

Armstrong served at Harmon Field and Gander Airport. Crash Hill and the Dolan site are marked as well. Map from MapSource 2010.

Overall, this book was a quick but very interesting read. I enjoy reading about the people who served and worked in Gander, it is a nice change from the technical reports and really brings the history of Newfoundland to life. I very much appreciate that Mr. Dolan sent me a copy of Armstrong’s book; I did not know the extent that sled dogs were used in search and rescue in Newfoundland and it gave an interesting look into Stephenville and Gander life during the war.

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First published on August 2, 2013, this is a site that I have not yet been able to return to. I won’t get into the details as to why, but some reasons have been due to health. I do have a few more documents than when this was first published, so I do plan to update the information a little and share a better analysis. I do still hope to return to the site, or if nothing else, visit the memorial at the top of Crash Hill. There are still many people in Newfoundland who remember this incident, and some who were directly involved who have stories to share. I do not have notes or recordings of these stories, but I hope they do get shared publicly as it is another important part of our aviation history.

———
Adapted from Daly and Green 2013.

On 3 October 1946, an American Overseas Airlines (AOA) NC90904, a DC-4, took off from Harmon Airfield in Stephenville, NL at 0833 GMT. Moments later it crashed in to Hare Hill, killing all 8 crew and 31 civilians (Wilkins 1946). This was “the worst disaster in the history of American commercial aviation” (Canadian Press 1946) with a larger death toll than the Sabena disaster which took place in Gander, NL, two week previous. The aircraft had departed from LaGuardia, New York, destined for Berlin, Germany, with stops scheduled in Gander, NL, and Shannon, Ireland (Author Unknown 1946b). The AOA aircraft had been diverted to Stephenville due to thick fog around Gander (Canadian Press 1946). The passengers consisted of 12 women and 6 children en route to be reunited with family stationed in Europe as well as businessmen bound to assist in the rebuilding of Berlin (Wilkins 1946).

Stephenville had strong ties to the United States Air Force, as seen by the monuments found throughout the town. Photo by Shannon K. Green 2012.

Stephenville had strong ties to the United States Air Force, as seen by the monuments found throughout the town. Photo by Shannon K. Green 2012.

The DC-4 was scheduled to leave from runway 30, but a sudden wind change diverted the aircraft to runway 7. The aircraft impacted the side of Hare Hill about 2 and a half minutes after take-off (Wilkins 1946). The subsequent explosion could be seen from the airport (Landis et al. 1947). At first light, the site was checked for survivors by passing aircraft, but none could be found (Author Unknown 1946a). A recovery mission departed at first light that morning to investigate the incident and cover the wreckage. Initially, the plan was to blast above the site to cover the wreckage and human remains, but when the size of the site was established, it was decided to create a mass grave near the wreck site for the human remains (pers. comm. Leo Fitzgerald 2013). Over the next couple of days, bodies and personal effects were recovered, and where possible, identified. The rocks above the site were then dynamited to cover the aircraft, but the site was too large to be completely obscured (Fagan & Fitzpatrick 1946). Personal reports from Nelson Sherren (2011) indicate that the hill may have been blasted again in the 1970s in an attempt to cover more of the aircraft. In 1946, only days after the crash, a memorial cemetery was built at the summit and a large monument which lists the names of the victims was air lifted to the memorial cemetery. Family members were invited to view the site and drop wreathes from an aircraft passing overhead. A Catholic, Protestant and Jewish burial service was held on the helicopter for those who had perished (Time 1946). In 1989, the memorial cemetery was redone when Dixie Knauss, a surviving family member, visited the cemetery and found that all of the crosses had fallen. She attempted to secure acrylic crosses, such as are used in United States military cemeteries, but could not and the site was redone with wooden crosses (Knauss 1989).

More of Stephenville's aviation history as seen by a repair hangar and a Cold War scramble station. Photos by Shannon K. Green 2012

More of Stephenville's aviation history as seen by a repair hangar and a Cold War scramble station. Photos by Shannon K. Green 2012

More of Stephenville’s aviation history as seen by a repair hangar and a Cold War scramble station. Photos by Shannon K. Green 2012

Over time the site was lost. The hill was now known as Crash Hill, and it was common knowledge in Stephenville that a plane crash had taken place, but the location and specifics about the crash were less known. In fact, hunters and hikers had been exploring the area trying to find the site, but could not (pers. comm. Don Cormier 2012). It was believed that when the site was dynamited it had been successfully obscured and researchers were unsure that anything would remain.

Alder Pond. Crash Hill is visible in the distance. Photo by author 2012.

Alder Pond. Crash Hill is visible in the distance. Photo by author 2012.

In 2012, a small group of researchers, lead by guide Don Cormier, and based on a picture found in Our Lady of Mercy Church on the Port-au-Port in comparison to GoogleEarth images, located the site. Unlike what was expected, most of the wreckage remains. Much is obscured by blasted rock, which also makes the site extremely treacherous, but the aircraft remains. Archaeologists did a preliminary survey of the site, taking GPS readings and photographing pieces, but it was obvious that the site was too large to fully survey in the little time the team had on site. On a second trip that year, videographer Dave Hebbard and Cormier returned to the site and found further wreckage that was not photographed nor mapped on the first trip.

Route taken from Little Long Pond to the crash site.

Route taken from Little Long Pond to the crash site.

View of the route from the highest data point.

View of the route from the highest data point.

Our Lady of Mercy church and museum in Port-au-Port. Photo by Shannon K. Green 2013.

Our Lady of Mercy church and museum in Port-au-Port. Photo by Shannon K. Green 2013.

Next week, a slightly larger team will return to the site for a two to three day stay in an attempt to properly survey the site, find the extent of the site boundaries, and survey the memorial cemetery at the top of the hill. The site is difficult to access as Crash Hill is a fairly isolated site and the incline of the hill seems to be around 60 or 70 degrees. That coupled with the loose rock leftover from blasting makes it a difficult site to navigate and impossible to bring out much in the way of archaeological equipment. Researchers will be limited to a handheld GPS and measuring tapes and a compass to survey the site.

In an attempt to illustrate the slope of the hill, the top picture is of the author coming down from the crash site, and the bottom is of Shannon Green climbing up the hill toward the crash. It is a difficult hike.

In an attempt to illustrate the slope of the hill, the top picture is of the author coming down from the crash site, and the bottom is of Shannon Green climbing up the hill toward the crash. It is a difficult hike.

In an attempt to illustrate the slope of the hill, the top picture is of the author coming down from the crash site, and the bottom is of Shannon Green climbing up the hill toward the crash. It is a difficult hike.

Once this survey is complete, the data will be mapped to give a better idea of site distribution. As well, when the top of the hill is mapped, it will show the extent of the damage that time and the elements has done to the memorial cemetery, which will hopefully end in the site being redone, perhaps with the plastic military crosses that Dixie Knauss wanted in 1989 (Knass 1989).

The museum entrance is around the back of the legion. It's a great museum, well worth the visit. Photo by author 2013.

The museum entrance is around the back of the legion. It’s a great museum, well worth the visit. Photo by author 2013.

*03 October 2013 update: Myself and my team did not make it out to the site this year, we were kept away due to poor weather. I hope to get out next spring or early summer to continue to work. The presentation at the Stephenville Regional Museum of Art and History was well attended, and I had the opportunity to meet many wonderful people from the area, many of whom were happy to share stories with me. I hope to have many more conversations with the people of the area, and do much more research that will be of interest to them.

*04 April 2016 update: Poor health has kept me away from the site. It is a difficult hike and while the research is important, I must put my own well-being first. I have gotten much stronger since my health scare in 2013-2014 have hope to soon be able to push myself into more strenuous hikes.

References Cited

Author Unknown
1946a Fears Expressed All of 39 Occupants Perish in Crash; Plane Bursts Into Flames. Evening Telegram, 03 October 1946.

Author Unknown
1946b Fire on the Hill. Time Magazine, 14 October 1946.

Canadian Press
1946 Twelve Women and Six Children Are Among the Victims. Daily News, 04 October 1946.

Daly, Lisa M. and Shannon K. Green
2013 Crash Hill: A Survey of the 1946 AOA Crash in Stephenville, NL. On file at the Provincial Archaeology Office, Department of Tourism, Culture and Recreation, Government of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Fagan, J. and G. Fitzpatrick
1946 Report on Wreck of American Overseas Airlines Airliner on Mountain Eight Miles North East of Stephenville. Report to the Chief Newfoundland Ranger, GN 13/1/B Box 355 File 3.

Knauss, Dixie L.
1989 Personal communication from D. Knauss to Francis Walsh, 18 April 1989. On file PANL GN 4/5 AG 57/7 Box 2 Aviation.

Landiss, J.M, Oswald Ryan, Josh Lee and Clarence M. Young
1947 Civil Aeronautics Board Accident Investigation Report American Overseas Airlines, Inc. Stephenville, Newfoundland, October 3, 1946. On file PANL GN 4/5 AG 57/7 Box 2 Aviation.

Wilkins, F.S.
1946 Accident to American Overseas Airways Aircraft NC 90904 at Stephenville 3rd October 1946. Royal Canadian Air Force Accident Investigation Report Newfoundland Government No. 2. On file PANL GN 51/21.

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