Billy Ronaghan didn’t have to enlist. He’d served in the National Guard. And as a New York City police officer living in the Bronx he was exempt from the draft. But when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he and his two older brothers signed up.
Ronaghan already flew a small personal plane, so the United States Army Air Corps, which would eventually become the U.S. Air Force, was a natural choice.
He was just 24 on June 28, 1943, when he crashed into the side of a 12,841-foot mountain in the Bighorn National Forest in Wyoming.
Today, if you stand near the base of Bomber Mountain in Wyoming’s Cloud Peak Wilderness and look up at the western slope, you might, if the sun is just right, see a glint, a flash so fleeting it could be a trick of the light or a small snow patch clinging to the rocks. It is the tail of a B-17 Flying Fortress — and a marker of where Ronaghan and nine other young men died almost 75 years ago.
Bomber Mountain isn’t actually a mountain at all, but the crest of a ridgeline, said Sylvia Bruner, executive director of the Johnson County Jim Gatchell Memorial Museum in Buffalo.The museum houses a permanent exhibit on the crash. The mountainside might have remained unnamed and anonymous, overshadowed by nearby 13,617-foot Cloud Peak, the range’s tallest mountain, if it wasn’t for the crash, she said.
Bruner, who had long been interested in World War II, became fascinated with the crash and the mountain when she started working at the museum 14 years ago. She’s researched the story ever since and even met some of the men’s family members. Yet even after her investigation, much about the crash remains a mystery. Why, for example, were they even over the Bighorn Mountains, more than 150 miles off course?
What Bruner does know is Ronaghan arrived at Pendleton Field in Oregon, late in the afternoon of June 28, 1943. He flew a new B-17 that had flown only from California, where it was built, to Texas for modifications, and then to Oregon, where Ronaghan picked up most of his crew.
Tony Tilotta, 22, was his co-pilot. He’d worked as an airplane mechanic in Houston prior to enlisting. He was married with one son and his wife, Elsie, was pregnant with their second.
Leonard Phillips, 22, was to serve as navigator. He was, according to high school classmates, handsome and ambitious with “no time” for unnecessary things like girlfriends. He enlisted with the Army in 1940 and transferred to the Army Air Corps in 1943.
The aircraft engineer was James Hinds from California. Bruner knows little about him, other than that he was the oldest crewmember at 25.
The assistant aircraft engineer was Lee Vaughn Miller who went by Vaughn. He grew up in West Virginia and joined the Civilian Conservation Corps before enlisting with the Army AirCorps. He and his fiance Ruth tried to get married the last time he was home on leave, but an area bridge washed out and they couldn’t reach the courthouse. He was 24.
Ferguson Bell Jr., 21, of Alabama, was the radio operator.
The assistant radio operator Charles Newburn Jr., known as “Junior,” was 21 and from Oklahoma. He was also engaged to be married.
Bombardier Charles Suppes II went by “Suppie.” The Pennsylvania native was 22, an only child interested in drama and art in high school.
Aircraft gunner Jake Penick, 22, of Waneta, Texas, also served in the Civilian Conservation Corps before joining the military. He came from a military family — his four brothers also served.
The assistant aircraft gunner Lewis Shepard, 22, of Florida was the oldest of five boys — they all enlisted. He wrote his mother religiously. He was 6 foot 3 and known as a lady’s man. His brother told Bruner he’d picked up roller skating to meet girls before he joined the service. In a letter to his mother, Shepard mentioned he’d skipped phase two of his training as the military accelerated efforts to send relief crews to Europe.
The 10-man crew was newly formed. They’d yet to forge the bonds of young men headed to war together. Shepard wrote his mother he’d recently met the pilot and he seemed like a responsible and good guy.
He wrote the letter days before he died.
The crew and the plane remained lost for two years. Then in 1945 a couple of cowboys saw the glint of the wreckage and discovered the crash site.
The military had declared the men missing when they didn’t arrive as expected in Grand Island, Nebraska. A week of searches yielded nothing. No one knew how far off course they’d flown or where to look.
The crew had left Oregon with machine guns and ammunition, headed to Nebraska. They likely didn’t have their official orders, but probably anticipated going to Europe where the allies desperately needed replacement bomber crews and planes, Bruner said.
They were supposed to fly to Nebraska with another B-17, but they were delayed 10 minutes. In all her research, Bruner’s never been able to determine why they were delayed or why the other plane didn’t wait.
“But that 10 minutes apparently made a world of difference,” she said in an interview.
One plane made it safely on schedule to Grand Island, while the other ended up off course, over the Bighorns.
It would have been nighttime, or in the still black of the very early morning, when they hit the mountain.
The official crash report lists the cause as unknown.
A recovery crew rode horses to Misty Moon Lake and then scrambled the boulder fields to the wreckage on Aug. 15, 1945. It was VJ Day, but the search crew wouldn’t learn of Japan’s surrender until they returned.
The crash report described the plane as “totally wrecked” and “demolished.”
The engine was too mangled for the investigator to determine if it had failed. The report listed weather as a possible factor. Perhaps a thunderstorm created turbulence that pushed the plane into the mountainside, it said.
The report says the pilot, Ronaghan, likely saw the ridge at the last moment and tried to pull up. The plane’s tail hit first. Then it catapulted over the other side of the ridge, spewing wreckage for about a third of a mile. According to the report one man wore an oxygen mask, indicating the plane was climbing at the time of the crash.
What was left of the crew was a horror story of body parts. The search crew struggled to identify the remains. They made an effort to make sure the families of each man received something of their loved one. They carried the remains of the men off the mountain and left the unsalvageable plane where it sat.
“It was complete and utter destruction,” Bruner said. “It’s kind of breathtaking when you start looking at the crash site and all the pieces that are still there. They didn’t know what hit them.”
Like with many local stories, rumors become myths and myths become legends shared over and over. The most common tale of the crash on Bomber Mountain is that one man survived and laid alone until he died.
Bruner is certain that isn’t true. The search party reported it didn’t find any intact remains. The crash report supports her debunking the myth. It reads “From their appearance, all had been killed instantly.”
The other legend that has grown through the years says the crew carried payroll or even bars of gold. In that old yarn a mountain man found the loot, like a sunken treasure but on a snowy peak, and became rich.
“That one actually cracks me up,” Bruner said. “You didn’t send payroll with a bombing crew.”
The remains of the plane still sit on the ridge of what is now called Bomber Mountain. The Forest Service officially named the mountain in honor of the plane crash in 1946, the same year a local veterans group placed a plaque with the names of the crew on the east side of the ridge. Through the years, people have illegally scavenged the site, even taking some of the propeller blades, which weigh more than 100 pounds, off the mountain, Bruner said. Some items, including propeller blades and machine guns, anonymously arrived at the doorstep of the museum, where they are now on display with permission from the Forest Service.
What’s left on the mountainside is mostly heavy equipment like the engines. They belong on the mountain, Bruner said. They serve as a memorial and a reminder when you visit the crash site that you are visiting a place where 10 men perished.