During the late night of June 28, 1943, Second Lieutenant Billy Ronaghan piloted the gleaming B-17F high above the earth. Ronaghan and the other nine men on board were headed overseas to join the bombing missions in the European Theater of WWII. They never arrived.
All of the men assigned to this mission had undergone various types of military training before meeting up in June of 1943 after assignment as a crew, with their aircraft.
Their plane, a B-17F, had been built by Douglas Aircraft of Long Beach, California earlier that spring. After receiving modifications in Texas, it was delivered to Walla Walla, Washington. It was there that Pilot Ronaghan first saw it. He then flew it to Pendleton Field, Oregon.
After a five-hour layover, he and the crew again took off; this time bound for their first stop at Grand Island, Nebraska where they were to join other members of the Plummer Provisional Group. This group was being sent to Europe to join the bombing missions where US forces were already suffering heavy losses.
AND THEN THEY WERE GONE
One crewmember wrote home about calling their airplane “Scheherezade” after the heroine of the 1001 Arabian Nights tales, but it is unknown if that moniker was accepted by the others. During the dark of the night, the Scheherezade and its crew were off-course.
They had simply disappeared. When they failed to arrive at Grand Island a search party was dispatched, but they found nothing. Multiple searches across Wyoming followed, all with no success.
(Photos from Bomber Mountain crash site courtesy of Sylvia Bruner; historic photos from the Jim Gatchell Memorial Museum.)
COMPLETE & UTTER DESTRUCTION
In the summer of 1945, a group of cowboys were rounding up their cattle in the mountains and noticed something shining on top of a ridge. After going to investigate, they found the wreckage and reported it to authorities.
Within days, an Air Force investigatory crew was sent to recover the bodies and glean information about the crash. It was the opinion of the captain in charge of the investigation that nobody survived the crash as the scene and bodies showed “complete and utter destruction”.
The impact had catapulted the plane over the west side of the ridge and down the east slope. The force of the collision was incredible and catastrophic. The plane was torn into hundreds of pieces with multiple areas catching fire.
LITTLE CLOSURE, NO REAL ANSWERS
After two years of waiting, the family members of the men finally had some closure, but no real answers. There was no explanation as to why the aircraft was off-course, and that meant no acceptable reason for the crash. The families received the remains of their sons, husbands, brothers, and fathers and buried them at their respective hometowns.
HONORING THE FALLEN
The local War Dads organization placed a plaque bearing the crewmen’s names at the base of nearby Florence Lake to honor the men who died. Fittingly, the United States Forest Service approved the christening of the ridge as “Bomber Mountain”.Over the years, many family members of the crew visited the area. Today, the site is open to the public. Take your opportunity to honor the fallen, within the vast mountain beauty of the Bighorns.
The deceased are:
- Second Lt. William R. Ronaghan (pilot) (top photo)
- Second Lt. Anthony J. Tilotta (co-pilot)
- Second Lt. Leonard H. Phillips (navigator)
- Second Lt. Charles H. Suppes (bombardier)
- Tech Sgt. James A. Hinds (aircraft engineer)
- Staff Sgt. Ferguson T. Bell, Jr. (radio operator)
- Staff Sgt. Lee ‘Vaughn’ Miller (assistant aircraft engineer)
- Staff Sgt. Charles E. Newburn, Jr (assistant radio operator)
- Staff Sgt. Jake F. Penick (aircraft gunner) (second photo)
- Staff Sgt. Lewis M. Shepard (assistant aircraft gunner)
See it for yourself
Bomber Mountain is located west of Buffalo, towering over Florence Lake. Once you reach the lake, the climb to the summit is a scramble over rocks and boulders, with the crash site sitting at over 12,000 ft. in elevation. Stop at the USFS for maps and trail advice.