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The Fortress in the Forest

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The mountain range where we live is a deep well of history with incredible stories of people and the challenges they faced, many times at great sacrifice. One of the more incredible yet little known tales dates back to World War II era aircraft and a historic bail out over the Sierra Nevada.

In the late 1930s, the United States Army Air Corps was in the market for a 4-engine heavy bomber. Boeing’s prototype, designated the 299 and later named the B-17C, crashed on its second evaluation flight due to pilot error, but the Army was impressed enough to order 13 more to be built for study. After further testing and development the Army ordered 38 more from Boeing, and the massive craft came to be known as the “Flying Fortress.”

In late October of 1941, 26-year-old 2nd Lt. Leo Walker was given orders to fly B-17C tail number 40-2047 from his base in Salt Lake City to Mather Field in Sacramento for an engine replacement. After those repairs, he and his crew would begin a long, dangerous flight to the Philippines.

Heavy weather prevented crossing the eastern Sierra, and they laid over in Reno for two days impatiently waiting for the weather to clear. Although they received conflicting weather forecasts, Walker and his co-pilot Lt. John Mode spoke to an airline pilot who said they might avoid bad weather by taking a southerly route around Lake Tahoe, so on Nov. 2, 1941, the gleaming bomber passed over the lake around noon.

Shortly after, Walker reported a supercharger failure to Mode. They fought for altitude to get above the heavily falling snow.  Radio communications were lost, and soon navigation. Though they took steps to try to maintain altitude, Walker and his crew chief, Sgt. Eugene Clemens, ordered all nine personnel aboard to don their parachutes. As Walker began to lose control of the plane, he ordered the crew to bail out. The men moved to their assigned hatches to escape when the plane suddenly flipped on its back and began a deadly spin. 

Cpl. Sterling Isom was thrown through the window of the top gunner’s turret into the blizzard. Pvt. Alden Stookey was pulled through a huge hole torn in the fuselage as the doomed Fortress broke apart. Several other crewmen escaped when the tail section sheared off due to the terrible stress of the spin. The flight crew fought a sticking hatch by kicking it open — 77 years later, their furious effort can be seen on the inside of the wrecked hatch. Clemens was thrown through the hatch and his coat ripped off of him. Mode was last to leave, breaking his leg while pushing out the hatch of the spinning aircraft. He reported debris raining down for several minutes as he floated to the ground.

By ordering them to don their chutes, Walker saved the lives of his crew. Sadly, the young aircraft commander himself could not get out and was killed as the bomber crashed to the snowy ground of the El Dorado National Forest.

After their rescue at a cattle ranch east of Georgetown, Isom and Stookey immediately led the search for their commander, and with the help of forest rangers, found the wreck and recovered Walker’s body two days later. Debris from the aircraft was scattered over an area of 2,200 feet.

Walker had played professional baseball and was signed by the Cincinnati Reds, but left baseball to realize his dream of becoming a military pilot. The Sporting News that month declared “…he never made the big league, but he made the grade as a soldier.”

Co-pilot Mode flew B-17s in the skies over Europe, and was awarded the Air Medal with Oak Leaf Clusters for bombing raids over Germany. Clemens was killed when Japanese fighters shot down his B-17 as they returned from a bombing mission in the Solomon Sea. He was awarded the Air Medal and Purple Heart. Isom survived the war and remained in the U.S. Air Force serving in Korea and Vietnam. He retired as a chief warrant officer. Stookey survived the war and went on to become the U.S. postmaster at Portola.

The wreck of the B-17 is part of our shared, sometimes painful history. If you make the trek to see her, please be respectful of the sacrifice that Lt. Leo Walker and thousands of others made for our freedom. Don’t disturb the site, but take a moment to consider all that you have been given as you enjoy another beautiful day in the Sierra Nevada. 
 

 
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