#0032: Fall Of The Fortress
Updated: Jun 2, 2020
As I've become more familiar with the quirks of life on the Secret Coast, I've grown incredibly fond of one routine in particular.
Join me for a coffee on any given weekday morning during the summer months and, beneath the chatter, and the music, and the trickle of the burn outside, you might feel an almost imperceptible vibration in the air. At first, you might even think you're imagining it.
But you're not.
Pretty quickly, that vibration becomes a hum. And it gets louder.
We'll dash out into the garden and blink into the sunlight just in time to see a Lockheed C-130 Hercules burst over the ridge to the south and, hanging no more than forty metres above the ground, track the river up the glen, its four propellers glinting in the summer sky as it continues its training flight north.
It's an exhilarating reminder of the many stories to be told of the long history that the Cowal Peninsula shares with the military. For today, however, I want to share the tale of an aircraft which got too close to Cowal for comfort.
It’s late August and the trees are just beginning to show the promise of autumn, the edges of their deep green leaves burnished with gold. I watch as crows swoop down to pick at heavy clusters of rowan berries hanging low from drooping branches, shining like jewels in the wet light. Above them, the conifers heave and sigh under weighty crowns of glistening cones.
A cabbage white butterfly, nearing the end of its season, floats through a patch of nettles as fat raindrops begin to fall from the heavy sky.
Following the track away from Succothmore Farm, the landscape transforms as the gentle trough of the valley tightens into a deep scar, closing in from open grazing land to dense forest.
A burn trickles down the hillside and cuts across my path on its way to join the river Cur. The dancing splash of the water and the caw of the feeding crows my only company whilst, overhead, the narrow sky turns rapidly from steely grey, to hazy silver, to the palest blue, as I continue my climb through the woods.
By the time I reach the old forestry bridge across the Cur, the rain has stopped and the sun is streaming through breaks in the patchy cloud. Its light, dappled by the trees above me, skips across the rotting planks. In places, the timber has given way completely, exposing the tumbling, foaming waters below.
It won’t be long until the combined efforts of the encroaching landscape and the passage of time claim back the bridge completely. For now, however, I keep climbing deeper into the forest.
Until now, I've been following a fairly well defined path up through the woodland and into the hills. When I meet a powerful mountain stream, however, that path comes to an abrupt and dramatic end. The stream tumbles down the hill in a series of waterfalls, leaping from rocks and crashing into plunge pools, like a string of pearls draped down the hillside of Stob na Boine Druim-fhinn.
I jump from stone to stone across the stream and, fringed on both sides by the forest edge, I scramble up the rocks and muddy earth that line the falls.
At the point where the water throws itself clear of a cliff edge, turning to a fine mist on the rocks several metres below, I stop to look back down the valley. Across the stream. Over the forest. Out to Loch Fyne and the hills beyond.
And I think about why I'm here.
On the morning of Monday, 17th January, 1949, US Air Force Boeing B-29 Superfortress 44-62276 was en route from RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire, to Keflavík, Iceland, on the first leg of her journey home to Smoky Hill in Kansas. With twenty crew and passengers on board, she was accompanied by another B-29 on her journey north.
She was a magnificent beast. One of the largest aircraft deployed during World War II, she was a technological marvel, used for low altitude, night time bombing missions. Under the names Bockscar and Enola Gay, it was the B-29 type aircraft which brought the Pacific theatre of war to a blistering, horrifying end less than four years earlier.
Now, crossing into Scottish airspace on that cold January morning, 44-62279 was reaching the end of her own journey.
As the two aircraft travelled further north, the weather began to deteriorate. The pilot of the second Superfortress made the call to return to RAF Scampton and await better conditions. 44-62279, however, remained on course.
The details of what happened next remain unclear, but it's likely that heavy icing of her wings and control surfaces played their part as the aircraft fell from the sky and ploughed into the side of Stob na Boine Druim-fhinn.
No one survived.
As I sit by the waterfall, gazing out across the heartbreaking landscape, it occurs to me that this could have been their final view. I imagine this great monster of the skies as she drops out of the heavy clouds, passing from jolting turbulence to clear, smooth air. For the briefest of moments, the men on board will have looked out across the expanse of Cowal. Over thick forests, frozen peaks, and the still, silvery waters of the lochs bathed in morning light. This view reflected off the aircrafts polished fuselage. It burnt into her crews memories.
Beyond the cliff edge, the climb becomes less steep and the stream meanders from side to side as the terrain flattens out.
As I leap from bank to bank, making my way up the gentle hillside, I spot a twisted piece of fuselage breaking the surface of the stream, its riveted, aluminium skin stained the same colour as the peaty water.
I see another piece further away from the stream and, from there, follow a trail of metal fragments into the trees. Momentarily, the forest closes in around me again, before it opens into a clearing. Sheltered from the stream and the breeze, the air falls silent and still. As I step out of the woods and into the crash site of 44-62279, that silence is broken only by the sound of a distant aircraft passing overhead.
A radial engine block is being dragged into the earth by grasses and moss. A short distance away, the tail turret rests by a tree. Beyond it, the oil-soaked ground is strewn with fragments of twisted metal. Some are so corroded and their patina so heavy that they could almost be stone. Others shine as bright as the day they left the factory.
In the years since the crash, local legend has embellished the story of 44-62279 with tales of Nazi scientists, smuggled diamonds and covert recovery missions. To be here though, all that additional commentary feels superfluous. This place tells its own history exactly the way it should be heard.
I expected to feel uneasy being here by myself. I don't. But I do know that this is a story which will haunt me for a long time to come.
As I make my way back down the hillside, I think of those twenty men, so far from home up here in the Scottish mountains, whose adventure came to an end on 17th January, 1949.
May their story fly on.
Dedicated to the memory of:
First Lieutenant Sheldon C Craigmyle
First Lieutenant Myrton P Barry
First Lieutenant Richard D Klingenberg
First Lieutenant Robert A Fritsche
Technical Sergeant Delbert E Cole
Master Sergeant Wayne W Baker
Technical Sergeant John B Lapicca
Staff Sergeant Malcolm W Bovard
Sergeant Anthony V Chrisides
Sergeant Rufus W Mangum
Private First Class Jack L Heacock
Master Sergeant Henry P Prestoch
Technical Sergeant Frank M Dobbs Jr.
Sergeant Cecil G Jones
Sergeant Charles W Hess
Private First Class Robert Brown Jr.
Technical Sergeant Rufus G Taylor
Sergeant Paul W Knight
Private First Class Frederick N Cook
Private First Class Bruce J Krumhols