What Really Happened with the Crashed B-17 Bomber on N. Oregon Coast
Published 07/17/2016 at 7:21 PM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff
(Tillamook, Oregon) – One of the more spectacular bits of Oregon coast history – indeed Oregon's World War II history - lays shrouded in the mists (and the dense trees) of Cape Lookout, along the Three Capes Loop. (Above: view from near the plaque and wreckage site).
About a quarter mile down the largest trail atop Cape Lookout, you'll spot a plaque commemorating a downed World War II bomber and honoring the ten men aboard the aircraft – nine of which died. About 500 feet from that spot the B-17 Flying Fortress bomber went down, leaving trees shorn off in its wake and a massive debris field.
It also left a mark on Oregon history.
It was August 2 of 1943 when it hit Cape Lookout, after leaving the military airbase at Pendleton, Oregon. In the end, only one man survived. It took a day and a half for rescue to arrive, with some of the nine dying on the spot or a short while later.
The bomber was on a training run out of Pendleton that day, with a mission to fly around the north Oregon coast on its way to Cape Disappointment on the Washington coast, fly another 200 miles out to sea, and then head back to base. But fog and other inclement weather set in, and the pilot lost his bearings. He flew too low, according to official reports. Another 50 feet and the aircraft would've cleared 900-foot-high Cape Lookout, but instead it slammed into the forest at 200 miles an hour.
The bomber hit the southern side of Cape Lookout, leaving a wreckage trail 500 feet long and 150 feet wide. Flames could be seen as far south as Pacific City, and at least one military lookout post saw and reported the downed craft as well.
Bombardier Willie Perez wound up the only survivor of the crash. Initially, he was ejected from the plane upon impact, sending him flying through trees. He ended up hanging from one, just shy of a sheer drop. After falling from the precarious perch, he could hear gunfire in the distance, back then believing it was a crewmate trying to call for rescue.
Those who survived were in much worse shape, and there are nightmarish accounts of Perez nearly falling off that steep cliff, then having to listen to his mates dying in the dark as he crawled along, following the sounds.
Meanwhile, several search parties were eventually sent out, but these were delayed due to misunderstandings. These included a military blimp from Tillamook. Perez was spotted by that blimp a full day and a half after the crash, making for about 36 hours of grueling survival.
In the mid '60s, about 23 years later, Perez and his family went back to that north Oregon coast site. His teenage son was the first to find parts of the wreckage since the rescue. One of the revelations Perez had then was that the gunfire he heard didn't come from the crew: it was because fires caused the ammunition to explode.
Some wreckage had been pilfered over the years, but eventually the crash site was hidden from the public. One group has captured some images of the last remnants of the wreck in recent years. It's an area of deep, dangerous ravines and skin-ripping plants, however, so it's not something you want to try and find yourself.
The author that recounts her expedition there has nothing but horror stories to tell about her injuries while trying to find the objects.
There is at least one account (and photos) of airplane parts found at the bottom of Cape Lookout, a beach accessed by walking a couple miles either down a winding, steep trail from the top of the cape or about two miles from the Sand Lake beach access area. It's unclear whether these are actual chunks of the wreckage, however. See the documentary on Perez here.
More on the area below and at the Three Capes Loop Virtual Tour, Map.
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