Seventy years ago, a P-63 Kingcobra plane went down in Garden Home, Oregon. It was just days after thousands of Allied troops landed on the beaches of Normandy, now known as D-Day, and pilots who remained in the U.S. were busy training for war.
Those who witnessed the crash have helped members of the Garden Home History Project piece together the details of the event, as well as the rest of the pilot’s story, just in time to honor him for Armed Forces Day on May 17.
Saved by a chute
Lt. Robert Strong, a 25-year-old from Auburn, New York, was 3,000 feet above Metzger when his plane’s engine died. One of his tanks was empty, the other faulty.
It was about 7 a.m. on June 13, 1944, and the lieutenant from the Portland Army Air Base had nowhere to land – all he could see were trees. Radio contact with Strong’s flight leader was weak, and as the rest of the planes in the formation turned toward Portland, Strong slowed down, gliding over the trees.
At about 2,000 feet, over a wooded area, Strong pulled the emergency release, took off his helmet and seat belt, rolled the plane to the right and pushed out with a parachute.
“The tail surfaces passed over me and as soon as I saw the plane below me, I pulled the rip cord,” Strong wrote in a statement for the accident report. “The chute opened and at the same time I saw my plane hit the ground.”
Then came a flash of flame as one of the plane’s gas tanks exploded. Strong landed in trees nearby, unscathed except for a few scratches, waved to his flight leader (still flying above) to signal that he was OK, and headed to inspect the wreckage of his plane.
A crash crew arrived at the scene of the wreck with an ambulance, which brought Strong back to the air base.
Less than a year later, the lieutenant died in Germany after his plane was hit by a Flak anti-aircraft gun. Strong was unable to bail out of his plane, and he went down with it. He is buried at the World War II Netherlands American Cemetery. Strong’s son, who never met him, now lives in Florida.
Honoring the lieutenant
Now that the members of the Garden Home History Project know what happened to Strong, (their research has been three years in the making, spurred by curiosity after residents recalled the crash), they want to honor him, along with other Garden Home veterans, in a memorial at Garden Home Recreation Center.
At the memorial, they’ll present a slideshow that tells Strong’s story.
In addition to hours of research conducted by the history group, the community pitched in, too. In April, several residents helped out with a search party to find the site of the wreck. Though they can't be sure of the exact location, they're fairly sure of the general area.
The Kingcobra plane crashed just off Southwest 82nd Avenue, north of Taylors Ferry Road and south of Oleson Road. The general site is in a quiet residential neighborhood, and the plane likely went down in what is now someone's backyard.
Gene Shirley, about 13 at the time of the crash, remembered the way the crash, which happened near his house, shook his bed. He immediately woke up, and upon identifying the plane (all Americans were encouraged to memorize plane models so they could identify them as enemy or ally planes), he was eager to inspect it.
Others had flocked around the plane, collecting bullets, casings and other scraps, but Shirley’s father wouldn’t let him near it. In just a few days, the wreckage had been cleaned up, but the event lived on in residents’ memories.
Now, the researchers will get to share their work with others. Elaine Shreve, co-founder of the history project, said she was amazed they were able to get declassified military documents to supplement their findings.
“It’s very satisfying and very interesting,” she said. “It brings World War Two home to us.”