1947 Naval Plane Crash

Written and submitted by life-long Callahan resident, Shirley Gilmore and published in Liz Bowen's Blog (lizbowen.com).  Thank you Shirley and Liz.

This story is of the crash of a Navy Torpedo Bomber that was being ferried from Sand Point Naval Base in the State of Washington to Alameda, CA. It was inspired by the crash story of the F6F Grumman Hellcat on Nov. 14, 1945 in the Boulder Peak area of the Trinity Mountains as reported in the July 17, 2009 issue of the Siskiyou Daily News.

The drama of the Naval Bomber took place on June 6, 1947 near the tiny village of Callahan nestled in the rugged mountains of the Northern California coast range, where this bizarre incident began.

A severe summer storm swept in from the southwest that morning with strong winds and heavy rains. You could hear the sounds of the propeller-driven aircraft bucking the headwinds on the southbound flight as it came down to earth in waves reflecting their grim struggle against the storm that was following the ridges between Siskiyou and Trinity counties.

About 4 p.m. that afternoon on this day of June 6, 1947, Jeff Hanke, a ranch hand at the Frank Hayden Ranch just south of Callahan, was in the woodshed splitting wood for the kitchen stove. Busy at his work, he was startled by a voice behind him. The man was dressed in Naval uniform and Jeff did a double take, because — what was a man from the United States Navy doing out here at this isolated ranch in a bedraggled condition and barefoot besides?

After recovering from his surprise, Jeff asked where he came from and the stranger pointed to the sky and said, “Up there.” And to the next question, “Where are you headed?” The reply was, “I haven’t the slightest idea.”

The name of the stranger from the sky was Howard Coffman, Chief Pharmacist’s Mate of the U.S. Navy, stationed at Sand Point Naval Base and that he and R.D. Barlen, also a Chief Pharmacist’s Mate, were hitching a ride aboard the Naval Torpedo Bomber to the Air Station in Alameda.

He had landed in the East Fork of the Scott River about two miles upstream from the Frank Hayden Ranch and walked barefoot to the ranch. The reason he had no shoes was because he had never made a parachute jump before and as instructed by the pilot, he had to jump head-first into the sub-freezing atmosphere. The sudden jerk upright when the chute opened snapped his boots off, as well as causing him to lose his wallet and anything else that was loose.

Coffman revealed the pilot of the plane was First Lieutenant Robert Hewitt, United States Marine Corps and that Hewitt had tried to land at Medford, Oregon to refuel, but was unable to do so because of weather conditions. So he continued on his course south climbing to 20,000 feet to get above the clouds. But after about another 45 minutes into the flight, Lt. Hewitt told Coffman and Barlen that he was almost out of fuel and that they would have to jump. He also informed them that he was changing course to due west. This information, he said, was for the purpose that if any of them were found alive, it would aid rescue parties in locating any remaining survivors.

Search parties were organized starting at the U.S. Forest Ranger Station in Callahan and the Salmon River Stations.

George Hendricks, from the Callahan USFS Station, drove up what is now the old Scott Mt. Road, where he found Chief Barlen close to a point in the road known as Masterson Divide. His parachute had become entangled in the top of a huge fir tree and due to his drift in the wind he had swung back into the branches of the tree like a pendulum. He was not injured at that point and had freed himself from the chute, but while attempting to get out of the tree, he had fallen resulting in getting skinned-up and breaking his knee-cap.

One unit of the search party made a startling find, while driving up a seldom-used mine road in the head-waters stream called Little Mill Creek. There in the middle of the 10-foot wide path was the canopy from the torpedo bomber. Where they found the canopy in relation to where the men were found established that the parachutists had been carried at least five miles to the northeast by the violent wind and the fact the canopy landed in the middle of the only road in existence along a 40-mile stretch of the plane’s flight path had to constitute a major miracle.

But in addition, its location established the approximate position of the plane, when the two Naval men jumped from it, as well as providing the critical information that the area of the search for the pilot and plane would have to be shifted far to the west, which would be in the neighboring Salmon River watershed. This proved to be the case, when the pilot walked to the Clarence Mill residence at the junction of the east and south forks of the Salmon River with a few bruises and torn clothing.

This was not reported until Saturday morning, June 7, 1947, by Ranger Arment at the Sawyers Bar Station by telephone, because communications were not what they are in 2010.

The plane went down and burned nearby to where the pilot landed, when he parachuted out of the plane.

And so this story ends with the safe parachute descent of these three men, the pilot and his two passengers, into terrain where experienced flyers will tell you survival under like conditions for any of them would be extremely difficult.

Excerpts of this story were taken from the book “Along Our History’s Trail” written and published by my father, Earnest A. Hayden in 1984.

Being 12 years old at the time of this incident, some of the story is from my recollection.