EVANSTON — A story of mystery and unanswered questions was the subject of the Uinta County Museum’s brown bag lunch series on Thursday, Sept. 6. Sylvia Bruner, director of the Jim Gatchel Museum in Buffalo, kept the audience’s rapt attention as she presented interesting details regarding the 10 young men who died on the B-17 bomber crash of 1943, in the Cloud Peak wilderness of Wyoming.
Bruner said she has had a lifelong love of history and museums after working as a teen at Fort Phil Kearny State Historic Site in Sheridan County. While pursuing a history degree she volunteered for Civil War and Indian Wars reenactments for five years. She began work at the Jim Gatchel Museum in 2003. She is a member of the Wyoming State Historical Records Advisory Board and a member of the executive committee of the Wyoming State Historical Society.
Bruner is also the Wyoming state captain for the Leadership in History Awards of the American Association for State and Local History, a board member of the Johnson County Historical Society, and a regional judge for National History Day competitions.
Bruner’s presentation focused on the lives of the 10 young men who were on the B-17 when it crashed on June 6, 1943. The military sent out rescue teams but did not find anything until a full two years later, in August of 1945. The wreckage was finally found near Misty Moon Lake in the Big Horn Mountains. The U.S. military tried to keep the news reports to a minimum at the time to keep it away from Axis Intelligence.
The B-17 was called the “Flying Fortress,” as it had 11 50-caliber machine guns on it and carried 4,000 to 9,000 pounds of weapons, the equivalent of eight to nine bombs. It was built at the Douglas plant in Long Beach, California, and modified in Texas. It cost $330,000 to build, which would be approximately $4.7 million today. This particular B-17 was part of the 541st Bomber Squadron that was to fly from Oregon to Nebraska and then on to the east coast to refuel before heading to Europe.
The military has never been able to confirm why the bomber crashed in the Big Horns. The wreckage was scattered over one-third of a mile and so damaged that they were unable to make a final determination as to the cause of the crash. An experienced B-17 pilot was in charge of the investigation. Were they flying too low? Was it engine trouble? Why were they 150 miles off course? Those were all questions that were impossible to answer.
Bruner spent years traveling to meet descendants of the 10 men, researching archives, military records and even hiking with her husband to the wreckage site. She said the research was tedious and time-consuming regarding the men because of name use; when one uses a nickname other than a given name, it creates quite a challenge to decipher.
Her media presentation contained pictures of the B-17 and of each of the men who died in the crash. She also had pictures of the artifacts of the crash displayed in Buffalo and of the wreckage still at the site on what is now called Bomber Mountain in reference to the “Flying Fortress” aircraft.
When Bruner provided the personal information on each man, it brought WWII home for the audience.
“I chose to focus on the crew who died in the crash for two reasons,” Bruner said. “One, it is difficult to find a lot of good information and data on the aircraft and what was its mission, and two, it’s the human connection, my own personal interest in finding out more about the men who died on a mountainside and I think that is the story most people would be connected to.”
With each man’s biography, she showed pictures and told stories gathered from surviving family members she met and interviewed. Bruner said an interesting fact regarding this particular crew was that they had only met each other just days before flying to their death. Usually a crew would fly several trips together before being sent off to join the war effort.
A brief synopsis of each crew member follows:
Pilot Lt. William Raymond (Billy) Ronaghan was a New York City police officer when he enlisted after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He grew up in the Bronx and was 24 years old. He was a licensed pilot before enlisting. The New York City Police Department named a launch in his honor. His youngest sister was only 15 when he left to serve and was the family member who provided Bruner with information.
Co-pilot Lt. Anthony Joseph (Tony) Tilotta was 22 years old and married with two sons, one born after he joined the Army. He had worked as an airport mechanic prior to enlisting.
Navigator/gunner Lt. Leonard Harvey Phillips was 22 years old and from Omaha, Nebraska.
At one time he had lived in Wyoming. He enlisted in the Army in 1940. He was the only child of a single mother and was very close to her. His mother wrote to his commanding officer in 1944, a year after the crash, begging to hear information regarding her missing son. It was a whole year later before his death was confirmed.
Bombardier/gunner Lt. Charles Hulbert Suppes III was 22 years old and from Pennsylvania. He was an only son who loved drama, drawing cartoons, and received high scores in his education. He was called Suppie by his friends.
Aircraft engineer/gunner Sgt. James Alfred Hinds was 24 years old and came from Oklahoma. He was married and had a son. He was the only crew member drafted into the Army.
Radio operator/gunner Sgt. Ferguson (Fergie) Theodore Bell Jr. was 21 years old and grew up in Alabama and New Jersey. He came from a large Irish family. His mother and stepfather were in Wyoming searching for information just months before the wreckage was found in 1945.
Assistant aircraft engineer/gunner Sgt. Lee “Vaughn” Miller was 24 years old and the youngest of five children. He was from West Virginia and had been serving in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) before enlisting. He was engaged and planning to marry.
Assistant radio operator/gunner Sgt. Charles “Junior” Newburn was 21 years old and engaged to marry. He had been voted Mr. Oklahoma in 1941. His family believed that he was a replacement member of the crew and would not have been on it except for that. Bruner could not verify that data.
Aircraft gunner Sgt. Jake Floyd Penick was 22 years old and one of seven children who grew up on a farm in Juanita, Texas. He also served in the CCC and was married.
Assistant aircraft gunner Sgt. Lewis M. Shepard was 22 years old and from Florida. He was one of five sons who all joined the military. He loved hunting, fishing and roller skating (where it was said he liked to meet girls). He was very close to his mother and wrote her daily. His last letter was dated May of 1943, just a month before he died. It was said that he always believed he would never make it home from the war.
In closing, Bruner showed a topographical map of the area where the crash occurred on the Johnson County line near Florence Lake and pictures taken at the crash site. In 1945, the Sheridan War Dads organization placed a memorial to the 10 young men at Florence Lake.
When Bruner and her husband Ben hiked up to the crash site, they were shocked at the number of artifacts from the wreckage that had been removed by memento hunters. Though she said she felt a strong need to touch the pieces of the wreckage, she felt that the remaining aircraft salvage should remain where they fell as a memorial to the 10 young men who lost their lives on that mountain.