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