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A B-24 Liberator bomber crashes into the ice of Lake Pepin in December 1944.

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“The plane seemed to be climbing and when it was about one-half mile off shore, it began banking to the right, and the bank and turn kept increasing and the ship just kept spiraling down and crashed through the ice.

It made a terrific crash and immediately after it hit, there was another explosion and smoke and flames erupted from the spot.”

— L.M. Potter, Pepin, Wis. (statement to Maynard Bauer, Major, Army Air Corps, Station Accident Officer, December 16, 1944, in the Army report of the accident)

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The Day WWII Came to Lake Pepin

By Bob Parrott
Big River, November-December 2007

If you were to canvass people in the Lake Pepin area today, chances are you couldn’t find anyone who remembers the day in 1944 that a B-24 Liberator bomber crashed into the ice of Lake Pepin.

For those not familiar with military aircraft, a B-24 was a four-engine, propeller-driven plane built for long-range bombing runs. It had a 110-foot wingspan and ten 50-caliber machine guns, and could carry 8,800 pounds of bombs. It was normally flown with a crew of 10.

On December 15, 1944, there were no bombs falling or bullets flying — at least not in Minnesota — but the war was on everyone’s mind. The front page banner of the Lake City Graphic newspaper read, “One Week Nearer Victory.” Full-page ads encouraged people to “buy at least one extra $100 war bond over and above your regular purchases.” Meat, butter, sugar, fruit and alcohol were luxuries, and the local hardware store was suggesting practical gifts. People were planning for another war-time Christmas.

A B-24 was being ferried from St. Paul to Kansas City, with a three-man skeleton crew. It was a cold, snowy Friday afternoon, and a brief, squally snowstorm had kicked up over the lake. Less than half an hour into its flight, the plane circled low over Pepin, Wis., and turned westward, possibly in an attempt to reach an emergency landing field at Frontenac, Minn.

At about 2 p.m. the plane went down, struck the ice and exploded in a mass of flames. It plowed a quarter-mile-long hole in the two-inch-thick ice, extending upstream from the point of impact. The plane was demolished by a second explosion as its wing tanks blew up.

Snow was blowing over the lake, and visibility was very poor. Watchers on shore could hear the plane, but could not see it. Although the Army occasionally flew planes in the area, hearing bombers was unusual.

Three Lake City firemen, Ben Simons, Woody Key and Willard Peterson, pushed their boat ahead of them across the ice to reach the scene, which was about two-thirds of the way across the river between Maple Springs, Minn., and Pepin, Wis. They were the closest responders, since Pepin had no fire or rescue service. When they arrived at the crash site, they found nothing but oxygen tanks floating amid the broken ice, and parts of the plane scattered over a wide area of ice.

After three days of searching, Army officials gave up hope that any of the crew had escaped the crash. A diver was called from Chicago to search for the bodies. Knee-deep mud on the lake bottom handicapped the diver’s efforts, as did working under 24 feet of water in total darkness beneath the ice-capped and snow covered surface.

The official military report said the crash was caused by the inexperience of the crew and bad weather. It cost the lives of the pilot, captain Dan D. Mitchell, Houston, Texas; flight officer Buddy Bob Beasley, Lubbock, Texas; and flight engineer Sergeant Edward A. Demski, Trenton, New Jersey. Their remains were not recovered until April 23, 1945.

The Army recovered about 60 percent of the plane using a barge with a clam shell dredge, also in April 1945. The Army was quite secretive about the salvage operation, because, according to some, it wanted the pieces back as a matter of national security, because the plane had been modified at Wold-Chamberlain Airfield in Minneapolis for a special mission. Just two years earlier, 16 B-25s had been modified at Wold-Chamberlain for use in the famous Jimmy Doolittle bombing raid on Japan.

The Army quit making B-24s at the end of the war. In the 62-plus years since this incident, divers and treasure hunters have made many attempts to find any pieces the Army might have missed. Most all of those attempts have been futile. As time goes by, the chances of finding any remaining pieces of this aircraft are fading just like the memories of the event.

Bob Parrott works for the Lake City Graphic newspaper in Lake City, Minn. He was a youngster when these events occurred. This is his first story for Big River. © 2007 Big River Magazine