Honolulu, Hawaii has perhaps the world’s most remembered WWII memorial. Millions of people travel to Pearl Harbor each year to pay their respects. The U.S.S. Arizona is the cornerstone of that monument.
Lake Havasu City, Arizona has such a memorial, yet it’s unofficial, tiny in stature compared to the one on Oahu, and visitors annually trekking to the remote site most likely number in the hundreds; if that.
The location of our city’s memorial is known by very few, and most of those knowing the locale would prefer to keep it secret.
On a stormy and overcast Saturday afternoon, August 11, 1945, five Army Air Corp personnel winged their way west towards Yuma, Arizona. They’d departed Las Vegas, Nevada on the final leg of a roundtrip combat training mission.
Just two days earlier the United States had successfully dropped a plutonium bomb nicknamed “Big Boy” on Nagasaki, Japan. Forty-eight hours previous to that a uranium laden bomb named “Little Boy” exploded over Hiroshima, killing thousands. After those horrific bombings WWII seemed to be winding down with the U.S. in total control.
Flight Officer Robert L. Laird from Laredo, Texas was pilot of the twin-engine B-25 Mitchell bomber that late summer day. The military identification number for his craft was 44-34201. Most likely, seeing that the war was coming to an end made the young officer happy, as it did the rest of his crew.
Robert Laird’s father, Colonel John Laird, was a distinguished military officer. Like any loving dad, the old man was probably elated in knowing his son might not see combat. Being a seasoned veteran he knew the dangers of such.
Flight Officer Juan S. Madero Jr. from Tucson, Arizona was co-pilot. His wife and two children remained in Tucson with Juan’s father, brother, and three sisters. Juan was a nationalized American citizen coming to this country from Mexico. A hazy newspaper photo shows Madero to be a striking and handsome young man in military uniform.
Juan was an all around athlete, becoming the starting catcher for the 1940 La Azteca semi-professional baseball team. Juan Madero was also an accomplished boxer. He’d taken a commission into the armed forces to help with the war effort.
Second Lt. William G. Winter and Second Lt. John R Winter were on the B-25 undergoing radar navigation training. They’d made history by becoming the first identical twins to be assigned to the same airplane in the Air Corp. The Winter brothers were from Towanda, Pennsylvania. They were star basketball players at Towanda High. Their dad, William Winter, fought in France during WWI.
PFC William F. Strange of Rockmart, Georgia completed the Yuma based crew. He was their radio operator. William “Bill” Strange had a wife back home in Rockmart. The small town in Polk County only had 3,700 citizens. PFC Strange was the only enlisted man on the crew.
Somewhere near the Yucca, Arizona Air Field around 6 PM, someone onboard the polished aluminum bomber, most likely Lt. Laird, radioed asking if anyone could hear him. Flight Officer Arnold Kast, in another B-25 identified by serial number, 44-86881, flying 20 miles south of Kingman acknowledged that he could.
“Roger, Out”, were Laird’s last words.
Several minutes went by before Flight Officer Kast unsuccessfully tried to regain contact with Laird. It was assumed by Kast that Lt. Laird was lost in the clouds and trying to get his bearings. Flying over the Mojave Mountains in stormy conditions even with instruments was risky.
When Lt. Laird’s airplane did not arrive in Yuma a search and rescue was initiated. The following day wreckage was located by aircraft near Crossman Peak. The B-25 had struck the upper part of a jagged mountain near the 3500 foot level. The medium size bomber disintegrated as it cartwheeled up and over the peak. Fire ultimately took care of the larger section of fuselage.
It took searchers some time to reach the wreck because of a lack of accessibility. Air Corp rescuers in Jeeps used an old mining trail to inch their way up. All five crewmembers were reported to have been killed instantly.
There’s been discussion amongst Lake Havasu City veteran’s the past 10 years, about placing a permanent marker on this site. From all indications that’s yet to happen. I searched for a place to donate funds finding none. I was told that there is a ‘sealed tube’ on the summit with accident information inside.
As patriotic and supportive as this community is towards our military, money cannot possibly be the object. From what I was told, it’s more of a government bureaucracy problem than anything. This is nothing a strong political leader couldn’t take care of. Hopefully someday a proper and permanent memorial becomes reality. It would be fitting tribute to those five brave men, and to Lake Havasu City for making sure they were properly honored.
I was asked by one former service member not to disclose the exact location of the crash site. His fears are that people will disturb what’s left up there. That information is already on the internet and has been for some time.
This person said that over the years, aluminum shards and broken parts from the plane have gradually disappeared. He believes it’s nothing more than desecration of a grave site although there are no bodies up there. Such acts would be considered sacrilegious at Pearl Harbor.
The accident took place exactly seven miles from my home. I’ve been to the foot of the mountain where the B-25 hit, yet never walked to the top. It’s rugged and dangerous terrain.
I’m able to stand in my front yard with binoculars and gaze up there. It’s hard to believe this coming August 11, the tragedy will be 74 years old. Had those fellows lived they’d be in their 90’s. There’s good chance a couple of them would still be around.
On any clear day look towards Crossman Peak and a tad to the left of it. In that general vicinity, five of our nation’s finest lost their lives on a stormy Arizona evening.
Although never seeing battle, they gave the ultimate sacrifice for their country during WWII.