The Spruce Mountain Mystery Aircraft Wreck Solved!

The latest research shows that this wreckage never actually existed.

Peter Noddin, Maine Aviation Historical Society 2006

BACKGROUND- The Spruce Mountain Mystery Wreck Legend

On Friday August 14, 1942 RCAF Avro Anson II JS 173 crashed into Saddleback Mountain in a remote area near Katahdin Iron Works, Maine. Three of the four airmen on board died in the fiery crash. The fourth, AC2 Earl Machan, survived the impact but was severely burned when a fuel tank ruptured as he attempted to approach the cockpit area of the wreckage. Machan made his way down the steep southern slope of the mountain for about 90 minutes (@ 1.5 miles) and eventually found an open, but deserted, logging camp near the present day Merther Road at Mud Gauntlet Deadwater. A half hour later, one of the loggers returned to the camp and summoned a doctor from Brownville Junction. Machan was later loaded on an ambulance in Brownville and sent to Dow Army Air Field Hospital in Bangor.

A USAAF search and medical party departed from Dow AAF on the evening of the 14th and located the Anson wreckage near Crater Pond on Saddleback Mountain on the afternoon of the 16th. They were joined by Squadron Leader Harry Bryant RCAF who had been detailed to investigate the crash and take custody of the bodies.

On the morning of Monday August 17th, the Bangor Daily News ran its second article about the crash with the headline “Unidentified Plane Wreckage Near Katahdin”. The exact text of the short article was as follows:

BROWNVILLE JUNCTION, Me. Aug. 16- (AP)- The wreckage of an unidentified plane was found today by army air and ground searchers who also located the Canadian Air Force plane which carried three fliers to their deaths about three miles north of the Katahdin Iron Works last Friday. No information was available immediately regarding the second aircraft, except that it was located  about 12 miles north of the Katahdin Iron Works on Spruce Mountain.  Searchers reported finding the bodies of the three Canadian airmen. One flier, Earl Machan, survived the crash and although badly hurt, made his way to Katahdin Iron Works and reported that
his comrades had burned to death. “

The weekly Piscataquis Observer, in Dover Foxcroft, ran a single article about the crash on Thursday, August 20 that stated “Search was made on Saddleback Mountain for the burned wreckage and Spruce Mountain was thoroughly inspected“.

Thus was born the “Spruce Mountain Mystery Wreck”. The incredible thing is that there is no further mention of a second crash site in any of the military reports, newspapers, or in the written/oral history of the area. Because of the historical significance of Katahdin Iron Works, extensive historical research has been done in this area and extensive oral histories collected.

The basic Dow AAF records, base newspaper and the RCAF inquiry all simply refer to the Anson wreck being located. The Dow records and newspaper discuss the difficult terrain and poor weather (summer thunder showers) that hampered search efforts. The report of Squadron Leader Bryant in the RCAF inquiry incorrectly places the crash on White Cap Mountain (north of Big and Little Spruce Mountains which are in turn north of Saddleback Mountain.) Someone later crossed this out and wrote in “Saddlerock”. The topo map of this era mislabels Saddleback Mountain as “Saddlerock”. These two factors- confusion on the ground as to which mountain the wreck was on and poor topo maps are important pieces in the puzzle in solving this “mystery”.

With no further information, we have been left wondering what the unknown second wreckage was. A military aircraft can quickly be ruled out. There were very few military aircraft mishaps and “missing” plane incidents in Maine before 1942 and they all can be accounted for. There were several missing light aircraft, and some that remain missing to this day that could be candidates. My own family’s oral history includes the operation of a set of sporting camps in the area that served as a “wet” vacation spot for the rich and famous during the prohibition era, with illegal liquor flown in from Quebec. On more than one occasion a pilot took a payment and never returned. Nobody ever knew whether he had crashed, pocketed the money, or “double sold” the load to someone else.

The most intriguing theory was put forth by members of my own organization, the Maine Aviation Historical Society, that the mystery aircraft could be the famous missing “White Bird”. Somewhere, the detail of a “weathered white aircraft wreck” located on Spruce Mountain worked its way into the legend. I have been unable to independently confirm this fact this and I believe that I have all of the documents and oral histories available to the original researchers.

Spruce Mountain (Big and Little) is roughly on an alternate flight path that Nungusser and Coli, aboard the “White Bird” had in case of weather or low fuel issues, that would have put them into Montreal P.Q.

In the late 1990’s, MAHS member Oscar Blue discovered an anomaly in some aerial photographs of Big Spruce Mountain that looked suspiciously like one of the “fuel oil drum” shaped fuel tanks of the White Bird. Air searches failed to identify the object and a ground search located no wreckage or tank in the area. One of the ground team leaders, the late Jim Chichetto, believed the anomaly to be a bare rock patch on the forest floor.

APPEARANT TIMELINE OF EVENTS- Previous documentation

Using only the newspaper evidence, RCAF inquiry, and Dow AAF War Diary excerpts, we would be left with the following rough sequence of events:

Friday, 14 August 1942

1. @ 1430- Aircraft crashes near Crater Pond on Saddleback Mountain. (Newspaper
         article puts crash at about 1330, RCAF at 1430)

2. @ 1600- A2C Machan finds camp. About 30 minutes later a woods crew member
          arrives to find him. According to the newspaper article in the Bangor Daily News
          he “talked freely” with those trying to help him. A doctor is summoned to the camp
          and Machan is treated there, then at the doctor’s office in Brownville, and is 
          eventually sent to Bangor by private ambulance.

3. Early evening- Fire Warden Fred Owens calls Dow Field in Bangor and Major Robert
    Ford dispatches a “party of medical officers and others”.

Saturday, 15 August 1942

1. Presumably, ground and air search operations (as weather permitted) fail to locate
    the crash site.

Sunday, 16 August 1942

1. Squadron Leader Harry Bryant of the RCAF #3 Training Command joins the search
    team near Katahdin Iron Works. At the time of his arrival, the crash site has not been
    located, but some time later on this day it is.

2. The wreckage of an “unidentified plane” is found on Spruce Mountain about 12 miles
    north of Katahdin Iron Works. The Anson wreckage is found about 3 miles from
    Katahdin Iron Works. (Both of these distances are incorrect since both are just over 5
    miles from Katahdin Iron Works.)

Monday, 17 August 1942

1. “Morning”- First group of Dow AAF personnel are relieved by a second who remove
the bodies from the mountain. Bangor Daily News publishes article about the “mystery wreckage on Spruce Mountain“.

No further mention of the Spruce wreck is made in the news, Forest Service, Warden Service, or RCAF report. No oral history of the second wreck exists among that of the Anson wreck. For whatever reason, everyone was so disinterested in what was found that no news follow-up or official documentation is made.

ADDITIONAL DETAILS- The report of Captain Aaron Nelson USAAF

The “History of Dow Field Volume II” (Feb. 1942 to Apr. 1943) prepared by the Historical Office Headquarters 1379th AAF Base Unit in October of 1945 (AFHRA Microfilm Reel B2162) contains verbatim, a detailed written report of this search operation by Captain Aaron Nelson (p. 84 of document, frame 1275 of film). The report is about 2.5 pages long single-spaced and very detailed.

Nelson, the Commanding Officer of the 7th Air Base Hq. and Air Base Squadron at Dow AAF, lead the search/recovery effort for this crash. This was in accordance with a general order that had been issued on April 8, 1942, putting the Air Base Hq. in charge of search operations.

According to this report, 1Lt. John Kennard, a Medical Corps officer, lead the first AAF team to arrive in the area at 1930 on Friday, 14 August. The team was made up of medical personnel with ambulances and the Base Engineering Officer. Kennard interviewed the doctor who had treated Machan in Brownville and then proceeded to the camp at which Machan had been found. With darkness, rain and no other injured personnel to treat, he left the detail there for the night and returned to Dow AAF.

Captain Nelson left Dow with Lt. Olson of the Military Police and a ground search party of 15 enlisted men at 0300 on Saturday 15 August. Arriving at about 0800, he set up a ground grid search in the area around the logging camp with men spaced about 50 paces apart. Around 1100, they were joined by 4 civilians who were familiar with the terrain and who had seen the plane fly over just prior to the assumed time of the crash.  He utilized these men as guides and allowed them to “direct” the searching party.

In the afternoon, a 92nd Bomb Group aircraft flew for several hours and “succeeded in locating the crash”. Lt. Kennard, the Medical Officer who had responded with the first ambulances, flew as a spotter on this aircraft. (The aircraft would have been a B-17F, 36 of which were TDY at Dow at this time for upgrading at the sub-depot there and additional crew training for the flight to the European Theatre later that month.) A map was marked in the aircraft and dropped to the base camp. Nelson states in his report that: “Close examination disclosed the fact that the point indicated on the map was inconsistent because of distance and general location from the point where the survivor had reported.”

Kennard had reported that Machan had been “delirious and unable to give any directions as to where the plane was, how far it was, or in what condition his comrades were.” This may have been provided by Dr. H. W. Lyons and referred to his state upon transport to Bangor, and meant to convey that no further useful information could be gotten from him. The initial Bangor Daily News article on this same day stated that Machan related to those who found him some basic facts such as that the plane had hit a “hill or mountain” flying at an indicated 4000 ft. (1900 ft actual!), at 150 knots, he had escaped through the bottom of the plane, he had gotten burned after he left the plane and that he had walked down off the mountain taking well over two hours. The assumption is that the woodsmen had a pretty good idea which mountain he had come from, since some had seen the aircraft east of Saddleback just before the crash.

Nelson telephoned Base Headquarters and reported the discrepancy. A second “corrected” map was dropped to the camp but “This map also proved to be of little value due to the inconsistency of direction and distance.”

The ground team returned at 1700 with no sign of the crash being located.

Nelson concluded that a return trip to Dow “for further instructions from the Base Commander was necessary” and he and Lt. Olson returned to Dow AAF that evening.

As a result of their meeting with the Base Commander, Major Robert Ford, Lt. Kennard, the Medical Officer who had spotted the crash site was ordered to return to Katahdin Iron Works and help the ground team locate the crash site. This group set out for the camp at 0415 on Sunday, 16 August after a delay due to unspecified “transportation difficulties”, and arrived back at Mud Gauntlet Deadwater around 0700.

On arrival, Nelson found several additional locals at the site as well as Forest Rangers and other “State Officials” offering assistance. Lt. Kennard “described the crash site in detail- terrain features” to the locals present.  “By process of elimination” the most likely spot was decided on and 2 parties were organized to approach from different angles.

Around 1230, the search team which included Captain Nelson and Lt. Kennard “found the spot as described” near Crater Pond on Saddleback Mountain. They had been downwind of the site and followed the burned odor to it. The second team passed within 100 yards of the 150 ft. wreckage strewn swath cut through the heavy softwood brush without finding it.

Squadron Leader Bryant identified the bodies and 4 guards were left at the site overnight. Captain Nelson left Lt. Kennard to take charge of a 24 man team of fresh troops arriving from Dow on Monday morning to remove the bodies. All military personnel had left the area by Monday evening, 17 August.

The history goes on after the report of Captain Nelson to state that “Due to unforseen difficulties and information gained from these troubles, Captain Nelson made a number of suggestions for future search parties.”

1. Aerial search planes should carry cameras and photograph crash sites.

2. Maps of this section of the country are inadequate in detail.  Captain Nelson
    is quoted from another document “In this case, the most prominent landmark, a pond   
    or  small lake, was not shown on any of the four detailed maps that were submitted,
    which resulted in confusion and wasted effort.”

A NEW CONCLUSION- A pilotage error and an inaccurate news report.

It is important in the analysis of this record to look closely at what is not found in this document, which is by far the most detailed record of the events surrounding the search operations near Katahdin Iron Works on 14-17 August 1942. There is absolutely no reference to a second crash or even a theory of a second crash. The air search reported only one crash site, but its location on the map was suspect due to facts in the possession of the ground searchers. There was no ground search team sent to either Big or Little Spruce Mountain, as some news reports suggested.

The ground team knew the wreckage was on Saddleback Mountain based on several locals seeing the plane before the crash and information about where/how long Machan had traveled before finding the camp. Lacking details about where he had come from, he was obviously able to tell the woodsmen who found him that he had walked about 2 hours (he stated 90 minutes later in the hospital) down off the mountain. Anyone familiar with the south face of Saddleback in this area knows that it is a steep downhill climb “hands on trees” a good part of the way down. The logging road and possibly the camps would have been periodically visible to Machan as he hiked down. It would have been pretty clear to the locals that there was no way that he had walked from one of the Spruce Mountains, over 7 miles, across the valley and over Saddleback based on his statements and condition.

Nelson’s report refers to the crash site, singular, throughout. Kennard reported locating the crash and dropped a map showing its location. He redrew it and sent it up from Dow to the search camp. In both cases, Nelson concluded that the crash was marked wrong on the maps. When Kennard returned and described the crash that he saw from the airplane, locals were able to correctly place it near Crater Pond on Saddleback and Kennard was with the ground team that located the crash site as he had himself described it.

The conclusion to be drawn is that the Anson crash site was placed incorrectly on the next mountain north of Saddleback in error. During the discussions back and forth between Kennard at Dow AAF and Nelson at Katahdin Iron Works on the afternoon of the 15th, someone apparently started a theory or simple scuttlebutt/rumor of a second crash on Spruce Mountain, where Kennard had marked it on the map. This got picked up by a news reporter and printed Monday morning as fact. We all know that newspaper facts are usually the least accurate of all sources when researching crashes. News copy simply isn’t written with the intent of being used for legal or military purposes and by historians later on.

So how could someone on the B-17 put the crash on the wrong mountain? The clue is in Captain Nelson’s comment in his recommendations “the most prominent landmark, a pond or  small lake, was not shown on any of the four detailed maps that were  submitted”.  This would refer to Crater Pond, atop Saddleback Mountain, a few hundred yards from the crash site. Crater Pond was in fact missing from the 1930’s vintage topo maps of the area (which also misname the mountain Saddlerock) . There are several small mountains in the vicinity of the woods camps that were at Mud Gauntlet Deadwater, which appear different on a good topo map but somewhat similar when in full foliage from the air. Also, the range of peaks formed by Big Shanty, Little Shanty, Little Spruce and Big Spruce Mountains looks very similar to Saddleback Mountain, but on a larger scale with somewhat steeper faces between peaks. This similarity is clear using a modern 3d topo program or flying over the area.

The key pilotage navigation features of this forested track of land would have been Silver Lake, the adjacent Village of Katahdin Iron Works, the railroad tracks, a few roads and the prominent forested mountains from Ebeemee to White Cap. If Crater Pond was not represented on the map aboard the B-17, and Lt. Kennard and perhaps others were looking for the “pond just east of the peak” where the crash site was visible, it is plausible that they matched the terrain up with Greenwood Pond between Little and Big Spruce Mountains and placed the crash site on the east face of Big Spruce Mountain above the pond. The area is similar in appearance, just at a different magnitude of slope and elevation. Again, from the air, Saddleback and the Shanty/Spruce range look like big and little siblings to each other. This error could be compounded if Saddleback was perceived as the Wilkie Mountains near the logging camp used as a base camp.

So, years of research and a few air and ground searches later, we are faced with a preponderance of the evidence that the famous (in our niche little aviation history circles anyway)  “Spruce Mountain mystery wreck” is nothing more than a rumor, or self serving statement quoted in a newspaper, started by a bad map, read incorrectly, compounded by the primitive search coordination techniques of the early days of WW II.

Folks, it never existed, except in a newspaper!
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