In January of 1942, just a month after the attack on Pearl Harbor, British intelligence notified the US Navy that a fleet of German U-boats was headed to the coast of New England. Under the command of Admiral Karl Donitz, Operation Drumbeat would strategically target American merchant ships, preventing the US from supplying Allies overseas with fuel, weapons, and other essential military cargo. The attacks officially began on January 13th, and continued for the next seven months, sinking over 200 ships and taking roughly 5,000 lives in the process.
The day after the first attack, a seven-man US Army air crew took to the skies in a B-18 Bomber to begin patrolling for U-boats along New England’s coast. As the winter weather took a turn for the worse, enveloping the plane in snow, the crew was thrown off course. Glimpsing city lights below and mistakenly identifying them as those of Providence, Rhode Island, they navigated towards what they thought was Westover Field in Massachusetts. But the city they saw was in fact Concord, New Hampshire, and they were unknowingly headed towards the White Mountains.
Before the crew realized their mistake, the plane began clipping treetops on Mount Waternomee, a sub-peak on the eastern side of Mount Moosilauke. It quickly crashed to the ground, wings and parts ripping off as it skidded more than 200 feet through the snow-covered woods. Just minutes after it came to a stop, a fire erupted and spread through the fuselage, heading straight towards the bombs the plane was carrying. It was not long before three massive explosions rocked the surrounding towns.
According to The Littleton Courier in an article published the following day, a group of “experienced woodsmen rounded up by the Parker Young Company at Lincoln, US Forest Service Rangers, and members of the State Police” immediately took to the woods in search of survivors. Hiking through the wilderness in deep snow, with sleds, medical supplies, and clothing in tow, they miraculously recovered five of the seven crew members. The other two had not escaped the plane before the bombs exploded.
To this day, the remains of the B-18 litter the grounds of Mount Waternomee and a mounted plaque serves as a memorial to the crew. It’s not the easiest site to find, a large chunk of the hike is unpleasantly stairmaster-esque, and this time of year the water crossing can be challenging, but it is worth the effort. When you see the wreckage firsthand, picture the soldiers who crashed down with that plane, and imagine the selfless men and women who searched those frozen woods for survivors, you’ll hardly notice your aching muscles.
There are several websites with directions on how to reach the crash site, but this one seems to be the most detailed. If you go soon, you’ll also get to see some great early-spring wildflowers (purple trillium, trout lilies, Dutchman’s breeches, and many more). Bring a friend and a snack, enjoy the exercise, and take some time to reflect on the event that put this spot on the map. Appreciate the natural beauty and the unique history… and the fact that you’re not there on a freezing, snowy night in January!