Signs of World War II crashes linger in northern Colorado wilderness
October 14, 2017
FORT COLLINS — Standing in a boulder field last week with 74-year-old mangled twists of plane wreckage at my feet, I wondered about the wind.
It could be the reason all this was here, after all. The scattered engines, the rusted wheel struts, the metal scraps as small as Tic Tacs and as big as car hoods.
It all used to be a plane, a Boeing B-17C.
But on Oct. 18, 1943, the flying fortress found itself in Larimer County's "Bermuda Triangle" — an area of tremendous wind patterns and fickle weather — on a nighttime training mission from its base in Rapid City, South Dakota.
Just before 11 p.m. that night, it crashed, violently slamming into the solid rock hogback of Stormy Peaks on the northeast end of northern Colorado's Mummy Range mountains.
All eight members of its crew were killed instantly as the plane exploded on impact just 40 miles west of Fort Collins, in an area that's now part of Colorado State University's Pingree Park.
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And three miles up Pingree Park's Stormy Peaks trail, past Twin Lakes Reservoir, an irrigation canal and several sneaky twists and turns, the wreckage of the B-17 can still be reached on foot.
The men it carried were as young as 22. Their hometowns stretched from Seattle to Brooklyn — others came from tiny communities, a college town and one sprawling southern city in between.
The sole Colorado crew member was Sgt. Philip M. Doddridge, a 24-year-old Yuma County farm boy and right waist gunner aboard that ill-fated October flight.
That plane was one of three B-17s to crash near Fort Collins and Loveland over a 13-month span in 1943 and 1944. Why was the area so dangerous to fly in? Wind.
You could try to understand what exactly went wrong the night of that flight, but sometimes it just comes down to one well-known fact.
"The weather in Colorado can be damn freaky," Dennis Showalter said.
Showalter, a longtime history professor at Colorado College, can trace his interest in World War II — and the instruments used in it, like B-17s — to his earliest memory: a bonfire in his small Minnesota hometown to celebrate V-J Day, the end of World War II.
Chasing an interest in war, he's studied military history for 45 years and counting. And, besides Colorado's freaky weather, he can somewhat explain why training missions like the one on Oct. 18, 1943 ended in flames.
"In the military, it's said that the greatest general of all is General Murphy," Showalter rasped over the phone from Colorado Springs. "You know, Murphy's Law ."
Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.
Couple that with the fact B-17s were complicated instruments piloted by inexperienced trainees and it's not hard to believe Showalter when he says training crashes on U.S. soil were "routine" during World War II.
"The three (crashes) in your neck of the woods were all solo training flights," Showalter said. "The idea being you had to learn to fly under any conditions. You had to learn to fly at night. You had to learn to fly in bad weather."
"The expectation," he added, "was that you were going to lose people."
Between 1941 and 1944, approximately 410 lives were lost in nearly 130 fatal training crashes investigated by the U.S. military, according to the Colorado Springs Gazette.
Northern Colorado's most well-known World War II-era crash sites include the Oct. 18 flight on Stormy Peaks and another B-17 that crashed just six miles away on June 13, 1944.
That B-17, off course after a navigational error, crashed into a mountainside a quarter mile from the Old Flowers Trail in Roosevelt National Forest. Four of the flight's 10 crew members died in the training flight crash.
Another B-17 bomber crashed 25 miles west of Fort Collins, and eight miles north of Masonville on May 13, 1943, according to newspaper reports from that time. The crash killed two men.
"Some (airmen) never lasted past a mission and others would fly through the whole war and never get a scratch," Showalter added. "If you ask me why that happened, I would say that's one of those questions that, if I make it into heaven, I'm going to be asking God or St. Peter."
After you round the reservoir, there's a steep climb that feels endless. Rocks stacked in the shape of arrows point you up different forks in the trail.
And after a leveled-out stroll along a skinny irrigation ditch, followed by a short climb through a lush swath of forest, you'll see the metal.
It's jarring at first to see an engine resting on a rocky mountainside. Then, as you approach it, you see more.
The wheel struts are still there and so is the plane's tail or wing assembly. Rusted wires coil around what look like metal spools and, at each turn, you can find something else — a mess of gears, a welded metal frame.
All this and no survivors.
"It's a gravesite in some respect," said Seth Webb, assistant director of Colorado State University's Mountain Campus, which is situated in Pingree Park. "We want to make sure people know why they're hiking there and what it meant."
People have been hiking to the Stormy Peaks crash site since likely the early 1950s, according to Mountain Campus director Pat Rastall.
It's a popular fall hike. And the university leads fifth- and sixth-graders on it twice a week every week during the season as part of a youth environmental and outdoors program.
Interested hikers are asked to look at the wreckage as a history lesson, instead of tourist destination. You should only leave footprints and only take photographs away from the hallowed site.
"From a hiking aesthetic, it's not a great hike," Webb said. "There aren't great views or anything."
"For me and for a lot of people," he added, "it's the historical interest. And it's a really somber experience."