Grim anniversary: Reflecting on Idaho's Pat Hollow military plane crash of 1953

A man holds a piece of the Pat Hollow plane crash wreckage in 1953. Forty people, including 37 military members, were killed in the Jan. 7, 1953, crash.

A man holds a piece of the Pat Hollow plane crash wreckage in 1953. Forty people, including 37 military members, were killed in the Jan. 7, 1953, crash. (Utah State University Special Collections)



Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes

Editor's note: This article is a part of a series reviewing Utah and U.S. history for KSL.com's Historic section._

PAT HOLLOW, Idaho — The area in the Bear River Mountain Range known as Pat Hollow can be a quiet spot.

Located about 8 miles west of Fish Haven, Idaho, there's an occasional hum of an ATV in the summer, the drone of a passing plane or the rustle of aspen leaves might be heard on a breezy day. In the winter, the buzz of snowmobiles might fill the air at times.

But, for the most part, the area is still.

In the early morning hours of Jan. 7, 1953, there was a terrible sound, though. A Curtis C-46 military transport plane took the tops off of several pine trees and crashed into the mountain. The impact was so violent that most of the plane was destroyed.

Sadly, all its passengers — 37 Korean War veterans, two pilots and one flight attendant — perished upon impact, too.

The Pat Hollow crash

The flight originated from Boeing Field in Seattle and was destined for Fort Jackson, South Carolina, as noted by Korean War Educator and the Stokes Nature Center. The military had arranged the flight in an orderly fashion with military personnel carrying last names starting with H, J and K on board.

The flight plan would take them in a southeast direction with the first scheduled stop in Cheyenne, Wyoming, to refuel.

Upon time of takeoff, the weather reports indicated broken clouds to overcast, especially over the mountains, with cloud tops ranging from 10,000 feet to 14,000 feet. Visibility was estimated to be around 15 miles. The report also mentioned the possibility of icing in clouds and precipitation above 6,000 feet.

Icing is the build-up of ice on the wing of a plane. An early symptom of icing is a decrease in speed. Some forms of icing can change airflow over the wing affecting the actual lift of the plane. Even thin layers of ice may reduce lift by as much as 30% and increase drag by 40%.

Everything appeared normal early on. The pilots made radio contact as required along the route, reporting an elevation of 13,000 feet near Malad City, Idaho, at 3:58 a.m. It turned out to be their last report. Fourteen minutes later, the C-46 went missing.

The Air Search and Rescue units of the United States Air Force conducted a search for the plane. Five days after the plane disappeared, on Jan. 12, 1953, the pilot of a civil air patrol search flight reported seeing the wreckage. Two Air Force paramedics parachuted into the crash scene and confirmed it was the missing C-46 and that there were no survivors.

An official report of the crash later determined that icing of the plane wing was the probable cause. Items from the plane that could be recovered showed no mechanical problems. The fact that the pilots' radio report over Malad City reported no trouble and the fact that the plane had crashed within minutes after the report gives credibility to the theory that the plane experienced major turbulence from a winter storm over the Bear River Mountains.

The report also found that the plane went down facing the northwest, giving some speculation that the troubled plane had turned around trying to make it back to Malad. The plane was also 401 pounds overweight, which some speculate may have contributed to the crash.

A monument to the victims of the crash with the names of all onboard was erected and dedicated in 1967.

A connection with a victim's family

Michael S. Sweeney's book "Last Unspoiled Place, Exploring Utah's Logan Canyon" offered one of the best descriptions of the crash with a couple of real-life events that followed.

Sweeny describes how the sheriff of Bear Lake County, Idaho, deputized 12 members of a horse-riding club called the Bear Lake Rangers to ride into the area after Lamont "Junior" Pugmire of Saint Charles, Idaho, learned of a radio message from those who spotted the wreckage. Pugmire was familiar with the area and recognized it from the spotter's descriptions in that radio message.

According to Sweeny, the Bear Lake Rangers rode along the ridges of Green Canyon until they reached deep snows that made it too difficult to continue on horseback. Pugmire and three other men brought snowshoes and continued to the crash site.

Pugmire was one of the first men to see the devastation as he joined the paramedics at the site. Pugmire found a letter and picked it up — it was a letter to one of the deceased servicemen named Joe from his wife, Yvonne Kelley. The paramedics on site told Pugmire not to take anything so he left the letter when he and his three friends left the site.

Sweeny further writes: "Later the Pugmires saw a news report out of Seattle that said one of the men on the ill-fated plane, Pearl Kelley, had mailed a memento home to his wife in Birmingham, Alabama, before he boarded. That was how the Pugmires knew where Yvonne lived."

Because the crash area was in the mountains with deep snow, the recovery efforts could not be made until later. The area was guarded by military personnel. It was not until June 1953 that the last of the recovery effort was completed.

Ada Pugmire, Lamont's wife and the postmaster of St. Charles, went on to contact the postmaster in Birmingham, where they were able to reach Kelley's family, according to Sweeney's book. The Pugmires went on to accompany Yvonne when she visited Pat Hollow with her late husband's mother in May.

The story doesn't end there, however, according to Sweeney.

A regular hiker in Logan Canyon, Hal Briggs was once hiking in the Pat Hollow area with a friend when they noticed something reflecting the sun. He first thought it might be a piece of the plane, but turned out to be a pearl. It was a little worn and had a small chip that when viewed just right produced the glint, Sweeney wrote.

Many visitors to the Pat Hollow area still find small items from the plane crash and will leave them on top of or around the 6-foot monument built as a memorial to the lost soldiers and crew.

Briggs, according to Sweeney, decided to take the pearl home and try to figure out a way to get it to a relative of one of the victims. On the 50th anniversary of the crash, in 2003, Briggs saw a newspaper article about the crash. The article mentioned Yvonne Kelley Smith and her husband, Pearl "J.P." Kelley.

Briggs and Yvonne were put in contact by a reporter and arrangement was made to give Yvonne the pearl. She accepted on behalf of everyone on the plane, keeping it a curio cabinet with her late husband's military medals.

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