Aircraft Wrecks in the Mountains and Deserts of the American West
On January 28, 1947 USMC Capt. Wilbur J. “Gus” Thomas and M/Sgt Morgan W. Hopwood departed North Island NAS en route to El Toro MCAS, flying Grumman F7F-3P Bu No 80427. A powerful winter storm was pounding Southern California with moderate to heavy rain and gusty winds. As Captain Thomas approached El Toro he had successfully lined up for a landing, but he was about 200’ low and collided with a mountain ridge SE of Santiago Peak. There was no post impact fire and the F7F-3P lay broken into three large pieces.
Avid Orange County hunter and hiker Bob Pargee visited the crash site in the early 1950’s and described the wreck as partly intact, the overall midnight blue paint scheme still looking fresh. Yellow X’s had been painted on the wings and tail marking the F7F-3P wreckage as “known and not be reported”. Sometime in the mid to late 1950’s most of the wreckage was removed for salvage value by a civilian, leaving only 2-3% at the site today. The last vestiges of a brush fire that burned over the crash site several years ago has given way to new growth chaparral that now covers the entire site.
On May 27, 2010 the Project Remembrance Team that included G. Pat Macha, Tom Maloney, Dave Mihalik, John Walker, and Jay Gentile hiked to the crash site to pay our respects to the memories of Capt. Thomas age 26 and MSgt Hopwood age 27. We then worked to determine the disposition and quantity of the remaining wreckage.
Capt. Gus Thomas was highly decorated having earned the Navy Cross and the Distinguished Flying Cross for destroying 18.5, Japanese aircraft while serving with VMF-213 in the South Pacific Theater of Operations. Capt. Thomas was assigned to VMP-254 a photo reconnaissance squadron assigned to El Toro MAS at the time of his death.
Findings: Capt. Thomas was lined up for the approach to El Toro, but he was several hundred feet too low. The crash site is not on the SE flank of Santiago Peak as reported in all official USN documents, but near another peak more than six miles to the southeast of “Old Saddleback”. Weather was a factor in this accident. 1-2% of Bu No 80427 remains at 4,400’ MSL in rugged chaparral covered terrain. Ink stamped prefix numbers confirmed the wreckage to be that of a Grumman F7F aircraft.
Site visitations: March 2009 and May 2010.
Special thanks: Bob Pargee, Dan McAnarney, and Craig Fuller of AAIR.