The afternoon I spent at the crash site of the B-23 “Dragon Bomber” was far different than what the eight crewmen aboard the plane experienced when they went down on a routine training mission on January 29, 1943. As I sat in the shade of a pine by the lake next to one of the sheared off wings, I tried to imagine what they had gone through. It was difficult. I was seeking shelter from the heat under a tree and eating a sandwich. Those airmen, on the other hand, had to deal with brutally cold temps and very little food.
According to reports, the flight was en route to Tacoma, Washington, from Tonopah, Nevada. The Army Air Corps bomber had veered off course in a heavy snowstorm and found itself over the rugged mountains of central Idaho. Running low on fuel and having no suitable landing site, the crew decided to chance a landing on Loon Lake. The plane skidded across the frozen lake and into the forest on the far side, sheering off 20 inch trees until it came to rest some 100 yards later. Both wings were gone and the nose was smashed, but the fuselage remained intact. One crewman suffered a broken kneecap and another a severely cut hand.
The remains of the plane are still remarkably intact to this day. There are even several informative signs on site that document what those crewmen endured for 15 days until they were rescued. Surviving in such a remote location without food or proper gear would be difficult even in the summer when I visited. But for the crewmen, the ordeal had just begun.
Surviving the extremes
The crew suffered from the cold and lack of food. They found a 12 gauge shotgun and some emergency ration chocolate vitamin bars. They collected pine boughs to sleep on and gathered firewood while blizzard conditions made their outlook dim at best. In spite of the deep snow, several managed to climb a nearby mountain to get a look at the surrounding country. They were disappointed to see mountain after mountain in all directions.
On February 2, three of the crew set out to look for help. For the first several days they subsisted on chocolate and one squirrel. Hiking in waist deep snow made progress slow. Sometimes they sank so deep they had to help each other out of the holes they made. Five days out they came across a remote cabin with cots and some food. They found a map that indicated a ranger station was nearby. Two of the three pressed on determined to reach the Lake Fork Guard Station, which they did. From there they telephoned for help. The men had hiked for fourteen days through waist deep snow with little food and next to no supplies.
Meanwhile, back at the wreck, a pilot delivering mail spotted the plane wreckage. Unable to land, he returned the next day in a plane with skis and picked up the remaining five crewmen. After 21 days in the brutal winter conditions, all eight crewmen made it to safety.
Only 38 B-23s were ever manufactured. By the time of the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, more advanced aircraft including the B-17 and B-24 rendered the B-23 obsolete. If you ever get a desire to visit an out-of-the-way wreck site, I would recommend a hike into Loon Lake. Traveling through the rough country and seeing the intact remnants of the wreckage opens the door on a relatively unknown piece of aviation history.