This WWII Plane Lay Frozen In Time For 72 Years – But Then A Heatwave Uncovered Its Secrets

Image: Edvard Majakari

It’s August 2018, and Europe has been sweltering in an unusually severe heatwave. And high in the Swiss Alps, the Gauli Glacier has been receding as a result of the high temperatures. As the glacier melts, however, it reveals evidence of a dramatic incident that occurred more than 70 years previously. You see, at this very spot in November 1946, an American C-53 Skytrooper plane smashed into the side of a mountain.

Image: Perry Hoppe

That C-53 Skytrooper – a variant of the Douglas DC-3 civilian aircraft – was a U.S. military passenger plane, and four crew members and eight passengers were aboard the craft that November night when it took off from the German city of Munich. The destination of the flight was meant to be Marseille in the south of France.

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But the Skytrooper had flown into a storm as it crossed the Bernese Alps and had ultimately come to grief in the unforgiving mountains. Poor weather conditions had forced the pilot to divert from his planned course; indeed, the temperature on the Gauli Glacier that night was a bone-chilling 5 °F.

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Owing to the thick fog in the area, then, the pilot had been flying blind over the Alpine peaks at an altitude that was really too low for the terrain. And, ultimately, that decision proved catastrophic. Yes, that glacier on the side of the mountain became the plane’s unplanned landing point.

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Of course, when an aircraft crash-lands on the side of a mountain, the prospects for passenger survival are not good to say the least. But we’ll come back to the fate of these 12 unfortunates – including men, women and an 11-year-old child – who were aboard the aircraft that night. First, though, let’s find out a bit more about the C-53 Skytrooper.

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As previously mentioned, the C-53 Skytrooper was a modified version of the Douglas DC-3 civil airliner. And, in fact, the Skytrooper was one of two DC-3 variants used by the U.S. military during the Second World War – the other being the C-47 Skytrain. Yet while the Skytrooper was specifically designed for carrying passengers, the Skytrain was a more general-purpose craft used for transporting freight as well as troops.

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The DC-3, with its rather stubby fuselage and twin propellers, had first come into commercial service in 1936, having been developed as a sleeper plane with 14 berths. However, the model rapidly became much more commonly seen as a straightforward passenger plane that could carry up to 32 people. And the DC-3 has been credited with opening air travel up to a far broader range of Americans than had previously flown by the 1930s.

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Yet while Douglas ultimately made 607 DC-3s, in 1942 all production changed over to the military variants: the C-52 Skytrooper and the C-47 Skytrain. And the number of DC-3-type models built soared to an eventual 16,000 as a result. Astonishingly, an estimated 2,000 of those planes were still in service in 2013.

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But the model we’re interested in – the one that took off from Munich on November 18, 1946 – is the C-53 Skytrooper. Interestingly, Douglas started manufacturing the Skytrooper in October 1941 – so, before the end of DC-3 production. And while the plane bore some resemblance to the Skytrain, it nevertheless lacked the latter’s hoisting gear, cargo door and strengthened floor.

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Altogether, more than 10,000 of the DC-3 military variants were constructed over the course of the Second World War. Yet only 380 of those planes were Skytroopers, as the Skytrain was regarded as being altogether more adaptable to the demands of military service. The Skytroopers themselves, meanwhile, were built at the Douglas factory in Santa Monica, California.

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And before its flight from Munich, our Skytrooper had taken off from the Tulln Air Base – situated some 19 miles from the Austrian capital of Vienna – on the afternoon of Monday November 18, 1946. Owing to reports of bad weather, the crew had planned a route via Munich and Marseille and then on to their final destination of Pisa in Italy. Overall, the journey would take two days.

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Piloted by Captain Ralph H. Tate Jr., the plane successfully completed the first leg of its journey. Then the next day at 1:05 p.m, the Skytrooper took off for Marseille. And for the first section of the flight – which took around 60 minutes or so – everything had gone to plan, with the passengers all enjoying a smooth ride.

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But then the bad weather of which the crew had been warned was just as severe as expected, and this forced Tate to change his route plan. The situation wasn’t improved, either, by thick fog that subsequently engulfed the Skytrooper and left the pilot unsure of his exact location for a period of 25 minutes.

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In fact, it’s almost a miracle that the plane managed to fly across the Swiss Alps for close to half an hour without crashing. The Skytrooper was traveling at an altitude of around 11,000 feet, you see, meaning it was perilously close to mountains that soared as much as 11,800 feet into the foggy skies. But the crew and passengers’ luck would not hold.

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Yes, as increasingly violent bouts of turbulence rocked the Skytrooper and threw it up and down a thousand feet at a time, the virtually inevitable happened: the plane crash-landed on the side of a mountain. Specifically, it came down on the glacier we heard about earlier, the Gauli – smashing into the ice at a speed of 170 miles an hour.

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Incredibly, though, all 12 of those aboard the plane survived the impact, with the only injuries sustained being a fractured leg and a broken nose. That passenger list consisted of four U.S. Army officers, two non-commissioned soldiers, one non-military man, four women and an 11-year-old girl. Among them, of course, was the pilot, Captain Tate; his mother, Marguerite, was on board, too.

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The rest of the crew was made up of co-pilot Second Lieutenant Irving Matthews, radio operator Sergeant Louis Hill and flight engineer Private Wayne G. Folsom. Others on the plane included Alberta Snavely, wife of senior U.S. soldier Brigadier General Ralph Snavely. Then there was Brigadier General Loyal M. Haynes and his wife, Lona, and George Harvey – the sole civilian male.

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Yet at first the survivors probably didn’t realize quite how lucky their escape had been. When the plane had crash-landed, you see, it had initially slid up the glacier, heading for a deep chasm in the surface of the ice and snow. Fortunately, the starboard wing of the aircraft had then snagged on a snow bank, diverting the Skytrooper from its lethal course towards that crevasse.

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And, as previously mentioned, there was also a child on the flight: Alice McMahon, who was on the aircraft with her father, Colonel William C. McMahon, and her mother. The injured, meanwhile, were Private Folsom, who’d suffered the broken leg, and Brigadier General Haynes who’d sustained the fractured nose. Overall, then, all 12 on board the plane had survived more or less intact.

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Yet the crash was not the only danger that the dozen people faced. Now, they were stuck 11,000 feet up a mountain in a extremely remote spot. And even if they were found somehow, how on Earth would they be brought off the mountain? Before this question received a definitive answer, however, there was nothing for the survivors to do but try their best to survive in the extreme conditions.

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And Alice McMahon remembered the crash and its aftermath in an interview that was published just nine days after the plane had come down. She said to Australian newspaper The Argus, “I put down my magazine to look out of the window, but I could no longer see anything. Then there was a very hard bump.”

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“I turned round and saw Mrs. Snavely trying to put on her parachute at the door of the plane,” McMahon continued. “Mr. Harvey forced open the door, and Mrs. Snavely jumped. When I reached the door, I heard [Mrs. Snavely] yell, ‘Say, these Swiss mountains are made of snow.’ She was standing in snow up to her shoulders. Then I jumped without a parachute.”

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Humorous as that account may be, the survivors of the crash may not have been particularly gleeful when considering how they would get off the freezing glacier. But it seems that the intrepid Snavely had the temperament to stop panic setting in and to keep morale high. And McMahon remembered her words of encouragement, too.

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“Mrs Snavely organized everybody’s nerves. She pulled herself out of the snow and shouted to all who came out of the plane, ‘Keep calm, we’re okay,’” McMahon said in her interview. In addition, the girl described how the passengers managed to get the plane’s radio set transmitting within 30 minutes of the crash.

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Yes, thankfully the survivors managed to get a message out to British authorities in the French city of Istres, which lies less than 40 miles from the Skytrooper’s intended destination of Marseille. The recipients acknowledged the message, too, and said that help would be on its way. But on its way to where? The survivors of the crash had no idea of their precise position, after all – and nor at this stage did any would-be rescuers.

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Furthermore, while American B-17 Flying Fortresses flew over the general location that the radio signals had given, the planes were all at a height of 16,000 feet – meaning their chances of spotting the survivors on the glacier were slim at best. And to compound the difficulties, precisely pinpointing the location of the stricken Skytrooper via radio signal was an impossible task owing to the metal content of the mountains.

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Back on the glacier, then, the survivors had to make the best of things. Luckily, the male civilian survivor, Harvey, had some rudimentary medical knowledge. He therefore administered morphine to Folsom and made a temporary splint for his broken leg. And all of the Americans wrapped themselves in parachutes to fend off the extreme cold.

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The passengers and crew of the plane had also brought lunch boxes – the contents of which sustained them for the first three days on the glacier. After that, the survivors broke into some candy bars they’d bought in Munich. For drinking water, meanwhile, they made fires with gasoline and melted the snow. And to pass the time, the group played cards.

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But after three days on the mountain, things were looking decidedly grim. The survivors had sent out what would be almost their last message two days after the crash; on that occasion, they had pleaded yet again for rescue. And further bad luck came the following day when a heavy snowfall covered the plane, likely making it even more difficult for rescuers to spot the group of 12 on the remote mountain side.

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But just when hopes may have been fading altogether, a B-29 Superfortress appeared overhead. And, incredibly, one of the people on board was General Ralph Tate Sr.: the pilot’s father. Perhaps that’s not so surprising, though, given that both Tate Sr.’s son and wife were among the survivors of the crash.

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And when those on the ground spotted the plane, they shot off red flares that the Superfortress answered with a green flare. What’s more, although the Skytrooper’s radio batteries were almost dead, there was just enough juice to get the contraption going once more. Tate subsequently heard and recognized his dad’s voice, and the two had just enough time to greet each other before the radio went dead.

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So, now the outside world knew the exact location of the crashed Skytrooper. But how would anyone be able to get the 11,000 feet up the mountain in severe winter conditions to affect a rescue? At any rate, at least, planes could now drop supplies to the survivors, which they duly did – even if most of these provisions were ultimately lost in the deep Alpine snow.

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Then, finally, the rescue attempt got into gear. This endeavor saw some 150 soldiers of the U.S. Army’s 88th Infantry Division with specialist mountain training all set out on military Jeeps and snowcats. But none of these vehicles really had the capacity for an extended climb up a steep Alpine mountain that was covered in heavy snow and ice.

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Eventually, Swiss soldiers managed to reach the crashed plane on skis after a grueling climb that had taken 13 hours. And the men had no choice but to stay the night with the survivors, at which point a full evacuation of the Americans still seemed like a distant hope. Then, in the morning, the Swiss guided the group of 12 to an Alpine mountaineers’ hut on the glacier. By now, the dozen had been stranded on the mountain for five days.

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Then, however, two Swiss pilots came up with an ingenuous idea. Captain Victor Hug and Major Pista Hitz both flew Fieseler Storch planes – extremely light and small aircraft that could land on a dime. And while the dime in this case was on a treacherously icy stretch of glacier, the pilots nevertheless fixed runners to their planes in the hope that these would allow them to land on ice.

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Still, the outcome of this brave attempt was far from certain. You see, although Hug and Hitz had both landed on snow on many previous occasions, neither had yet done so successfully on a glacier. Yet the courageous two pulled the feat off. In fact, the men both went on to repeat the procedure time after time, as it took no fewer than eight flights to rescue all of the survivors. Then, after all had been transported to safety, the crashed plane disappeared under snow and ice – apparently for good.

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But the Skytrooper wouldn’t remain buried forever. The first indication that a plane remained at the crash site came in 2012, when three teenagers out climbing came across one of the craft’s propellers. A few years later, though, that exciting discovery would be eclipsed by a much more dramatic one.

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Yes, in August 2018 – and so nearly 72 years after the crash – many pieces of the Skytrooper’s wreckage emerged from the glacier. That summer had been one of the hottest ever experienced in the Swiss Alps in more than 150 years, and the melting ice had subsequently moved the debris two miles from the crash site. The Swiss Air Force worked to retrieve the wreckage, too, and some of the remnants of the plane will eventually be exhibited to the public.

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Plus, it turns out that the 1946 crash left a positive legacy. You see, Hug and Hitz’s valiant rescue effort had proved that people could be retrieved from up high in the mountains – even in winter. With that in mind, then, the Swiss Air Rescue Guard came into being in 1952.

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