In 1957, Gustavus was a small community, consisting of only fifty or so people. The airfield was built during WWII as a refueling stop for planes traveling the almost 1,500 mile trip from Seattle to Anchorage. The only accounts from the frightful night of November 23, 1957, are from a few homesteaders and the survivors of the crash.
Anxious to get home to their families for the holidays, eleven men of the U.S. National Guard boarded a twin engine Douglas C-47 and headed for Anchorage, AK. Of these men were four crewman, six civilian employees, and one army “hitchhiker”.
The crew was unable to make their scheduled refueling stop in Annette Island due to heavy winds and severe turbulence. At this point, they had two options: Turn around, causing unwanted delay and excessive fuel usage, or, refuel in Gustavus. The choice was seemingly obvious, and they headed for Gustavus. Unfortunately, the pilot was new to Alaskan weather conditions. For those unfamiliar, Alaska’s weather is unpredictable and challenging. Fog can swoop in without notice, and can be followed by with powerful winds and consistent rain.
In the snow and dark, the pilot decided to make a “short” visual approach to the runway in Gustavus. After one approach, the passengers could see the lights, but not the runway. Again, the pilot attempted to survey the runway. Survivor Harry Aase recalls, “We made one approach and we could see the lights as we went over, but we did not land. Then the pilot went back and tried again. This is twice now we had seen the lights of the airport. We were beginning to worry a bit in the passenger apartment.”
The third attempt to land became fatal. The plane was too low, and the right wing clipped a tall tree. The aircraft spun and landed into the ground, nose first. Mr. Aase states: “We were all knocked unconscious, except for our hitchhiker.. he apparently just rode the plane down (from the rear). He just kept hollering for the plane to land, land, land!”
Fire began spitting from where the exhaust had pulled loose. It was pitch black otherwise. The survivors, dazed and rattled, decided to exit the aircraft and inspect one another with small flashlights they were able to recover. Knocked out teeth, a broken arm and jaw, and a few scratches. Only some had survived.
Homesteader Anne Chase remembers the event well. “After supper.. it was snowing so hard, so we decided to stay home. Suddenly, we heard this airplane circling. It was a large plane with a heavy motor going around and around… We heard a thump, but did not think much of it (we thought it was the dogs). A few minute later, Les Parker called and said, ‘Did you hear the plane? Did you hear where it crashed?’.
The snow was nearly two feet deep that night. A local homesteader, Gene, had decided to take a flashlight and his dog out to look for the plane. Unfortunately, Gene’s flashlight was too dim to recognize his surroundings. He later found out that he had come within 75 yards of the plane. The passengers later recalled seeing Gene’s dog- but thought it was a wolf. They decided to stay by the plane.
The survivors decided to try and make camp. An emergency crank-radio was discovered, but they agreed to wait until morning to use it, as it was too dark and they couldn’t be seen.
Almost every homesteader in Gustavus helped in the search and rescue. The brave locals were fanned out along what is now Mountain View Road, making their way into the darkness. Once they reached the crash site, seven survivors were found. Ken Youman, a local, carried one survivor out on his back. Others were carried out on makeshift gurneys composed of branches. Once out of the woods, the survivors were transported to the only local lodge at the time.
- Lloyd Timmons; army security station in Kenai Peninsula
- 2nd Harry S. Aase, 28, chief of personnel for territorial military department in Juneau
- Robert D. Ellis, 22, staff assistant for the 208th infantry battalion of the AK National Guard, Juneau
- Warrant Officer (J.G.) Richard J. Mueller, 38, administrative specialist for the National Guard, Juneau
- M-Sgt James E. O’Rourke, 39, unit caretaker headquarters 207th infantry battalion, Anchorage
- 1st Wallace J. Harrison, 29, staff assistant, headquarters 1st scout battalion, Bethel
- 2nd William W. Caldwell, 27, staff assistant, headquarters 1st scout battalion, Nome
- Captain Robert E. Kafader, 37, a Californian recently transferred to Anchorage National Guard, due to his mutli-engine qualifications
- 1st Dennis V. Stamey, 29, Anchorage; was in training and in transition for a transfer to the Florida National Guard, where he planned to fly jets
- Staff Sgt. Floyd S. Porter, 29, Anchorage; nicknamed “Red” and the only single man aboard
- Staff Sgt. David A. Dial, 34, Anchorage, Radio Man
“Take a moment to remember. In the quietness of your surroundings, as you take in this incomprehendable yet unsightly scene. Honor these survivors and brave residents who stepped into action.” -Rita Wilson
Credit: “The Complete 1957 Gustavus Plane Crash” by Rita Wilson and the Gustavus Historical Archives & Antiques (gustavushistory.org)