Searching for Answers in the Ashes:
Aviation Archeologist Wants to Return Lost Dog Tag
America's Flyways, 1999
By Robert A. Kropp
Christmas Day, 1944. A radio operator in a crowded C-47 transport aircraft sits huddled over the glowing vacuum tube warmth of a radio set and attempts to dial in a tower frequency for Palm Springs, Calif. The flight engineer stands nearby, scanning instruments and listening to the drone of two radical engines coming to life in the cold still morning.
No doubt the young enlisted crew members would’ve preferred to listen to Bing Crosby crooning his hit song, “White Christmas,” instead of radio personnel exchanging weather and landing information. Looking out of the Dakota’s Plexiglas window, he observed there wasn’t anything white about this holiday as Army 151 broke ground from Tucson- just patchy rain and ominous low scud.
Little more than an hour-and-a-half later, the transport lay crashed and burning on an Arizona mountainside. There would be no Christmas celebration for Pvt Frank T. Byrne and 16 other Army Navy personnel aboard the aircraft, whose thoughts were probably focused on relaxing with family and friends and trying to put thoughts of war behind them, at least for one day.
A Grim Souvenir
Fifty-some years later, Phoenix resident, Trey Brandt, connected with the memory of the late airman when he found a burned and battered Army identification “dog tag” in the wreckage of the plane. Brandt, 29, a self-described aviation archeologist, researches and hunts for abandoned and lost military airplanes as a hobby.
Brandt first learned of the crash while pouring over half-century old microfilm copies of The Arizona Republic newspaper. Looking for a newspaper account of a missing fighter plane, he read of what was Arizona’s worst- and perhaps lesser- known aviation mishaps.
According to the newspaper account, the plane was lost in the mountains about 13 miles southeast of Quartzsite, and wasn’t actually discovered for several days after the mishap. “I made a special trip to the area and asked around, but nobody seemed to know anything,” he said. “I talked to some pilots who were familiar with Quartzite as well but they told me they hadn’t seen anything like a C-47 anywhere where I was inquiring about.”
An avid hiker, Brandt poured over topographic maps and convinced friends to go looking for the downed plane. It took several trips over a span of many months to locate the wreckage, scattered both atop a mesa and down a steep canyon in terrain accessible only by foot.
Today, little remains at the crash site of the ill-fated transport. Massive landing gear, twisted and battered, is hidden in a canyon. On the mesa, small pieces of aircraft aluminum predominate, with an occasional crushed engine cylinder and crankcase – rusted and discolored almost to the same hues as the many rocks and boulders that dot the desolate area.
Brandt surmised that the larger portions of the wreckage were probably removed by the military – not following the accident, but perhaps a couple of decades later. “Many of these wartime plane wrecks were left as they were after accidents only to be cleaned up 15-20 years later by the National Guard as training exercises by the Forest Service, or as of late by environmental groups,” he said. “My suspicion point in the direction of the Army National Guard – before the war in Vietnam in this case.”
He admits he was somewhat under whelmed about the crash until he started poking around a little bit in the rock ledge along the mesa. It was then he discovered parachute buckles and D-rings, along with other pieces of 1940s nostalgia being slowly absorbed by nature. A closer examination brought to light uniform buttons, a watch, dozen of razor blades, a couple of razors and combs. Further probing the earth, Brandt discovered a soldier’s marksmanship medal, a Navy artillery badge, belt buckles, and a lieutenant’s uniform bar.
But it was the discovery of a single dog tag bearing the name Pvt. Bryne, Frank T., AC (for “Air Corps”), which stunned Brandt and his fellow aerophiles, who by now had made repeated trips to the site. Since the discovery, he has been trying – unsuccessfully – to return it to a family member.
The dog tag listed Pvt Byrne’s home town as New York, N.Y. A quick scan of the phone book provided more than 60 people with the same last name in the Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan area. “I attempted calling a few of them, but I sort of got discouraged real quick phoning out of the blue,” he said. “People are pretty suspicious to begin with, and when I told them who I was and what I was trying to do, I kept running into obstacles. Folks either suspected I was trying to sell them something or thought it sounded too morose. Even when you’re trying to be sincere, people think there’s some sort of catch.”
Nonetheless, Brandt is convinced that a family member is out there who may remember the young radio operator fondly and would want the personal keepsake of their long-lost son, brother, or nephew. He’s started making inquires on the Internet instead of cold-calling, and thinks this may result in a contact. Interested parties are encouraged to contact him on his E-mail address, which is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Little is known about PFC Byrne by Brandt and his fellow researchers to date. A copy of a death certificate filed in Arizona two weeks after the crash indicates Byrnes was 21 and single. The military report is full of inaccuracies and contradictions – Byrne was initially identified as the radio operator. It was a fuel bill from El Paso with his signature and reference to the crew 49 pages into the report that his actual duties as engineer came to light.
“I’m not sure if I’ll find someone in New York anymore who knew Pvt. Byrne but I’m confident I’ll get to someone eventually,” Brandt said. “I guess I just want his family to know that his service to our country was appreciated and that he hasn’t been forgotten.”
Answer To Questions
To some degree, Brandt has found closure on the nature of the accident. Through the efforts of a fellow researcher, Craig Fuller of Healdsburg, Calif., a copy of the military’s accident report was obtained.
Taking 53 pages, the military investigators ultimately placed the blame for the accident on the young airplane commander, 28-year-old Capt. Ben H. Gibson. The airplane, a C-47 B s/n 43-16151, was assigned to 1st TCC, 61st TC, 815 AAFBU, was stationed at Malden Army Air Field, Malden, Mo. The Dakota was a relatively new airplane, having been manufactured on June 24, 1944, but in a half-year had seen 422 hours logged on its airframe.
The Captain had 1,533 hours under his belt and knew the C-47 well, having spent 1,277 hours in type. On the afternoon of the December 24, 1944, the airplane was en route from El Paso, Texas, to Phoenix, but landed instead at Tucson Municipal Airport. Capt. Gibson told field personnel that he had been flying through some very bad weather and instead of pressing on to Phoenix had opted to land at Tucson when he saw a hole in the overcast.
The pilot told the Weather Officer on duty at Tucson the he had experienced some radio and mechanical difficulties, but apparently didn’t make that information known to the Line Chief. Accident investigators also noted that the aerial engineer and co pilot didn’t report any radio or mechanical trouble after landing.
According to the report, “The pilot stated that he did not desire to do anymore instrument flying as he had cleared from El Paso on an IFR clearance and had decided to remain, therefore, overnight at Tucson upon recommendation from the Weather Officer. The aircraft was completely serviced, but no repairs of inspections were requested or made.
“On the morning of December 25, 1944, Capt. Gibson checked the weather with the Weather Officer before making out a flight plan. The Weather Officer advised against an attempt to make a CFR flight from Tucson to Palm Spring, Calif. After a discussion with the Clearing Officer… the pilot submitted a flight plan to the Weather Officer to Palm Springs, Calif., via airways. The pilot was advised to check the weather with the Phoenix Radio Range Station before proceeding further.
Investigation has revealed that no radio contact was made by the pilot after departing from Tucson.
“The pilot was cleared CFR… (by) the 10th Ferrying Service Station, ATC…. A crew of four was listed on the Form 23 and eight passengers were listed on accompanying passenger manifest Form No. 96B…
“The airplane departed Tucson Municipal Airport at 1048 Mountain War Time, December 25, 1944 and did not make any radio contacts while en route and was unreported until the wreckage was sighted on top of the Black Mountain Mesa approximately 13 miles southeast of Quartzite on December 28, 1944… It is the opinion of the Aircraft Investigating Board that the pilot was flying on the overcast en route from Tucson to Palm Springs and decided to let down on the East leg of the Blythe Beam, crashing into the top of Black Mesa Mountain, which at the time was obscured by low hanging clouds.
“The opinion is substantiated by the fact any aircraft attempting to fly CFR along this route with the weather conditions that existed at the time would have had to follow one of the valleys on either side of the mountain and would not have passed over the Black Mesa Mountain, which was the highest point in that area… Due to the fact that there were no witnesses to the accident and that the aircraft was completely demolished and burned, it was impossible to determine whether or not any mechanical failure contributed to the accident.
“….It is the opinion (of the board)… that the Clearing Officer should have cleared the flight in accordance with IFR due to the fact that the weather en route was marginal, regardless of the fact that the pilot had expressed a feeling against flying instruments. It is further believed that this plot had not flown this route and was not familiar with the surrounding country and therefore would probably encounter extreme difficulty in finding his destination while following the valleys as would have been necessary under the low overcast.”
Capt. Gibson had logged 162:05 total instrument hours, but only 5:20 hours in the last six months prior to that fatal flight. “Scud running” was his demise; he almost cleared the peak by 15-30 feet, but height was not in his favor.
Glancing at the report, it appears the military had a hard time determining just who perished in the mishap. While the manifest said one thing, there were more bodies in the wreckage than the names on a list. It appeared that several had “hopped” the aircraft without filing the paperwork in an effort to “just get home.” Only when soldiers and sailors failed to appear after their respective leaves were many of the riders identified through efforts of the military and Red Cross: Four members of the flight crew from Malden AAF; five enlisted infantrymen of varying rank out of Camp Gordon, GA.; a Navy seaman assigned to Naval Repair Base, San Diego; a Medical Department PFC from Dewitt General Hospital, Aurora, Calif; an Air Corps Flight Officer assigned to ATC St Josephs, Mo.; a Army PFC assigned to Camp Patrick Henry, Va.; a Navy Chief Pharmacist mate assigned to the U.S.S. Lanier, ported in Oakland, Calif.; and a Army infantry corporal from Camp Livngston, La.
The Mystery Continues
While the return of the dog tag provides an interesting game if search and find, there are a few oddities that came from the wreck that he’ll probably never find an answers to; namely money, foreign money. On one of the many trips to the site, Brandt and a friend were surprised to unearth many coins. Some of the money was U.S. currency – a penny here, a silver dime there. But strangely enough, several of the coins were foreign. Local militaria and vintage coin dealers, Carl Simmons and George Notarpole, identified the 1939 through 1941 minted coins as both Moroccan and Nazi occupied French currency. The French coins were easily identifiable having been marked with “Franc” respectively, but the odd looking Moroccan pieces threw the aviation enthusiasts for a loop.
Just how did the foreign coins end up in the wreckage? Because the crew manifest indicates both the air crew and passengers were either relatively new to the service or had stateside-only experience, which passenger might have completed a combat tour of France and had saved the coins as a souvenir? Or did a previous rider in the Dakota, days or weeks before, have the misfortune of losing his spare change in the floor- boards of the cavernous airplane, only to become lodged in its stringers and formers?
“That’s what’s both intriguing and frustrating in researching these airplane crashes,” Brandt said.
“No matter how much information we have or how much of the wreck is left or even if people saw it go down, some things we’ll just never know.”
To view photos of my exploration of the crash site, click here- C-47 Skytrain