Adgate Schermerhorn was born in 1918 in the hamlet of Ausable Chasm, about a mile northeast of Keeseville. A horseman (he started riding at age five) and outdoorsman who loved the Adirondacks, he graduated from Keeseville High School in 1935 and worked as a lumberman in the North Country. He then attended the St. Lawrence School of Agriculture at Canton, earning a degree in 1939 from the Division of Technical Engineering. He worked as a refrigeration service man in the Plattsburgh area, but moved to Pennsylvania in December 1940 after securing a position with GE in Philadelphia.
Adgate visited his parents regularly at Ausable Chasm, but when the US entered World War II, he enlisted in the Air Force. Just 20 days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he left for Kelly Field in Texas to join the Flying Cadets. In February 1942 he began flight training, and in September was promoted to second lieutenant. He served in the Northwest and the Aleutian Islands (part of the Alaskan Territory), and in 1945 was employed in New Mexico as a supervisor of gunnery training, preparing pilots for combat. By October, after the war had ended, he was released from the military, having attained the rank of captain in the Army Air Corps.
He returned to St. Lawrence University in 1946, from which he earned his master’s degree in education. Schermerhorn taught at various North Country schools before settling in at Ogdensburg Free Academy for a twenty-year stint. A community-minded man, he played leadership roles in at least a half dozen organizations and rose to prominence in the world of Shetland horses. Adgate owned the Van Heuvel Stable, just east of the city, and founded the St. Lawrence Valley Horseman’s Association, of which he was the first president. In 1965, his team of Shetlands, Hero and Classy Kid, won the Tandem Championship, earning the National Shetland All-Star Award.
After a productive and rewarding life, Schermerhorn passed away in January 1999 at the age of 80. For all his accomplishments in the civic realm and the world of horses, it was an incident during World War II that marked his most amazing achievement, one that garnered spectacular headlines. But because it happened stateside, it was quickly lost among battle and casualty reports that filled most newspapers. Any news spawned at home, no matter how gripping, paled in comparison to events in Europe and the Pacific.
On January 29, 1943, after maneuvers in Nevada, Schermerhorn and seven other men were flying back to McChord Field in Tacoma, Washington, in a Douglas B-23 “Dragon Bomber,” but ran into trouble. Skies were heavily overcast, and icing of the plane’s wings began to occur. They lost their radio receiver, and couldn’t escape the icing issues, which continued everywhere between 9,000 and 18,000 feet.
Unable to maintain altitude, they sought a place to make an emergency landing. After sighting a town, they circled overhead for 15 minutes, but blizzard-like conditions forced them to stay aloft. It was deemed unsafe to continue flying at such low altitude, so they began climbing to the northeast, hoping to escape the bad weather. At just under 20,000 feet they rose above the storm, but icing continued, and the plane was again unable to maintain altitude. The order was given to don parachutes and prepare to jump.
But a hole in the cloud cover revealed a potential landing spot, an open area that proved to be the surface of a frozen lake. As the lowering cloud ceiling forced them down and fuel ran low, icing issues caused the right engine to catch fire. The pilot, First Lieutenant Robert Orr, told the men to remove their parachutes and instead prepare for a crash landing.
An initial attempt to put down on the ice was foiled when the flaps failed to operate. A second try yielded the same result, and with few options left, Orr decided on using the treetops to help cushion their “landing.” As they made contact, the trees — many with 20-inch-diameter trunks — bent and resisted until finally snapping, at the same time tearing the wings from the plane.
It crashed to the ground, but except for the bombardier’s compartment (at the nose), which was crushed, the fuselage remained intact. The pilot’s hand was badly cut, and another man suffered a broken kneecap, wrist, and foot, plus several cuts. The others were unhurt.
The malfunctioning flaps may have saved their lives, for as Adgate later noted, “It was a good thing we landed in the trees instead of the lake, or we would have all went to the bottom. The ice was thin enough to break with a big stick.”
Moving quickly from the crash in fear of an explosion, they gathered wood — in snow that was waist deep — to build a fire while Schermerhorn led first-aid efforts.
When it was safe again to enter the plane, they found two shotguns and a few emergency-ration chocolate bars reinforced with vitamins. During the first night, they dozed around the fire, trying to stay warm. The next day they built a lean-to from plane parts and tree branches. In hopes of going for help, they tried to fashion snowshoes from metal parts and wire netting, but the effort failed, and with heavy snow falling constantly, conditions were worsening. Attempts to leave the site were in vain as men floundered and sank in snow so deep, the others had to pull them out. The situation was beginning to appear hopeless.
Two days after the crash, one of the men, Edward Freeborg, fixed the radio long enough to send a single message: “Crew intact, need food, clothing, and an axe. At the south end of a lake near Boise, Idaho.” It was an educated guess at their location, but in truth, they were over 100 miles north of Boise. They also had no idea if the message was received by anyone.
Freeborg assessed their predicament in somber terms: “The future was none too bright for us, with no food … half starved, half frozen, and a regular blizzard going on about us.”
Next: The Trek of a Lifetime
Photo: Adgate Schermerhorn (from Edward Freeborg scrapbook)