A B-25 bomber ditched in a Pennsylvania river in broad
daylight 1956 and, seemingly impossibly, was never found.
By Brian Dunning via Skeptoid
Podcast transcript below or Listen
This is the story of a WWII-era bomber that disappeared in broad daylight, during peacetime, with plenty of witnesses. Something like an ultimate magician’s trick. It was 1956, and a B-25 bomber was on a routine transport flight, headed from Nevada to Pennsylvania to pick up some spare parts and also deliver a couple of passengers. As the plane neared Pittsburgh, a sudden loss of fuel was observed. The bomber ran out of gas, and with both engines out, it made a controlled belly landing in the Monongahela
river. All six men aboard survived the landing, but only four were rescued. Two of the men died from exposure in the freezing January water. The real mystery is that the aircraft itself, in water that was scarcely deeper than the plane’s tail stood from the ground, completely vanished. To this day, not a single relic or piece of debris has been found, despite extensive searching by numerous groups. Did the bomber manage to almost incredibly evade detection, or was it secretly removed?
The North American B-25 Mitchell was a twin-engine medium bomber developed just before the United States entered WWII. It saw service throughout the war and normally carried a crew of six. B-25s are best known from the Doolittle Raid, in which sixteen of them were launched from an aircraft carrier for a one-way bombing raid against Tokyo, greatly exceeding the design capabilities of both the carrier and the aircraft. It was a B-25 that crashed into the Empire State Building in 1945, killing 14 people. In 1969, nearly a quarter of all flying B-25 survivors were acquired and featured in the 1970 movie Catch-22. So it’s a well-known plane with a familiar history.
This particular plane was a TB-25N, a variant designed for training navigators, of which some 47 were made. Its serial number was 44-29125. After the war it was stationed at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, from where it departed with 7 men on board on January 30, 1956.
TB-25N, circa 1956
Photo credit: USAF
One man, a Cap. Tabak, stayed behind when the crew overnighted at Selfridge AFB in Michigan. The remaining six crew left for Olmstead AFB in Pennsylvania, a flight which should have required only an hour and 40 minutes. They left at 1:43pm on Tuesday, January 31, with three hours of fuel indicated on board — plenty for this short flight. Once they got to the vicinity of Pittsburgh, they noticed a sudden decrease in the fuel readings. No problems were found, but to be on the safe side, they decided to change course for Greater Pittsburgh Airport, the nearest refueling site. And, unfortunately, their story became one that’s all too common in aviation. Weather closed in, they stayed aloft off-course longer than they should have; and once they sighted a break in the clouds, they were short on fuel and all they could see were populated areas. The fuel ran out and both engines quit and 3000 feet. Rather than crash into a populated area, they made the decision to ditch in the Monongahela river. The air temperature was below freezing; the water temperature only a fraction above.
The B-25 ditched in the river just clear of the 1936 Homestead Grays Bridge, following the current in a southwesterly direction. Reports from the crewmen and the witnesses state that the plane stayed afloat for 10-15 minutes, and during that time, drifted about one mile downstream. The current was reported as 8-10 knots, so all these numbers are roughly in the same ballpark; but it’s hard to say at exactly what time the plane disappeared from view or exactly where that was, witnesses said it was near the Jones and Laughlin steel plant. The water in the Mon river (as it’s commonly called) is kept dredged just deep enough for towboats and coal barges; if you stood a B-25 up on its end in the water, about half or even two-thirds of it would be out of the water. It seemed unthinkable that it might be able to sink and never be found; but at the time, energy was focused on rescuing the six men who were on the verge of a frozen death.
Dotson and Smith were picked up by a commercial boat. Alleman successfully swam to shore. Jamieson was rescued by a police boat. The other two men, Ingraham and Soocey, were seen swimming but didn’t make it. Both bodies were recovered, but only after their remains were discovered months later.
The sunken airplane was an obvious hazard to navigation in the small river, so efforts to remove it began quite quickly, in fact the very next day. The water of the Mon was both muddy and polluted, so search efforts depended upon the dragging of anchors and grappling hooks, and hoping to latch onto something. For several days, a Coast Guard cutter, the Forsythia, marked all candidate debris with buoys. A barge commission by the US Army Corps of Engineers, the Monello II, patiently scraped and search each spot. Only once did they think they had something; operators began raising what they believed to be a wing of the aircraft, but the anchor slipped off and the object, whatever it was, sank and was not found again. No photographs were taken that may have confirmed what was believed to have been found.
After two weeks of combing the river with the mind-boggling result of not finding such a large object that must be in such a small space, the search was called off. Nobody has ever since reported finding so much as a scrap of aluminum. The loss defied all logic and expectations, but facts are facts. The Air Force put the salvage rights up for auction in September. They sold for $10. The buyer, John Evans who owned a nearby seaplane base, mounted his own search, but also found nothing.
So what did become of the plane, and do we have the facilities to solve this mystery after so many decades?
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