Monday, February 15, 2016

An Ausable Forks Man’s Dramatic Wilderness Crash Landing (Story Conclusion)

P3A LoonLkCrashSiteHaving endured incredible hardships since leaving the site of their crashed Douglas B-23 “Dragon Bomber” nearly two weeks earlier near the Oregon – Idaho border, Ausable Chasm native Adgate Schermerhorn and his two partners were growing more and more weary. “Late the next night we sighted buildings, but were so tired we crawled into a culvert for five hours of sleep. It was pretty snug in there. Water and stone are both warmer than a snowbank, and it felt good.

“At daylight, we dried our leggings and shoes over a fire and trudged on to a little building. This turned out to be a false alarm, as it was another empty shack. Then we found another room with a window open and crawled in. This turned out to be a CCC camp shower room. There were slats piled up here, and they were pretty soft compared to tree boughs, so we piled them up and went to sleep again for a while.

“Again we started on, this time to find an abandoned CCC mess shack. The door wasn’t locked. Hardly daring to hope, we walked in and found—a bar of laundry soap. We were pretty discouraged, as we stood looking in cupboards that were so bare we felt like Mother Hubbard’s dog.

“Freeborg wandered to the back and hollered: ‘Hey fellows. Look what I found.’ And by golly there were two cans of pickled tongue, a wee bit of coffee, a No. 2 can of string beans, and nine spuds. Then in a jar we found where somebody had broken some eggs. They were frozen and not spoiled. At least they didn’t smell. When you’re that hungry, you aren’t particular.

“The search also produced cooking fat and utensils, and soon we were dining royally on tongue and beans. We finished eating at 11 a.m., and saw four sleeping bags hanging on the wall. With one accord we crawled in. Those bags are the softest thing you can imagine, and we slept until the next morning at eight o’clock.”

The weariness was taking a toll, requiring more and more rest, but lying still as they did for nearly 20 hours could have proved deadly. “When we awakened, my ankles were badly swollen, and we discovered that Pruitt’s feet were frozen and his knee so badly injured he could not support his weight. The next day, we left him as comfortable as possible [with most of the food], and after eating the last of our food—fried potato peelings—we started on to find the ranger station on the map. We found a telephone line branching off the main line, and all ski tracks were covered with about a foot of fresh snow. These we followed and soon found the district ranger station.”

Adgate managed to get inside without causing any damage to the building. He soon realized they had hit the jackpot—bread, butter, flour, jam, maple syrup, and potatoes, plus wood in the woodbox. Famished, they soon had a fire going, and for an hour they dined on Schermerhorn’s flapjacks.

Then, using the forest service phone, he cranked the handle and connected with a switchboard operator, hoping to reach an officer at McChord Field so he could report in. But when Adgate identified himself, the operator said, “Boy am I glad to hear you!”

He then spoke with the forest service and was told about all the government people and civilians out searching for the missing men for the past eighteen days. He was also much relieved to hear that just a few days earlier, after surviving on stewed chickadee and squirrel, the five men at the crash site had been rescued when mail pilot Penn Stohr spotted the wreckage. Searchers at the site, using modern equipment, attempted to follow the path of the three men who had left, but bogged down in deep snow until the trail disappeared. Some eventually found evidence at different locations the men had visited, but it was believed that they had finally succumbed—which explains the shock expressed by the phone operator when the caller identified himself as Adgate Schermerhorn.

P3B Loon Lake Bomber Idaho crash site 01 Plane3The phone call punctuated a remarkable saga: eight men down for more than two frigid weeks in Idaho’s high mountains, but all surviving in good condition. Said Adgate, “When you go through things like that together, there are no formalities. You’re all real buddies. And one thing that pleased me was that with all John Q. Public out looking for us, we located John Q. Public all by ourselves.” Aware that war was raging in Europe, he added, “It was a good experience. We know we’re really tough enough to take it now.”

A good experience?! That’s how he characterized a lengthy, rugged ordeal that landed him in a hospital for a month due to infected toes and badly frostbitten feet. It was downright inspirational.

Air Force officials determined that the three men, wearing only “light flying jackets,” had traveled 40 miles, and on the final stretch had crossed a summit just shy of 7,000 feet, a trek that surely challenged the limits of human endurance.

And yet their leader, Schermerhorn, expressed nothing but confidence: “We never were downhearted. We knew we could get out all right. We never worried about ourselves. We could have kept on for two more days.” The impetus driving them forward against near-impossible odds was finding help for their fellow crewmen back at the crash site.

If you’ve ever wallowed in snow that is truly waist deep, or boot-hiked in snow that is actually knee-deep, you’re aware of how quickly exhaustion and frustration can take over. To endure what they did, for as long as they did, while keeping their wits and not losing hope, speaks to character, inner strength, and the value of Adgate Schermerhorn’s Adirondack background, which left him ready for anything.

Note: For the record, the eight survivors were Earl Beaudry, Edward Freeborg, Forrest Hoover, James Kelly, Paul Loewen, Robert Orr, Ralph Pruitt, and Adgate Schermerhorn.

Read this story from the beginning.

Photos: Crash site at Loon Lake, with plane near bottom center (Google Maps); modern view at site with informational panel.

Related Stories

Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

3 Responses

  1. Terry says:

    GREAT write-up of a GREAT American flight crew, Larry!!

  2. Joe Hansen says:

    Great story! Better than most fictional adventure tales. Amazing to have survived two weeks in the winter,those were some tough birds.

  3. Larry says:

    Terry and Joe,
    Thank you both, and I agree wholeheartedly … those guys were as tough as they come. Cold can be so demoralizing for even one long day, but for the length of time they endured it, and the exhaustion … the words stunning, amazing, and a bunch of others are appropriate.