Tenacious explorer hunts down sites of deadly crashes
The Inland Valley (Calif.) Daily Bulletin
During years of World War II, airspace above San Bernardino County was the training ground for thousands of American pilots and crews preparing for combat in Europe and Asia.
About 175 of those airmen never made it to the front lines - the grim toll from more than 140 fatal wartime aircraft accidents in the county’s mountains and deserts.
G. Pat Macha has spent many years logging the locations of the crashes of all aircraft, both civilian and military, in the county and throughout the state. At each military crash site, he leaves a flag to remember where young men and women made the supreme sacrifice in service to their country.
Macha, a retired school teacher, wrote the newly published “Historic Aircraft Wrecks of San Bernardino County,” tackling this grim topic from the viewpoint of an historian. And there’s still work to do - he and other volunteers will be north and west of Barstow on a trip this week in search of three more crash sites.
He caught the bug as a youth while working at a YMCA summer camp at Barton Flats. There he first explored a 1963 aircraft crash site on the slope of Mount San Gorgonio that a forest ranger had told him about. He soon learned that many others existed, and he was hooked.
“I just wanted to know where these wrecks were, who the pilots were and what was their story,” said Macha. “Through my dad, I have a love of history and a love of aviation.”
There have been crashes in the county ever since the first flimsy aircraft took off, but it was during the war when the air here was filled with pilots, always challenged by treacherous mountain passes and harsh weather.
It was 70 years ago next week that 10 airmen died when their Liberator bomber, flying from Palmdale to March Field in Riverside County in 1943, slammed into Cucamonga Peak in the San Gabriel Mountains. Five months earlier, five died when a B-24 broke up above Lytle Creek.
Nine others died Dec. 30, 1941 when a B-26 crashed near Keller Peak, east of Cajon Pass. A plaque listing the names of the crew was erected at the site during a ceremony in 1995.
While the book details the stark details of these deadly crashes during and after the war, its information is used by Macha and other volunteers to help survivors or relatives of those who died in them.
A group was formed in 1996 called the Project Remembrance Team. Macha said about once a month he gets a call from the relative of a crash victim asking for help to get to a crash site to give them a form of closure from their loss.
In 2005, he and colleague Walt Witherspoon searched for the remains of a P-38 Aircobra that crashed Sept. 6, 1944 southwest of Victorville. They not only reached what little remained of the aircraft but found a wristwatch, I.D. bracelet and dogtags of its pilot, Pat Montgomery. They tracked down the pilot’s brother in Washington and returned the personal items to him 61 years after the crash.
That same year, Macha assisted the son of pilot George Rosado who died with Sgt. Gordon Walker and WASP pilot Marie Mitchell Robinson in a B-25 crash west of Victorville on Oct. 2, 1944. He took the son to the site, where a memorial plaque was later installed in a Veterans Day ceremony with relatives of Rosado and Walker attending.
“That is a very rewarding sidebar to what we are doing,” said Macha.
He continues his research, chronicling not only downed aircraft in the county but throughout California and the West. His home office and garage in Mission Viejo are crammed with records, growing more detailed every time he heads out.
On his website – aircraftwrecks.com – Macha not only lists information about numerous crashes but has the photographs of many of the young Americans who lost their lives in accidents in the county.