(This article appeared in the Ft. Wayne, Indiana, Journal Gazette on Nov 11, 1994)

Memorial honors local soldier killed in '41 crash

by Nancy Vendreley
Staff Writer


Never forgotten by family and now remembered by strangers, Fort Wayne native Vernon H. Engelbrecht, who died in a military plane crash just 23 days after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, is being memorialized along with his crew mates.

Because three hikers were curious about the old wreckage of a plane on Keller Peak in California's San Bernardino Mountains, this Veteran's Day there is a new bronze plaque there, dedicated to the Army Air Forces crew that crashed on the mountain Dec 30, 1941.

David G. Schmidt, who lives in the small town of Arrowbear Lake at the base of the 8,000-foot peak, went hiking about two years ago with two young friends, William K. Blake, Jr. and David K. Blake, then 12 and 9.

"We had gone to the lookout tower on a sunny day and you could see the wreckage," Schmidt said by phone from California. He teaches at Mount San Antonio College in Walnut, Calif.

The three hiked down for a closer look. William, an aficionado of World War II aircraft, was convinced the engines were from a World War II era B-26 that crashed sometime in the 1950s.

"We were all curious about the fate of the wrecked plane and the fate of the crew," Schmidt says.

Thus began a two-year search to learn the true story of the B-26. Air Force records revealed no crashes on Keller Peak in the 1950s, and Schmidt could find nothing to show it might have been a civilian-owned plane.

Finally, a mountain historian in Arrowbear Lake provided a clue -- the plane had crashed much earlier, probably at the beginning of World War II.

Schmidt began searching through old newspapers and came upon a Jan 2, 1942 Associated Press story telling about the loss of a twin-engine Army bomber as a formation of nine B-26 bombers flew into a cloud bank over the mountains on Dec 30, 1941.

Armed with that information, Schmidt was able to obtain more details from the Air Force. He was told that the planes had taken off from Muroc, Calif (now Edwards Air Force Base) for a bombing exercise in the desert and that they were to land at March Field in Riverside, Calif, on completion of the exercise. Their flight path to March Field took them through Cajon Pass in the San Bernardino Mountains.

When the planes met cloudy, icy weather conditions in the Pass, they widened their three-plane V formations to avoid collisions. And when they emerged from the clouds, plane 40-1475 (Engelbrecht's plane) at the trailing right side of the last formation, was missing.

Schmidt says it appears from the crash site today that the plane hit a tree before nosing into the mountain.

After learning the true story of the B-26, Schmidt and the Blake boys wanted to do something to set the record straight and "to remember the brave crew".

They commissioned a 12-by-15-inch bronze plaque and obtained the permission of the U.S. Forest Service to have it installed on Keller Peak. Weather permitting, the plaque was to be placed by today. Schmidt says it is to be "either right above the crash site or in the (nearby) historic 1926 fire watchtower building."

In either case, though it is steep mountain terrain, a new road just paved this year provides access. Schmidt also hopes to place information about the crew in a new visitors' center now under construction at the adjacent National Children's Forest.

Engelbrecht's brother, Norman, and two sisters, Leona Sievers and Verona Ormiston, still live in Fort Wayne. Norman, 80, and Leona, 70, well remember the day a telegram came to their parents from the commanding officer of their brother's base. It was Jan 1, 1942.

"We deeply regret to inform you that your son's airplane is 24 hours overdue," it said.

Every day, another telegram came to George and Mary Engelbrecht. "No further information. Search continues."

On Jan 15, a telegram said the plane was "believed found". On Jan 17, the message was "been located... eight bodies recovered. Your son was not recovered."

Then a letter came from Jim Walper, one of Vernon's Army buddies who had been at the search site. He sent photos and letters found near the wreckage and assured the Engelbrechts they would not give up the search for Vern.

"My parents went through hell those three weeks," Norman Engelbrecht said. "They offered to go out and help search. They consulted clairvoyants and fortune tellers. They just wanted to do something."

On Jan 20, Vernon's body was found under the plane. The Army advised cremation or immediate burial in California, but George and Mary Engelbrecht wanted their son to come home. He was placed in a sealed casket and shipped home.

"He came in by train at the Pennsylvania station on Baker Street," Norman Engelbrecht says. "There were two M.P.s with him. There was a glass top, a sub top, over the casket with a complete uniform laid out in it -- the tie and everything. Vern was underneath the panel."

Leona Sievers, 18 at the time, helped her mother make a scrapbook of Vernon's military service, plus all the telegrams, letters, newspaper stories and photos at the time of his death. She turns its pages carefully, protective of the memories and the life they represent.

Vern enlisted soon after graduating from North Side High School in 1939. He graduated from the Army's Casey Jones School of Aeronautics on June 2, 1941, and was stationed at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. He was a flight engineer, a PFC with a specialist 4th class rating.

Vernon's funeral on Jan 24 at Concordia Lutheran Church was the city's first military burial service of World War II. Soldiers from Baer Field were pass bearers and men from American Legion Post 47 conducted military rites at the grave site in Concordia Cemetery.

Unfortunately, local reports all carried the same incorrect spelling of Engelbrecht's last name that the Army had used. Everywhere in the official military records, the name is misspelled Englebrecht, except for a citation his parents received from President Franklin D. Roosevelt. There, it says, "in grateful memory of PFC Vernon Engelbrecht."

Now, though the new plaque has the incorrect Army spelling, Vernon Engelbrecht's name and the names of his crew mates will be not be forgotten because of the efforts of three caring strangers who sensed their spirit up on Keller Peak.

The crew members are 2nd Lt. Frank A. Kobal of Queens, NY; 2nd Lt. Joseph B. Maloney, Waterbury, Conn.; Tech Sgt. Waldo C. Jensen, Langley Field, VA; Sgt. Roger F. Organ, Springfield, Ohio; PFC William R. Chinn, Ironton, PA; PFC Vernon H. Engelbrecht, Fort Wayne, Ind; PFC George C. May, Foxworth, Miss.; PFC Robert M. Enyeart, Columbus, Ohio; and Pvt. Jack C. Shirley, Lavonia, GA.


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