“I believe submarines
Underneath deep blue seas
Saw the flags: Japanese
No one will believe me”
~ “Submarines,” by The Lumineers
In 2014, history seems buried six feet under the bookshelves. Grandparents know a little more, doling out dusty recollections over the meat and potatoes of family gatherings. If there was a sculpture struck, a painting hung somewhere on the wall, perhaps these stories seem more real. I suppose this has always been true.
Up near Bigfork, artist Gene Madsen displays a painting of his own creation in his home. A night scene, set in the Minnesota woods, one corner shows a WWII bomber highlighted by moonlight as men pour out the hatch, parachuting to the relative safety of untouched wilderness below. While at first glance it might appear a work of absurdist whimsy, one must understand that Madsen’s painting depicts a very real night when a bizarre wartime incident occurred in the skies over northern Minnesota.
Almost 70 years ago in 1945, two weeks before the atomic bomb that would end WWII would fall from a similar airplane, a B-29 “Super Fortress” took off from Duluth to complete a training mission that began in Texas. Around midnight on a warm July 14 night the plane was flying over Itasca County, headed for a base in Montana before it was to return to Texas. An officer transferred fuel tanks when suddenly a gas leak caused fuel to pour over the floor of the aircraft. Fumes overcame the entire vessel.
“The fumes started affecting the crew; they were losing control of their arms and legs,” writes Madsen in the essay he wrote to explain his painting. “The pilot ordered the men to put on their parachutes. They tried to open the bomb bay doors to dump some of the gas, but they wouldn’t open. On entering eastern Itasca County, the plane was at 9,500 feet. The pilot ordered the crew to bail out. None of the men had ever used a parachute.”
An article by Barbara Adams of the Itasca County Historical Society explains more. The flight engineer, rendered unconscious by the fumes, was hurled out the door with the crew and came to during his descent. The pilot, 1st Lt. E.J. Szycher of New Jersey, pointed the B-29 toward Montana and set the autopilot before jumping out himself. Despite the crew’s inexperience with skydiving, the high altitude, and the dark of night, the entire crew survived the jump with only two minor injuries.
The aftermath, however, caused a local stir. The men dropped into the woods and lakes of a largely undeveloped northern Itasca County, along a line southwest from Bear Lake near Highway 65 underneath Bigfork. Men dropped into Horseshoe Lake, Lost Lake and Napoleon Lake, where one of the crew members awoke a fisherman sleeping in his car. The fisherman took him to the Ranger Station at Link Lake, where Sidney Rommel called together a team to look for the lost crew. Local pilot Ted Tinquist was enlisted to help, though the night would end with him flipping his plane in a minor landing mishap (in which no one was harmed).
All the men were found. The two injured men were transferred to Minneapolis while the others spent a day being toured around Itasca County by dignitaries, including what must have been a very interesting Rotary Meeting in Grand Rapids.
It was later discovered that a crew led by a more seasoned pilot had refused to fly on the same B-29 because of the overwhelming smell of gasoline. And the mystery of that night was never completely solved, because the plane was never found.
Madsen, himself an Air Force veteran of the Korean War era, said a number of theories exist about the fate of the B-29. While pheasant hunting in South Dakota, a local told him about a B-29 crash that the government hushed up at the time. Another secondhand story said that an Ojibwa woman thought she heard a plane crash into Red Lake the night of this incident. But in both cases, stories have not been confirmed, nor has the discovery of wreckage been made public. There was enough fuel on that plane to reach the Pacific Ocean, on the off chance it managed to escape the remote Rocky Mountains. The B-29 might also have exploded.
The 1945 story of the lost B-29 of Itasca County is just one example of the mysteries buried right under our noses. The lakes that once caught falling airman during WWII are just a few miles from my home, and they’ll never tell the tale. I took to the internet looking to see if the pilot Szycher or the ranger Rommel were still living, but, alas, both passed just six or seven years ago.
Fortunately artists and writers like Madsen are around to remind us of the stories like this one, unbelievable … yet undeniably true.
Aaron J. Brown is an author and speech instructor at Hibbing Community College. He is the author of “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range,” writes MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. You can hear the next show Saturday, March 22, broadcast live at 5 p.m. from Mesabi Range College in Virginia, Minnesota. Call 800-662-5799 to reserve free tickets to join the live studio audience.