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The Crash of the B-17F near Covelo, CA
(Also known as the Leech Lake Mountain B-17)
30 May 1943

"If It Ain't Raining, We Ain't Training..."

... is a phrase often used in the American military to emphasis the necessity of training to fly in any sort of weather. But on this particular training flight, living up to that frequently used quote contributed to the death of 6 men.

A B-17F 'Flying Fortress' bomber, assigned to the 331st Bomb Group's 464th Bomb Squadron. departed the Army Air Base at Capser, Wyoming, at 0311 on the morning of May 30th, 1943, on an over-water training flight to Marysville, California, and Eugene, Oregon.

The flight, part of a 12 bomber training exercise, was suppose to take place in clear weather conditions.  However, someone in Marysville cleared the planes for takeoff, despite low flight ceilings and bad weather.


A series of position reports by the bomber gave no indication of any problems with the flight, until after its last report at 0923 Pacific Time.  An hour later, when another bomber's position report located it near Medford, Oregon, despite the crew thinking they were near Marysville.  After two hours of constant radio contact with the wayward bomber, the plane and crew were saved.  But contact had been lost with #318.

Missing in America...

At 1700 hours, efforts to locate #318 via radio were given up.  The other 11 bombers had all landed safely, albeit one landed in Red Bluff, California, and another in Medford, but Ship #318 was gone.

For three days, a search for the bomber, and its six Army Air Force personnel, was conducted over land and sea, but no trace of them was found.  Several days later, an investigation was begun into the flight, and the likely cause of its disappearance.  The investigation committee, a panel of eight officers, concluded in June of 1943, that the loss of the bomber, valued at well over a quarter of a million dollars, was caused by an inadequate weather forecast for the route of flight.  Furthermore, they presumed the plane, and its crew, were lost at sea.

On August 10th, a month and a half the accident board concluded, the wreckage of a large aircraft, with six deceased occupants, was found near Leech Lake Mountain, about 10 miles to the northeast of the small town of Covelo in Mendocino county.  The next day, the wreckage was positively identified as being that of Ship #318. 


The Final Crew of B-17F #42-5318 of the 331st Bomb Group's 464th Bomb Squadron.

  •   Pilot - 2nd Lt. James Owen Westbury - from Alabama - age 25

  •   Co-Pilot - 2nd Lt. William Wedrell Blalock - from Georgia - age 22

  •   Navigator - 2nd Lt. Joseph J. Weitzel - from Pennsylvania -age 22

  •   Bombardier - 2nd Lt. Ralph S. Johnson, Jr. - from Massachusetts - age 23

  •   Flight Engineer - Staff Sgt. Paul P. Schaeffer - from West Virginia - age 27

  •   Radioman - Staff Sgt. Ralph J. Sicking - from Lakewood, Ohio - age 26 - enlisted a year prior


We are currently searching for photos of the crash site taken during the investigation. If you have any - please contact us.

The Crash Site Today

The crash site of B-17F  #42-5318 is difficult to access (even then, only on a seasonal basis), and lies on Forest Service land, west of Leech Lake Mountain in Mendocino county.  A steep, 3 mile long, hike awaits any who choose to venture to the site.  But those who complete the journey are rewarded with a beautiful view

Looking west from near the Leech Lake Mountain B-17's crash site.
Looking at the Leech Lake region from the air - View is from the north, looking southward (The wing strut of the Cessna is visible in the upper-left corner of this photo)

Looking head-on (eastward) into the crash site from the air.  The plane impact squarely in the center of this photo.A river of scattered aluminum and structural pieces flows down the slope
Looking from the top of the crash down slope.  The debris field extends downhill for over 100 yards!A radial Wright R-1820 Cyclone 9 engine, with three of its cylinder heads shattered from impact.
A view of part of the debris field from the sideOne of the landing gear struts, with the wheel hub destroyed from impact
A large section of wing aluminum shines in the sunlightA piece of the B-17's structure jutting out from the ground

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This page last updated Wednesday, July 01, 2015

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