The day World War II came to Placerville - January 29, 1943

by Placerville Newswire / Jan 28, 2017 / comments

(Ron Briggs)

January 29, 1943 is when Placerville entered its name in the long list of cities suffering World War II casualties. It happened in a small field nestled between the Brandon and Wallace Ranch’s off Highway 49 1 ½ miles off Wallace Road four mile north of Placerville half way to Coloma.

Around 3 pm Captain Lawrence Wagner lifted his Mitchell B-25D US Army Air Corps bomber off from Hammer Field in Fresno at 3 pm heading to Medford, Oregon then onward to home at McChord Field near Tacoma, Washington. He and his officers: co-pilot 1st Lt Alto Dolan and bombardier 2nd Lt Dennis Sattler sat through an 8 am weather briefing indicating inclement weather ahead with icing conditions between 6,000 and 15,000 feet. They decided to return to the afternoon weather briefing to see if conditions had changed, they hadn’t. However, the weather officer suggested flying over the storm at 20,000 feet for the majority of the one and a half hour flight would enable the bomber to safely fly over the inclement weather. Capt Wagner said if things got too rough they could turn bail and with a smile said “we can always bail out”.

At 2:35pm the decision to go was made and the plane lifted off shortly before 3pm. Staff Sergeant Harold Glarum was the flight engineer; 2nd Lt. D.O. Stattler was the navigator; in radio operator chair sat Technical Sgt Robert Morris and four feet away S/Sgt Robert Huddleston sat in the top gun turret and S/Sgt George Ostrowski was furthest back in the tail, sitting near the exit. Their cargo consisted of military supplies and munitions.

The plane immediately climbed to 8,500 breaking through first layer of clouds minutes later as they approached Sacramento the plane entered back into the storm and began ascending to 17,500 feet just five minutes from Redding Capt Wagner decided the weather ahead was just too dangerous and headed his plane back to Fresno.

In his effort to get above the clouds the plane reached 21,000 feet but they were still in the clouds they crew began getting cold and some of the men did not have oxygen mask which had been stored on a platform beyond the bomb bay doors and Glarum could not get to them. Capt Wagner descended the plane to 18,000 flying into ice, sleet and snow. Glarum reported the de-icers were working fine. Huddleston however saw ice forming on their vertical stabilizers showing Ostrowski and Morris who asked if the Capt “was aware of it”? The plane continued dropping to 10,000 feet into the heart of the storm. Glarum said “the storm was tossing us around something terrible!”. Huddleston added “The ship began to act up plenty!”. The rudder and elevators began freezing up with ice. Capt Wagner and co-pilot Dolan battled to control the plane when suddenly, it went into a dive. Any item in the plane not locked down went flying around toolboxes, papers and eventually equipment from the floor slammed into the ceiling and hung there. Morris and Huddleston also left the floor as they too were toss about.

The plane reached 550mph screaming downward. It took both Wagner and Dolan to pull their yokes back to pull out of the dive successfully. But they were still deep into the storm as everything was freezing up the pilots feverishly worked to keep the plane straight. The air speed indicator flight indicator, gyral compass and radio had died. Capt Wagner knew he was low about 6,000 feet and not sure of its exact location. He did know he was flying blind without his instruments, near mountains, and no longer in control. It was time to get out.

Around 4:15 pm Capt Wagner gave the order to abandon ship. He motioned to the guys in back to get out and told Dolan to get the guys in front. Glarum saw Dolan get out of his seat, but then Glarum was thrown to the ceiling and back down to the floor. Dolan told Glarum to pull emergency hatch. He managed to do this and was thrown back to the ceiling and then right back to the hatch. Sattler pushed his way past Glarum and jumped out. Glarum fell down again but got a foot out of the hatch and found himself tumbling out of the plane. Dolan followed. In the back, things were just as chaotic Huddleston saw the Captain give the order to jump and groped his way back to tell Ostrowski to pull the emergency exit handle. Ostowski wrenched it open and followed as Huddleston crawled out. Glarum was drifting in his parachute when he heard the explosion and when he came out of the clouds he saw the burning airplane below him.

At 550 mph the inverted bomber went straight down creating a crater 30 to 40 feet deep. Glarum saw orange flames and witnessed “machine gun ammo exploding”. At impact the destruction of the aircraft was total. Capt Wagner and radio operator T/Sgt Robert Morris did not make it. Their remains were found at the site. They did not die in combat nor in a distant land, they died serving their country in Clyde Wallace’s field around 4:15pm, 29-1-43.

Sattler was the first out of the plane and also heard the big ship explode as he was riding his parachute landing near a farm house in the Cold Springs area and was taken to Placerville by a farmer. Glarum rode his parachute about three minutes. He saw a couple houses on the way down and after landing in the brush went uphill to find the houses as men from the houses shouted assistance around 9 pm they took him to the Sheriff Office in Placerville. 

Dolan, Huddleston and Ostrowski all drifted to the northeast across the South Fork of the American River Canyon and landed in the Kelsey area. Members of the El Dorado Posse found all three by 9:30 pm. Only five of the seven crew members were accounted for.

The B25 carried the top secret Norton bomb site and after the bodies of Capt Wagner and T/Sgt Morris the Army arrived to recover and secure the crash site with help from local authorities. The debris field was wide and souvenirs were taken by all who could.

In April of 1943 Captain Wagner was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross posthumously and was presented to his father. It was felt that Wagner had saved the lives of the five of his crew by giving the order to bail out.

The majority of the above was written by Monte Hendricks “Bomber Field”

For me when I first moved to Clyde Wallace’s ranch in 1971 my friend Fred Cook who’s family owned the Brandon Ranch told me stories about the crash and even had souvenirs in his barn. When I moved back to my family’s farm, the Wallace Ranch in 1996, Kelly and I began full time farming and I always thought the crash occurred on Freds’ place.

After Monte Hendricks shared his story and research material it unraveled a mystery of why in one location of our 100 acre farm did loamy decomposed granite exist. Clyde Wallace, while sympathetic to the tragedy forced the Army to fill the crater made in his field, so the Army trucked up hundreds of thousands of pounds of material from Sacramento.

Next to our cherry orchard we planted in 1980 was a large undulation with loamy decomposed granite when the rest of the farm was rich deep dark topsoil. It never occurred to me this was the crash site my friend Fred spun stories over.

Monte Hendricks is an avid cross country skier whose hobby is finding lost crash sites. His wife Julie was a teacher at Markham middle school who taught all of our sons. Monte called to disclose his discovery and share the story.

I decided to remind all of us who live in El Dorado County that on January 29, 1943 two airmen became World War II casualties on Wallace Road four miles north of Placerville.

All of El Dorado County salutes you Captain Lawrence T. Wagner of Troy, Kansas and Technical Sergeant Robert L. Morris, heroes of World War II. Rest in Peace.

Ron Briggs
El Dorado Hills, California