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Monument in the wilderness

On Jan. 31, 1945, a World War II bomber carrying five crew and three passengers flew into a storm on the Southern Oregon Coast. When the bomber went down deep in the South Chetco River watershed, it took the lives of all eight servicemen on board.

Lost were:

  • U.S. Navy Lt. Lawrence M. Courtis, of Massachusetts
  • 2nd Lt., U.S. Army, Douglas C.I. Bacchus, of Washington
  • Aviation Machinist’s Mate 3rd Class Petty Officer Leon Albert Wilcomb, of Montana
  • Aviation Radioman Petty Officer 2nd Class James Francis Quill, of Washington, D.C.
  • Aviation Radioman Petty Officer 3rd Class Earl D. Sylvester, of Michigan
  • Seaman 1st Class Benjamin J. Freeman, of Arizona
  • Aviation Machinist’s Mate 2nd Class Benno Clair Beck, of California
  • U.S. Navy Ensign Alvin Dallas Ellis

“Alvin was my uncle,” says Chris Ellis, who lives in Nevada and recently reached out to the Siskiyou Mountain Club for information about the spot, deep inside the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, where his uncle died. “He was the co-pilot.”

In 1957, 12 years after the crash, a bronze monument was erected by volunteers at the crash site to honor the fallen.

“My father went there with Rene Casteran years ago,” Ellis adds.

Rene Casteran served as a ranger in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness from 1986 to 2008, and he tells about the experience of taking Alvin’s brother  Homer down to the bomb site in his self-published memoir, "The Kalmiopsis Wilderness, Taking Away Only Memories."

“Homer was the first family member of any of the men buried there to do the hike down,” writes Casteran. Ellis says Homer had come to a point in his life where “it was extremely important that he got to see where his brother was buried.”

Casteran describes the hike as punishing to Homer Ellis, and that on the way back up the steep trail he “gasped for breath.”

Many years have passed since Homer hiked to his brother’s burial site with Casteran, and the Navy Monument Trail, as well as the Red Mountain Trail that feeds it, faded out of existence. It filled in with downed logs, and got swallowed by brush, and it wasn’t really possible to hike safely to it anymore.

In April 2017, the Siskiyou Mountain Club worked with the Gold Beach Ranger District to secure a grant through the Curry County Resource Advisory Committee to restore this trail complex in the far southwest arm of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. It’s great to open up trails. But this was also a way to honor service in a whole new way.

SMC member Valentin Chavez led a crew on the trail there for 10 days last summer. He described it as an impenetrable jungle.

“The mosquitoes were horrendous, the days were long and hot,” he says, and the Chetco Bar fire roared a few miles away.

The Siskiyou Mountain Club’s crews finished the project, summoning access to the Red Mountain Trail and the Navy Monument Trail.

“My dad told me there was a crew and two tag-alongs on the flight,” says Ellis. “And they were flying a brand new PBY-5A bomber.”

The WWII float plane was especially effective for attacking Nazi submarines, and remained in service through the 1980s. It’s still used today for fighting fires.

In September, the Chetco Bar fire made its way through the Navy Monument Trail, so there's no guarantee the monument trail is still accessible. The trail was in the footprint of the 2017 Chetco Bar fire, and while our crews did bring it to standard last year, conditions may have changed quickly.

“There was a lot of tanoak in there,” says SMC Field Coordinator Aaron Babcock. “It’s going to take a lot of work to keep it open.”

“I’d like to hike in there someday,” says Ellis. “I’ll have to make it out there.”

— Gabriel Howe is executive director for the Siskiyou Mountain Club. Contact him at howegabe@gmail.com.

The wreckage of a WWII float plane that crashed in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness in 1945 was still visible last summer when this photo was taken. [courtesy photo]
A trail sign at the junction of the Red Mountain Trail and Navy Monument Trail. [courtesy photo]