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Training or not, Ashland pilot died in service

As a youngster in Magdalena, N.M., in 1944, Rick Webster loved to hike up North Baldy Peak seven miles southeast of the hamlet.

The rocky peak juts up to nearly 10,000 feet in the Magdalena Mountains, offering a tremendous view for the eighth grader and his chums.

But it wasn't the view that drew them to the mountaintop.

"We were hiking up to the crash site," says Webster, 76, a retired teacher now living in New Boston, N.H.

That would be the site of where a B-17 "Flying Fortress" smashed into the peak on the night of Oct. 15, 1942, during a training mission, killing all nine crew members.

The pilot was 2nd Lt. John R. Pratt, 21, of Ashland whose surviving relatives Webster is now trying to track down.

More on that later. First, let's get back to the crash site.

With the aid of local folks, the Army Air Corps, the precursor to the Air Force, removed the bodies shortly after the crash. Valuable military equipment — machine guns and the bomb sight — was also retrieved by the military.

But the rest of the bomber was still there in 1944.

"The plane had hit near the top of the peak, breaking apart near the waist gunner's position," Webster says. "The tail section broke off at the point of impact. The tail gunner's part was intact. But the main part had catapulted to the right."

He recalls seeing the four engines and landing gear in an area that had burned. Smaller parts were scattered around the mountaintop.

"Well, you know how kids are at that age," he says. "We used to hike up there to get little electric motors or whatever we could find to make various things. It was an interesting place to go for us.

"I remember wishing I was in the service back then," he adds. "At age 13, I was disappointed I couldn't get in the military."

He would later join the Air Force, serving as a radio operator in a weather plane during the Korean War, largely chasing typhoons.

Memories of that old crash site surfaced not long ago when Webster was traveling through Wyoming. He noticed a memorial had been erected for a B-17 crew that had died in a crash in that state.

"The crew in Wyoming had also crashed in a training accident," he says. "It was a similar situation to the Magdalena crash. I thought there should be one for the crew who died on North Baldy Peak."

Webster had a plaque made that includes the names of the crew members, their rank and home towns, which are scattered across the nation, from California to New York. It is now in the Magdalena Village Museum where he delivered it last summer.

This summer the tiny town plans to hold a memorial service for the fliers during its annual three-day "Magdalena Old-Timer Days' which begin July 11. The memorial begins at 1 p.m. July 12.

"We have some family members who have made a commitment to be there," Webster says. "But we haven't been able to find any members of John Pratt's family."

An article in the Mail Tribune on Oct. 19, 1942, indicates the pilot was born in Ashland to Carroll E. and Florence L. Pratt, one of five children in the family. After graduating from Ashland High School in 1939, he entered what is now Southern Oregon University where he took preliminary flying courses. He entered the service in November 1941.

"Since I've been working on this, I've been getting to know these men as people," Webster says of the crew. "One was a student body president in his high school."

On the night of the crash, the crew was flying out of Alamogordo Air Base, now Holloman Air Force Base.

"What's so sad about this is, if that plane had missed that peak by just a few feet, in another hour or two they would been back at their base with a hot meal and getting a good night's sleep," Webster says.

The bottom line, says Webster, who hiked to the crash site in 2006 with a grandson, finding only two B-17 engine manifolds, is that they all died in service to their country.

"People killed while on a training mission are too often forgotten," he says. "But they are just as dead as someone who got shot down overseas."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

A plaque that includes the names of the crew members, their rank and home towns which are scattered across the nation, is located in the Magdalena Village Museum.