Aircraft Wrecks in the
Mountains and Deserts of the American West
This Article Appeared in the Los Angeles
May 30, 2004
the Los Angeles Times
In the Desert,
a Piece Mission
2 O.C. Men Search for the
Sites of Decades-Old Military Crashes
By H.G. Reza,
Times Staff Writer
It was a wintry Chicago night when Loretta Kreft's
landlady telephoned the defense plant where she worked and asked her to come
home. A telegram had arrived from the War Department and during World War II,
that could only mean bad news.
When Kreft arrived at her boarding house, the woman dug her hand in an apron
pocket and pulled out the yellow envelope.
The telegram was
terse. Earlier that day Jan. 30, 1945 her husband, Technical Sgt. Harvey
Cook, and three other airmen died when their B-24L Liberator crashed and burned
in the Mojave Desert, not far from the Army airfield in Victorville where they
A second telegram arrived a few days later, filled with misspellings and
confusing text. It was as callous as the first:
"Remains of your husband Late T Ut Sgt. Harry L. Cook have been prepared and
placed in casket and are being shipped
. The government will pay to the person
who will incur interment expenses a sum not in excess of fifty dollars."
Nearly six decades later, last September, Kreft now 80 and widowed for a
second time heard from David Schurhammer, an amateur aviation archeologist
from Orange County. Schurhammer had found one of Cook's dog tags and a
birthstone ring Kreft had given him as a wedding gift.
The ring and the tag had lain in the desert for six decades, ignored or
overlooked by the soldiers who had retrieved the bodies and hauled away the
wreckage in 1945.
The discovery left Kreft torn: She had long ago started a new life, having
remarried and raised two children. But all the same, after a few days, she
called the number on Schurhammer's letter, which had been forwarded by Veterans
Affairs. And in hearing his account, she found herself reliving powerful
memories of a romance that blossomed in the dark days of World War II, when love
was just about the only hope young people had.
For Schurhammer, returning Cook's possessions provided a rare moment of triumph
that helped make up for all the long hours he has spent pursuing his weekend
hobby: searching for old airplane crash sites.
"I had found a simple ring that symbolized their love and was lost for 60 years,
and I was returning it to her," said Schurhammer. "Wow!"
The hunt for old crash sites is part obsession and part charity to Schurhammer
and fellow "wreck-finder" Gary Pat Macha. Like several dozen other wreck sleuths
across the country, they are driven by the detective-like work of pinpointing a
Because most of the crashes occurred long before the global positioning system
could be used to locate a site, finding wrecks can be an Indiana Jones-like
experience. The two scour military records that typically offer only the barest
of facts about the accident and do not include map coordinates only general
information; for example, the crash site is 15 miles north or south of a known
location and 10 miles east or west of another landmark. Sometimes an old
newspaper article will fill in details.
Aviation archeologists locate a site by using the scant information from crash
reports, newspaper articles and old photographs, which can show ridge lines or
other topographical features. But it also takes persistence and luck.
Mostly, the two men explore military crash sites that have gone untouched for
decades like the shallow crater just off U.S. Highway 395 where Cook's plane
went down. Sometimes the crash sites have been scrubbed clean by the elements,
or picked over by scavengers. But on occasion, there are mementos to be found
and returned to family members.
The two wreck finders leave a crash site undisturbed, except for the personal
items they recover and attempt to return to the victims' survivors. If they find
human remains usually no more than fragments of bone the two men bury them
and erect a makeshift memorial.
Following a code of conduct common among professional archeologists, the wreck
hunters refuse to disclose the exact locations of crash sites, fearing that
souvenir hunters will ravage what little is left.
Schurhammer, 41, and Macha, 57, catalog their finds on Macha's website:
http://www.aircraftwrecks.com . The pages are filled with
photos of old wrecks accompanied by crash stories culled from military reports
and old newspaper stories. In most cases, the military ignores their sleuthing,
having surrendered its interest in a crash site after completing an
Macha, a retired high school geography and history teacher, lives in Huntington
Beach and has no aviation training. Neither does Schurhammer, a construction
worker from Fullerton who reads military airplane crash reports in his free
time. But they share a passion for aircraft wrecks, especially military planes
from World War II.
A large relief map of California dominates the wall of Macha's home office.
Green, red and orange stick pins cover the map the green indicating the sites
he has explored, red, the possible locations of military crashes he is
interested in, and a few orange pins approximately marking civilian wrecks he is
still looking for.
The two men have discovered that some family members want to visit wreck sites,
but others do not.
In September, for example, the son and daughter of civilian test pilot Jack
Collingsworth asked Macha to take them to where their father died Oct. 20, 1953,
while flying a YF-89 from Edwards Air Force Base. Collingsworth was doing a
victory roll when a mechanical failure caused the plane to crash.
The daughter of a couple who died when their plane crashed in the San Gabriel
Mountains in May 1960 also called him. But she wanted assurances that nothing
remained at the site. Her father was piloting a surplus T-6 Texan trainer that
crashed in bad weather.
"Visiting the site was too painful for her," said Macha. "She took solace from
knowing that the wreckage had been completely cleaned up and there was nothing
left to tell somebody something tragic had occurred there."
On some occasions, Schurhammer and Macha can bring a closure that widows and
siblings feel they were denied by the military's blunt, detached style of
delivering bad news.
That was the case with Loretta Kreft.
"I've been curious all these years about why the plane crashed," she said.
"Nobody told me anything back then. Everything was cold and clinical. Their
attitude was, 'Don't ask any questions, young lady. That's just the way it is.'
At the time of Cook's death, they had been married just seven months. Because of
the war, they had spent only about six weeks together as husband and wife.
"We made a lot of plans together, but everything went by the wayside," said
Kreft, who still wears a watch Cook bought for her at an Army post exchange.
Cook's death and the Army's lack of candor about the crash left a lasting sting,
turning Kreft into a critic of war and the military.
"To this day, I have a very deep anger. Nobody would tell me anything about how
he died. If you're one who supported the Vietnam War, the '91 [Gulf] war or the
war with Iraq, I'm not the one to talk to. I wasn't about to raise any cannon
fodder. During Vietnam, I promised to take my son to Canada if he ever got
drafted," said Kreft.
It took Macha and Schurhammer several weeks and five trips to the desert before
they found the spot where Cook's B-24L went down, which they learned about from
a yellowed 1945 newspaper article.
As an icy wind blew across the Mojave Desert and storm clouds brooded overhead,
Macha and Schurhammer poked through the wreckage on a recent return visit to the
crash site. Pieces of plexiglass, vacuum tubes from the plane's avionics, odd
shaped-clumps of melted aluminum, an L-shaped olive drab military flashlight and
other debris littered a piece of desert that is still scorched from the crash.
Cook was the flight engineer the day the plane went down. Norbert J. Vehr was
the co-pilot. The pilot was James G. Wright. Three other airmen Carl F.
Hansen, John R. Palin and Herbert A. Perry were also aboard the Liberator.
Only Hansen and Palin survived.
During their first visit to the wreck, Schurhammer and Macha laid out a crucifix
memorial made from rusty lubricant cans that had been carried in the airplane.
Schurhammer said Kreft's gratitude renews his passion to track down other World
War II wrecks. "I'm just the guy who finds the personal effects, finds out who
they belonged to and returns them to the families," said Schurhammer. "There's
dozens of crash sites to investigate in the mountains and deserts of Southern
California. The personal effects of pilots or crew members are scattered about
at some of them. Somewhere in the U.S., there's a family member who would like
to have them returned."
Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times