75-Year-Old San Miguel Island Military Crash Remembered
Santa Cruz Island Foundation Dedicates Memorial at Maritime Museum on July 5
Seventy-five years ago, on July 5, 1943, at 7:17 a.m., a B-24 Liberator bomber took off from Bakersfield with 12 servicemen onboard. They were searching for another B-24, called “the Eddie Rickenbacker,” that had gone missing a day earlier near Santa Barbara; the model, a contemporary report would admit, “was not regarded as the safest aircraft in the sky.” Around 8 a.m., the Liberator flew over S.B. but was never heard from again.
Eight months later, in March 1944, the wreckage was found by shepherd Robert Brooks on the side of Green Mountain, the highest point on San Miguel Island. The next month, the victims’ remains were sent home unceremoniously and without much explanation — in one case, a casket sent to a grieving mother in North Dakota contained a uniform, some sand, and four teeth. “These men were never acknowledged,” said historian Marla Daily of the Santa Cruz Island Foundation. “There was just a tiny news article, and that’s it — no accolades or thanks.”
Daily is changing that on July 5 at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum by unveiling a memorial to the 12 men who died: Douglas Thornburg (who’d survived another B-24 crash less than a month earlier), Floyd P. Hart, Noah H. Yost, Bose Gorman, Justin M. Marshall, Vernon C. Stevens, Bernard Littman, Ralph S. Masterson, Lyle L. Frost, Walter Eisenbarth, Lee E. Salzer, and Henry L. Bair. The granite, 10-foot-tall memorial — which features a twisted propeller scavenged from the wreckage in the 1960s — will eventually move to its permanent home at the Channel Islands Center in Ventura once that museum is built.
Though it will never be clear exactly what happened, a crash report suggests that the Liberator smashed directly into the mountain during heavy cloud cover, indicating that the crew probably didn’t see the ground coming. They were likely turning toward Point Conception at the time, headed back to their base in Salinas. “The Eddie Rickenbacker,” it turned out, had crashed the previous day about 10 miles north of Santa Barbara after running out of fuel; two of its crew were lost at sea when they leaped out with parachutes too early, but eight others survived.
Daily is expecting at least 17 family members related to the victims to attend the dedication on Thursday, which will give some closure to the 75-year-old tragedy. She thinks more should be done to honor the men. “The Park Service and the Navy, which owns San Miguel Island, should have an archaeological site inspection to look for the other dog tags and the additional human remains,” she said. “That’s my opinion. It’s a huge chunk of Channel Islands history that nobody knows about.”