The Gillam Plane Crash

By Jim Gill

 

 Before the "whirly birds," air sea rescue, particularly in Alaska, was a difficult job to accomplish. But the McLane with a few others did it.......

Ask any Coastie, active or retired, to spin a yarn and you will always get a response. Probably more than you bargained for. It will likely be a favorite sea story about an exploit of some kind, perhaps a wild liberty in a foreign port, or a thrilling search and rescue mission. When Don Gardner asked for a tale to include in his next volume of Coast Guard Stories, I thought right away about the Gillam plane crash.

On the afternoon of January 5th, 1943, a Lockheed 10-B departed Seattle’s Boeing Field en route to Alaska. The aircraft belonged to the Morrison Knutsen Construction Co. and was piloted by Harold Gillam, a long-time Alaska bush pilot. His five passengers were Robert Gebo, sitting in the co-pilot’s seat and General Superintendent for Morrison Knutsen projects in Alaska; in the passenger cabin were Percy Cutting, an aircraft mechanic; Dewey Metzdorf, an Anchorage hotel proprietor; Joseph Tippets and Susan Batzer, who were employees of the Civil Aeronautics Agency. As the flight began, Gillam headed north for a scheduled fuel stop at Annette Island in southeastern Alaska.

The Territory was suffering one of the worst winters in 100 years—the weather had moderated somewhat on this day but the outlook was not promising. Already there were icing conditions and at that latitude and time of year, sunset would occur in mid-afternoon. It would not only get colder, but Gillam would approach Annette in darkness.

None of these factors worried Gillam, however, he was completely at home in the worst kinds of weather and had many hours flying over Alaska’s rugged terrain. With carburetor heat and deicing systems full on, they were on track and on time. The airplane was heavy with ice but within limits and still performing well.

Several hours later Gillam tuned in on what he though was Annette radio range. As he turned to approach heading and began his descent, it began to snow. Suddenly the left engine lost power, sputtered and quit. With the added weight of the ice, the right engine could not develop sufficient power to maintain altitude. Gillam thought of trying to stretch it to the runway but the rate of descent was too fast. Unknown to Gillam, they were nowhere near Annette—Gillam had selected the wrong radio range and the runway was many miles away—he had time for one quick radio call to Annette and then his entire focus had to be on a crash landing.

At 1,800 feet the snow cleared briefly to reveal an open spot on a mountainside. He switched off the right engine, lined up on the clearing and held the aircraft’s nose high, hoping to stall just before impact.

It was a masterful piece of airmanship, but then the trees got in the way—he hit one, then another as the aircraft slammed into the ground. A tree sheared off the right wing and the fuselage buckled as they slowed almost to a halt before they slid into a deep gully, burying them in snow as a tree came down on top of them to add the final insult. The were now completely hidden from view.

Gillam and his passengers survived the crash. Dazed and badly shaken, they slowly regained their senses. Gillam had taken a terrible blow to the head; Gebo had multiple broken bones as did Metzdorf. Susan Batzer was trapped in wreckage, her wrist almost severed and bleeding profusely. Only Cutting and Tippets had come through without serious injury and began at once to free Batzer, but it took two hours.

Daylight

When daylight at last came, they tried to get a fire started while watching the sky in the hope that a search aircraft might come near. Susan Batzer died on the second day. On the sixth day, Gillam, despite his severe injury, set out alone to seek help. Meanwhile, the ambulatory Cutting and Tippets watched over the badly injured Gebo and Metzdorf, making them as comfortable as their terrible situation allowed. Five more days went by and no word from Gillam. The sound of aircraft engines had come close several times, but not near enough. A search was indeed in progress but hampered by severe weather and lack of the slightest clue as to where to concentrate.

Anguished because there was no word from Gillam, Cutting then left alone to try to find help. He struggled through deep snow drifts for two days but found nothing . . . only wilderness. He returned to the crash site discouraged and exhausted.

Another week went by, then another, with all four men growing weaker and more downhearted. They realized the possibility that an active search had been called off [it had] and if they were to be saved, it would be by their own action—and soon, before they were too weak to travel. They all agreed that the two ambulatory men had a better chance if they made the attempt together.

Cutting and Tippets moved the injured Gebo and Metzdorf to a primitive lean-to they put together from saplings and aircraft parts. Farewells were said and the two men moved out, this time in a different direction. There were deep snow drifts and, because both men were so weak, it was slow going. They rested frequently and kept careful attention to their direction of travel. After two days they had descended to the water’s edge in a deep bay, where they stopped to rest. As they started out the next day they were startled to see a boat approaching. Waving and yelling, Cutting and Tippets drew the attention of the Coast Guard Reserve vessel TUSCAN, which was on a routine patrol. The alert lookout spotted the two men on the rocky shoreline. Salvation was at hand. The men were taken aboard and the word went out by radio.

Rescue Mission Begins

The Cutter McLANE (W-146) was moored to the city float in Ketchikan about to depart on her regular 10-day patrol of Dixon Entrance. I was a QM3 on the ship and had the watch when the call came in by landline, "Prepare to get underway. Immediate. Message follows."

It was mid-morning of a working day and the full crew was aboard. We wondered what the big deal was but didn’t have long to wait as a radio message came directing us to proceed at once to the Coast Guard Base for special assignment. We were already backing away from the berth and it was just a short hop down to the Base where there was a frenzy of activity. Captain Burns and our Exec went ashore and disappeared into the gathering crowd. Almost at once various equipment was loaded aboard McLANE; to assist in the effort, we also took aboard eight of the elite members of the Territorial Guard, two doctors, and the CG base added six sailors.

In a few minutes Capt. Burns and the Exec returned and briefed us on our mission. We knew of the Gillam plane crash, which had been the subject of various radio dispatches for weeks, but by now all had been written off in our minds—an airplane disappearing in Alaska wasn’t exactly something out of the ordinary. But now we were told, "There are two survivors up on a mountain. Bring the out!"

Within two hours we were underway at full speed for Smeaton Bay, a run of only about 30 miles. To our utter amazement, Cutting and Tippets insisted on going too. Reaching Smeaton Bay as daylight was fast fading, the Guardsmen, Cutting, and Tippets were ferried ashore and started up the mountain.

First light of morning revealed more vessels joining us, and overhead several aircraft began plotting out the best route to the crash site. One of these was the "Kingfisher" seaplane flown by LT "Swampy" Creel, USN. After careful scrutiny of the mountainside, he landed on Smeaton Bay and taxied over to McLANE. According to Creel, the best route to evacuate the victims was on the other side of the mountain and down to Boca de Quadra. This was a deep inlet which spread out into four arms. We pulled anchor and proceeded there but, on arrival at the indicated arm, we were stopped by ice. The presence of several freshwater creeks flowing into the arm had caused the surface to freeze over solid.

LT Creel attempted to open a path for us by dropping several bombs, but without success. The urgency of the situation demanded firm action—McLANE would now become an icebreaker. We backed off, then charged ahead. The ice was in some places as much as 14-inches thick, and there was much concern that McLANE could endure without damage. By repeatedly backing and charging, we finally reached a position close enough to set up an operating base. No need to anchor—the ice held us firmly in place.

 

We received the good news that the Territorial Guard group had found Gebo and Metzdorf alive. It was no surprise that Cutting and Tippets had collapsed from exhaustion and were being carried back down to our location. We also heard the bad news that the body of Harold Gillam had been found at the shoreline of another arm of Boca de Quadra. Further information from the mountaintop informed us that it would take at least 24-hours to prepare the injured survivors for evacuation. The plan was for McLANE to send a shore party up the mountain just before the evacuation party stated down. In that manner they would meet about halfway down and the additional manpower would augment the group for the last few miles.

Evacuation began on the morning of 7 February. Gebo and Metzdorf had now been prisoners of the mountain for an incredible 33 days.

At first light the McLANE shore party was ready to go. Turning sailors overnight into alpine troops is an impossibility, but try it we must. As one of the "volunteers" I pulled on my Coast Guard issue foul weather gear, had a last cup of coffee, and off we went. Getting ashore was easy; we just climbed off the ship onto the ice and walked ashore.

There were eight of us, six from McLANE and two from the CG Base. Others from the Base had gone with the Territorial Guard group. None of us had any wilderness experience, knew nothing of mountain climbing, and were poorly clothed. It is no wonder then that we had a rough time of it—when we at last contacted the descending group, we were just about worn out.

Gebo and Metzdorf had been carefully bundled up and lashed to sledges. Thus they could be pulled along, lowered or held back as the terrain demanded. We all took turns at this while several others scouted ahead for holes in the snowdrifts. In several more hours we reached the shoreline where we were met by another rescue group, including medical personnel. From there it was out over the ice to the ship. The two survivors were in terrible condition but they were going to live. Luckily the path in the arm of the bay cut by McLANE had not yet frozen solid, and we were able to back straight out into clear water, where we headed for Ketchikan.

Clearly, from this stage on, everybody was a hero. Susan Batzer, fighting for her life in the wreckage and first to die; Harold Gillam, badly hurt but heroically going for aid but found only death; Cutting and Tippets, whose durability and sheer guts saved not only themselves, but also their two less fortunate companions. Gebo and Metzdorf, bones broken and flesh torn, lay inert on the mountainside for over a month -- Incredible!

The rescuers themselves were also heroes, especially the Alaska Territorial Guardsmen, led by Art Hook.

Cutting and Tippets soon made full recovery. It took a bit longer, but Gebo and Metzdorf also regained their health. Susan Batzer and Harold Gillam lie interred at Anchorage.

The Territory (now State) continues to be the ultimate testing ground for mariners and aviators. Both these occupations allow little tolerance for miscalculations. Alaska allows none.

 

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