The "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos" Canyon
January 28, 1948
Dust Bowl of the ‘30’s to the anti-war songs of the ‘60’s, Woody Guthrie
painted pictures of life that many didn’t’ want to see or hear. And
while he also authored such red, white, and blue standards as “This Land
Is Your Land,” and “The Sinking of the Reuben James,” it was the ode he
wrote about a 1948 plane crash that killed 28 Mexican farm workers, that
has become a favorite standby sung by Folk, County-Western and Pop
songsters alike – “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos).”
while Guthrie paid tribute to those that died that day outside Coalinga,
California, the details surrounding what really happened that chilly
January day tells a much sadder tale of misfortune and poor judgment.
A Contract to Fly Deportees
Airline Transport Carriers was an
airline service, incorporated in the State of California by
Charles & Edna Sherman. They
previously operated Fireball Air Lines of Long Beach, in 1946,
with its main offices at the Lockheed Air Terminal
at the Burbank Airport. Airline Transport Carriers was also the parent
company of California Hawaiian Airlines and California Central Airline.
Airline Transport Carriers operated
under an irregular air carrier letter of
registration, issued by the Civil
Aeronautics Board. A non-scheduled air carrier, used to
unusual jobs, the flight on the morning of January 28th, 1948, was
The airplane would be carrying 28
Mexicans nationals. Bound for the Imperial County Airport,
the flight was part of a contract that Airline Transport Carriers had
with the United States Immigration & Naturalization
Service (INS) to fly deportees, usually agricultural workers whom
entered the country illegally, or overstayed their work permits, to
border towns near Mexico.
A Clear and Cold January Day...
Captain Francis C. Atkinson, of Long
Beach, California, was pilot of the
aircraft that morning. The 30-year-old had logged
more than 1,700 hours flying time during World War II as a member of the
Air Transport Command, flying the China-Burma-India "hump" in the
Pacific theatre. It was also to be one of his last flights for
Airline Transport Carriers, as he had just been recalled to active duty.
Atkinson's wife, Bobbie, was the flight stewardess. The co-pilot,
Marion H. Ewing, had over 4,000 hours of flight time, some of which was
earned also flying the Hump, he had once been a flight instructor, but
having operated a delicatessen in Newport Beach after the end of
the war, had re-entered the world of aviation only four months earlier.
Originally slated to fly a different DC-3 (which was
properly certificated for 32 passengers), Atkinson
and his flight crew took the wrong airplane to Oakland from Burbank.
The DC-3 which they flew, NC36480, was only outfitted to carry 26
passengers, and was 7 flight hours overdue for a routine, but required,
The flight from Burbank to Oakland
was uneventful. However, once in Oakland, things started to go downhill.
The twenty-eight passengers boarded the DC-3, along with their INS guard, Frank
E. Chaffin, 53, who had been a soldier in
World War I, and served 20 years with the INS. He was assigned to
watch over the deportees to their final destination, the
INS Deportation Center in El Centro, California.
Three of the passengers would be seated on the luggage
the plane carried. But the additional passengers also placed the
aircraft's weight over its takeoff limits by 67 pounds. In the
end, this would have no effect, but it was a clue into the state of mind
of the pilot and flight crew.
One hour and 35 minutes after the aircraft had departed
from Oakland, it was observed flying over the hills east of Coalinga,
California, cruising at an estimated altitude of 5,000 feet above the
ground. At the same time, a trail of white vapor, 150
to 200 feet long, was observed streaming from the left engine of
the aircraft. Ten to 15 seconds
later, flames were then seen flowing from the left
engine over the wing and back to the tail.
Witnesses on the ground claim to have seen several people jump from the
doomed airliner when, seconds later, the left wing broke free from the
fuselage, and the airplane fell to earth, crashing in a spectacular
fireball in Los Gatos Canyon, killing all aboard.
Rescuers combing the wreckage, looking for
Investigators looking for the crash's cause
Responding to a Epic Disaster
The plane crashed
about a mile east of the Fresno County Industrial Road Camp, a work camp
for convicts. Mel Willmurth, a superintendent at the camp, dispatched
inmates to help put out the
ground fire started by the crash.
"While I was trying to get (phone) connections,"
Willmurth said, "I could hear the boys shouting. 'Here it comes.' One
cried, 'it's going to land in the yard.' I didn't know whether to crawl
under my desk or run. However, I figured from the position of.the plane
when I saw it that it couldn't fall too close, so I kept on with my
On their way to the scene, the prisoners
came across strewn luggage, and bodies, some still strapped to their
seats, littering the landscape. Fire destroyed much of the wreckage,
and the many of the bodies of the crash's victims were impossible to
Among those passengers whose remains were
identified were: Ramon Perez, Jesus Santos, Ramon Portello, James A.
Guardaho, Guadalupe Ramirez, Julio Barron, Jose Macias, Martin Navarro,
Apolonio Placentia, Santiago Elisandro, Salvadore Sandoval and Manuel
Among the passengers for whom remains were never identified:
Francisco Duran, Rosalio Estrado, Bernabe Garcia, Severo Lara, Elias
Macias, Tomas Marquez, Louis Medina, Manuel Merino, Luis Mirando,
Ygnacio Navarro, Roman Ochoa, Alberto Raygoza, Guadalupe Rodriquez,
Maria Rodriguez, and Juan Ruiz.
The Evolution of a Tragedy
of the mishap, started immediately after the crash was reported to the
Civil Aeronautics Authority, found that the separating gasket in the left
engine fuel pump showed signs of being fractured prior to the time of
the last flight. The defect was, according to investigators, latent in
character, and one which might not have been found during the course of
a 100-hour inspection.
However , the investigating board surmised that, during the flight, fuel escaping
from the left engine-driven fuel pump caught fire, and due to
'slipstream effect' (the intense fire aircraft can encounter which is
extremely hot due to air moving fast in-flight) burned through the wing panel, like a blow-torch,
and continued through the spar of the left wing. The resulting damage
broke the left wing off of the plane, a fireball ensued, and the plane
Only 16 sets of remains, including the
entire flight crew and INS guard, were identified. The remains of
the 28 deportees were buried en masse at the Holy Cross Cemetery in
The U.S. government claimed no liability in the chartering of the
Airline Transport Carriers would carry on after the mishap, as they
were heavily insured, over the $100,000 required by law, but
eventually they declared bankruptcy in 1953.
Most, but not all, newspaper accounts of the crash omitted the names
of the deportees aboard the aircraft. Woody Guthrie, the
well-known songwriter of the era, took note of this deletion, and wrote
a poem on the matter. A decade later, Martin Hoffman, a school
teacher, added a simple melody to it, and Pete Seeger began singing it
in concerts. Over the years, the song has been covered by numerous
groups, including Nanci Griffith, Dolly Parton, Bruce
Springsteen, the Kingston Trio, and The Byrds. As recently as 2005 the
song was recorded by Joan Baez for her live album Bowery Songs.
Guthrie, always a champion for those he felt were getting a raw
deal, questioned the absences of names for the deportees in the
newspapers articles he read. He viewed it as some sort of racist,
final cold act of an uncaring American public to those migrant
workers killed in the crash.
Keep in mind that unlike today, at the time the U.S. did have a
guest worker program and entry into the U.S. from Mexico on a work
visa was simply a matter of filling out a few forms. It was so easy
that from 1942 to
1964 the Guest Worker program allowed 4.5 million Mexican farm
workers to legally cross the border to work. So there was little
excuse for being here illegally.
should also be noted that even today accidents with large numbers of
people involved seldom list the names of all those killed and
injured. Typically only the local newspapers will carry a complete
passenger listing (as was done in this case), while other more distant
newspapers will simply state something akin to, “28 were killed and
2 injured in a plane crash…” So what Guthrie saw as an injustice to
those killed, was simply typical and standard newspaper reporting
practice still in common use today.
Another point is that
while nobody today can know for sure, it is possible those taking
the plane back home may have welcomed the two hour flight in lieu of
the other option, a 14 hour plus bus trip. In fact, the INS
gave the deportees the choice of air or ground travel. In all
likelihood, for most of the passengers, this was their first time aboard an airplane
and viewed by them as at least one good thing stemming from their
But no matter how one
looks at it, the accident, thanks largely to song, is remembered.