Bad-Luck Bombers: Call it a jinx. Call it bad luck. Call it the fortunes of war.
On the one hand, tragedies stemming from crashes of two B-24 Liberator bombers here during World War II took the lives of 16 people.
On the other, a pilotless four-engine B-24 cruising the night skies above Santa Barbara crashed in the backcountry instead of in one of the towns.
The long-forgotten series of events is recalled in a new book, The Santa Barbara B-24 Disasters (The History Press, www.historypress.net), by Robert A. Burtness, a retired San Marcos High English and English literature teacher.
Burtness spent many years unearthing records and interviewing survivors, putting together a jigsaw puzzle of what happened early on the night of July 4, 1943. A bulky four-engine B-24 ran low on gas and crashed, setting in motion a chain of tragedies.
War does not discriminate. Some planes are shot down in flames, but others get lost or run out of fuel, or their engines conk out. They dive into the ocean or desert or smash into mountains. And they’re built fast. The Ford Willow Run plant in Michigan was at one point cranking out B-24s at the rate of one an hour.
The air war was largely fought by courageous young men in their late teens and twenties. When the Ford-built B-24 Liberator bearing the logo Hat in the Ring took off from Salinas, California, at 7 p.m. on July 3, all 10 crewmen were in their twenties. Pilot Thorel “Skip” Johnson was 25. He was well-trained but with only 44 hours of B-24 night flying.
His mission: to fly down the coast 400 miles, then turn inland to Bakersfield, an exercise in night navigation. Trouble soon began. Gas consumption was running too high, so Johnson decided to change course, cutting inland west of Santa Barbara, at about Point Arguello.
One engine quit, then a second. Approaching Point Arguello, low on gas, Johnson warned the crew to prepare to bail out. At some point, the third engine conked out. Bombardier Lt. Robert Prosser and navigator Lt. Peter Dannhardt bailed out while the plane was still over water.
With the plane cruising with only about 100 gallons of gas over a blacked-out Santa Barbara, and unable to make radio contact at 2 a.m., Lt. Johnson ordered the crew to take to their parachutes.
“No one in the aft section wanted to jump,” recalled gunner Sgt. Gail Vanlandingham. “This was our first jump. I asked them if I jumped, would they follow me? They said yes. I jumped into the night.”
All eight landed safely, several on San Marcos Pass Road. Meanwhile, the plane was circling the Santa Barbara area with 20 nonexplosive “practice” bombs aboard. It crashed in the Camuesa area of the remote backcountry, where it caused a small fire.
In the morning, three B-24s took off from Bakersfield to search for the missing Prosser and Dannhardt. July overcast blanketed the coast.
One pilot skimmed the ocean south of Santa Cruz Island, flew into the overcast, and vanished.
The fruitless search for it involved a Coast Guard cutter, a Navy ship, four B-24s, a PBY float plane, and a blimp. Wreckage of the missing plane, with 12 aboard, was located a year later where it had crashed into San Miguel Island’s 831-foot Green Mountain. All were killed. Bodies of Prosser and Dannhardt were never found.
In September 1954, hikers on San Miguel Island came upon the B-24 wreckage. The military, thinking it might be that of a different bomber lost years earlier, sent out a 12-person identification team on a Coast Guard cutter. Five miles off Point Mugu, the cutter smashed into a 60-foot ketch, the Aloha, as it sailed from its home port of Santa Barbara. The Aloha sank in about one minute, killing two of the five aboard the pleasure craft.
The remaining eight crewmen of the ill-fated Hat in the Ring B-24 that crashed at Camuesa quickly returned to duty. Assigned another B-24, they flew to China. They named the plane Bob ’n’ Pete in honor of the lost Lt. Robert Prosser and Lt. Peter Dannhardt.
On a bombing run against the Japanese in February, 1944, their plane was hit by flak, and they got lost due to the weather. Gas was low. “We crammed our pockets full of K-rations … and jumped,” one crewman said. They parachuted into Japanese-held territory and walked to freedom in a grueling 23-day march.
Then it was back to combat. But good luck ultimately came their way. The Bob ’n’ Pete crew survived the war.