Only 3 men survived the 1954 last flight of this 'Gooney Bird'
A routine C-47 flight from Indianapolis ended with tragedy for many and a very close brush with death for the three people who survived.
HERMANTOWN, Minn. — It was Memorial Day in 1954. Nine members of the Minnesota Air National Guard's 179th Squadron, one U.S. Air Force captain and a retired National Guard colonel decided to stay in Indianapolis through Monday afternoon so they could catch the Indianapolis 500 race.
They were on a routine training mission in a C-47 Skytrain "Gooney Bird" to pick up some K-14 sights for the guard unit.
But only three men would survive the return flight.
The flight from Indianapolis
Conflicting reports from newspapers June 1 give slightly different accounts about why the plane left when it did. A story from the June 1, 1954, Duluth News Tribune said the crew chose to fly Memorial Day weekend instead of the next weekend so they could attend the Indianapolis 500. But a story that published in The Indianapolis Times the same day said it was on the recommendation of Master Sgt. Edwin Rosner, a mechanic at Stout Field, that the crew decided to extend their stop so they could go to the race.
“They landed here Sunday evening on a routine training flight,” Rosner told the Times. “They were all friends of mine from when I was stationed in Duluth. I suggested they stay over to see the race.”
Rosner said he obtained tickets for the group of 15. It was the first race for all but one of the men, Capt. William C. Lovshin, a former medical student at Indiana University.
The plane departed Indianapolis at around 4:30 p.m. Monday. Visibility around Duluth was reported to be 4 miles when the flight left, but conditions grew foggier throughout the day. The pilots, Maj. Frederick A. Kemp Jr., of Duluth, and Capt. Victor Graboski, of Cloquet, were set to divert to Minneapolis but heard from Duluth air traffic controllers that visibility had improved enough for an instrument landing.
"The fog seemed pretty bad, the worst I ever landed in," Master Sgt. William "Bill" Willeck, one of the survivors, said in an interview with the Duluth Herald the following day.
The plane missed the runway on the first go-around and ended up banking over the highway.
"Dad said when the plane banked, he could see the movie playing at the Skyline Drive-in outdoor theater on Miller Trunk Highway, where Bullyan RV is now located," said Mary Arras, daughter of Master Sgt. Earl Sugars, another survivor.
Bill Willeck said in the story the following day that he became worried when he noticed how close they were to the cars on the highway and recalled someone joking about them being "low enough to walk home."
The crash and aftermath
According to the News Tribune story the following day, the plane's right wing scraped the ground as Kemp banked and the plane "plummeted through the trees in the wooded area." The plane crashed about 200 yards off Stebner Road in a gravel pit behind Sunrise Memorial Cemetery in Hermantown.
"The plane tore a swath 200 feet long and 75 feet wide, snapping off trees like match wood. In its dive, it apparently struck on one wing and cartwheeled so that in landing it faced the swath it had just cut through the woods," read the News Tribune story.
The fuselage ended up in two pieces. One motor was located on a hilltop 73 feet away from the main wreckage and a propeller was found 25 feet beyond that.
Eight of the plane's passengers were killed in the crash:
- Maj. Frederick A. Kemp Jr, 36, Duluth, pilot.
- Capt. Victor Graboski, 33, Cloquet, co-pilot.
- Col. A. C Ott, 62, Duluth.
- Capt. William C. Lovshin, 31, Chisholm.
- Lt. John Hughes, 24, Duluth.
- Tech Sgt. Elmer Haas, 33, Duluth
- Staff Sgt. Charles Stewart, 23, Duluth.
- Airman 2nd Class James Stewart, 21, Duluth.
Three more died in the next day or two in Duluth hospitals: Staff Sgt. Allen Christensen, 27, Duluth; Staff Sgt. Donald E. Marty, 24, Duluth; and Airman 1st Class William Lange.
Master Sgt. George Ion was in critical condition following the crash. Bill Willeck said he saw Ion get thrown past him during the crash, still strapped in his seat.
Bill Willeck and Earl Sugars were reportedly seat-belted near the tail end of the plane.
"I remember him saying that the only reason he survived was because they were back in the tail section where the wings are. There's more support from the base of the plane," said Jerry Willeck, Bill's son. "He always told me and my brother, if you're going to fly, fly back there because it's safer. But I mean, if it's going straight down, it doesn't really matter where you go. Nobody expects the plane to go down, right?"
Bill Willeck and Sugars found each other outside the plane and walked down Stebner Road to the home of Mrs. Russell Westberg. She was still sitting up in mourning for her husband who had died the day before.
All three newspapers report she heard the crash while sitting in her kitchen with her daughter. The family went out to investigate and found Bill Willeck and Sugars looking in a state of shock. The men told her about the crash and to "call the police and ask them to send all of their ambulances." She called the air base as well and offered the men a cup of coffee and aspirin in the meantime.
The survivors and their families
Earl Sugars' son, Rick Sugars, believes he remembers hearing the crash at their former home in Hermantown. He was 5 years old at the time.
"I swear Mom and I were in the kitchen, waiting to hear something from Dad and I heard it crash. It was only 2 miles away," Rick Sugars said. "Mom got kind of concerned, but I don't remember much after that."
His sister, Mary Arras, wasn't born yet, but she agreed that they were close enough to the site that "Rick probably could've heard it."
All three of the survivors of the crash were original members of the 179th and all three remained with the National Guard after the crash. The three men and their families would get together occasionally to go camping, fishing or hunting. Several members of all of their families also chose to serve in the National Guard.
Ion had served in the Pacific with the U.S. Army Air Corps during WWII and worked as an aircraft mechanic, flight chief and instructor with the base. He lost a "chunk out of his leg" due to the C-47 crash, according to his son, Bill Ion. He spent a lot of time out in the yard and riding a bicycle to build up his strength.
"He wanted to get back to work," Bill Ion said. "He never talked about it. He just wanted to keep going."
Ion would go on to be killed in the line of duty in 1975, when a high-pressure bottle exploded while he was working in the intake of a F-101B at the 148th Fighter Wing. He was inducted into the Flight of Honor by the 148th last fall for his outstanding service.
Bill Willeck ran a mink farm for several years at his family home in Saginaw. He also started and ran the Willeck Brothers Garage at the intersection of Minnesota Highway 33 and U.S. Highway 2 until it was torn down in the 1980s due to highway reconstruction. He kept a copy of the Indianapolis Times story of the crash as well as a collection of photos the base took of the site. Jerry found both after his dad died in 1993.
"He didn't talk about the crash; he didn't talk about the war he served in. I suppose it might have been so traumatic," Jerry Willeck said. "But he kept himself busy and he was a good father."
Sugars continued working for the base. He needed to have a spinal fusion 10 years following the crash, which Rick Sugars said helped relieve any lingering pain from the impact. His wife saved articles about the crash and a few photos from the site; Arras donated them to the Hermantown History Center after her mother's death. Arras wanted to erect a memorial to honor those lost in the crash and to share the history of the site, but she didn't receive a lot of support for the idea.
"We decided to put in a geocache. We've been doing it for a few years now and thought it was an appropriate way to remember it," Arras said. "So we have a model of the plane up in a tree as close to the site as you can get while still being on public land. And when you visit the site, you can see info about the plane and the crash and everything."
The Gooney Bird Geocache can be found at Terrace Circle off Stebner Road at coordinates N 46 48.889 W 92 11.451.