Beech 18 AT-7 Navigator Copyright Museum of Flight - all rights reserved

November, 2007


a blog by Peter Stekel


FINAL FLIGHT is the story of four aviators lost in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks on November 18, 1942


FINAL FLIGHT: coming in late 2009 from Wilderness Press

Read more about FINAL FLIGHT here.

November 29, 2007

I rented a truly atrocious movie the other night - Flight of the Phoenix, starring Dennis Quaid and a host of others. I've been impressed with some of Quaid's other movies. He can be quite believable in some [Come See the Paradise], passable in the purely commercial [The Big Easy, The Alamo,  - dig those sideburns!] but also equally a hack [Everybody's All-American]. This particular movie was pretty obviously one made for money, not art.

Now, I'm pretty drawn to airplane crash movies and books right now, for obvious reasons. Anything that can give me any sort of insight as to what happens in the cockpit of an airplane when "the chips are down" is very important to a person [like me] who's sole experience in airplanes is as a passenger [I've piloted one airplane, with an instructor].

Granted, anybody who believes movies are accurate representations of reality deserves every rude awakening they experience. But, I am also interested in the visual experience and movies do that very well - even if the authors have no real idea of what they are representing.

I interviewed William Langewiesche a couple of months ago and he told me quite a bit. Being a writer and a pilot, he knew exactly what I meant when I asked him what must it be like inside the cockpit of an airplane when nothing looked good. "You can't sustain panic very long," he told me. After that, you start looking for solutions.

Some of you must be as old as I am [I was born in 1952- Ouch! That seems aged!] and remember the 1965 movie version of Flight of the Phoenix with Jimmy Stewart who, apparently, was a pilot as well as an actor. I have good memories of that movie [I was 12 or 13 when I saw it, and it's currently on reserve for me at the Seattle Public Library]. I saw a short piece of it on AMC recently but was distracted by the haircuts. OK. I'm shallow. The 2004 version strikes me as a poor imitation - full of stereotypical characters, none of whom exhibit any depth. It's easy to see who will crack under pressure or rise [like yeasted dough] to the hero classification. And the filmmakers telegraph who will die and who they want you to think will die with, apparently, no idea that their audience is smarter than they. This is a style perfected by Agatha Christie in her extremely popular mystery novels.

What I am interested in goes beyond characters who "play to type." What I want to know about is real people.

I've begun reading the novel that the movies were based upon. It's written by Elleston Trevor, born as Trevor-Dudley Smith [he published over 100 thrillers, mysteries, plays sort stories, etc] including books with the pseudonym Adam Hall [British agent Quiller] and Simon Rattray [crime-solver Hugo Bishop]. Trevor, according to the biography published with the 2004 Harper Entertainment paperback re-release of Flight of the Phoenix, served in the RAF during WWII as flight engineer - which explains the mechanical and navigation details of the first chapters. After which the novel has all the elements of an Ernest K. Gann book [stock characters saying and doing stock things]. Gann was a great storyteller, and by all accounts a great pilot, but... well... The High and the Mighty was Stagecoach in an airplane.

What annoys me so much about the Dennis Quaid film is that it reduces a horrendous event into a feel-good experience. We all know from watching the evening news that the survivorship rate from an airplane crash is close to zero. And those who do survive, like the soccer team in the Andes during the 1970s, often resort to terrible behaviors in order to live.

Yet the whole genre of airplane crash movies and books [there's a whole television series devoted to this right now - which my normally TV-adverse mother-in-law has to watch every week] always works under the assumption that what we want is something heroic and uplifting. I submit that what is more interesting than a created experience is one that is truthful. I've found that reality is always more dramatic than fiction.

November 16, 2007 [Ruth Mortenson]

I was able to meet Ruth Mortenson this afternoon. Though her health is good, at 97 years of age she has lost most of her memory. She was happy to pose for a photo but she wanted to straighten out her hair and tidy up a bit first. Miss Mortenson did manage to tell me that her brother

Melvin [he changed his name when he went to college] was a good-looking man, very serious and had mechanical abilities. Her cousins are in their mid 70s and still live in Moscow, ID. I was able to get their phone number. I'm hoping they will have photos and, perhaps, letters that John Mortenson wrote to his family. These are the things that will bring life to the aviator's story. I'll be calling them in the coming weeks.
November 7, 2007 [Ruth Mortenson]

I spoke with Erlinda, Ruth Mortenson's primary caregiver, this morning. Miss Mortenson fell over the weekend and has been confined to bed. She hasn't been eating either. Evidently the weekend caregiver didn't take Miss Mortenson to the doctor for an examination and when Erlinda returned on Monday, she had to wait until yesterday [Tuesday] because the doctor wasn't in the office.

I asked Erlinda about Miss Mortenson's memory and mental state. She has suffered from dementia but her memory is still good. "But she needs her strength too," and until she can get out of bed, Erlinda doesn't want any visitors. Erlinda says that Miss Mortenson won't eat if there are too many people around.

November 2, 2007 [Other Missing Aviators]

I'm gratified at how this story resonates with people. Many have written to me after seeing the story reported in the newspaper or on television. Airplane experts and owners of Beech 18s have contacted me with information about the engines I found in the ice of Mendel Glacier. I have also received mail from people who are hoping that I have come across something that refers to a  family member still missing from World War II.

I got an email this morning from Michele Aucoin. It's about her uncle, Henry Neal Henson. He was stationed in the San Francisco area on the USS Bunker Hill, practicing takeoffs and landings in San Francisco Bay on a ship retrofitted to work as an aircraft carrier.

"He joined the Navy when he was 15 or 16 years old, by lying about his age and having his mother [my grandmother] collaborate the lie."

"He had the soul of a poet and frequently wrote poetry to his mother and his girlfriend. He had just mailed a poem entitled "The Last Flight" - yes, it is extremely eerie that you have used similar words on your site. His last flight ended with a crash into San Francisco Bay. I was always told that nothing was found except the wing and tail of the plane. The girlfriend received the poem after she had received the news of his death."

The family never got much in the way of information about what happened and now, all the members of that generation are gone. Michele has inherited all of Uncle Henry's memorabilia and is, like her mother and grandmother before her, trying to find out as much of the story as she can.

All of this reminds me of something I was told by Pat Macha. Not much effort was ever devoted to recovering the remains of the over 35,000 men and women aircraft service personnel killed during World War II on training flights.

If you know anything about Henry Neal Henson, please write to me and I will put you in contact with Michele.

November 1, 2007 [More on Ruth Mortenson]

A disappointing day. This morning I got a call from Erlinda just as I was getting ready to leave the house. She said she had an "incident" last night and had to call 911 because of her heart. She asked that I call next week to re-schedule. It was difficult to understand if the real reason had to do with her not wanting me to come visit or with Ruth Morgenson not having the heart to talk about her baby brother.

October 31, 2007 [Captain Roy F. Sulzbacher]
The San Francisco City Library replied by US Mail to my request about Roy F. Sulzbacher, confirming that Capt. Sulzbacher died 2 October 1948. Unfortunately, the obituary [PDF] they provided from the San Francisco Examiner on Sunday, October 3, 1948 on Page 29, said nothing about why a 31 year old man could have died so young. And, there was no indication if any correlation existed between his death and his mission less than one month earlier to Kings Canyon National Park.
Roy F. Sulzbacher- High School of Commerce, San Francisco, CA 1934

Capt. Sulzbacher commanded at team of about six "crack mountain troops" from Ft. Lewis, Washington [south of Seattle] that spent approximately four days, between about 9 - 13 September 1948 on "Darwin Glacier" [sic] searching for and "recovering" [sic] the bodies of four aviators lost since 18 November 1942.

However, I was able to learn that Capt. Sulzbacher had married [wife: Julia] and was the father of two daughters [Marjorie & Barbara]. This was news to me. All Marge had been able to discover, using her genealogy sources, was that Bay Area native, Capt. Sulzbacher had an older brother, Arnold, born circa 1910 [with a son, Arnold R., perhaps a graduate of Abraham Lincoln High School] and that their father, Frederick [age 34 and alive at the 1920 federal census], was not living as of the 1930 census. Frederick obviously died young and Marge felt that Roy F. may have died young from the same thing - perhaps a heart attack.

Captain Roy F. Sulzbacher was buried at Golden Gate National Cemetery on October 4, 1948 after private services at Martin & Brown's, 1515 Scott Street in San Francisco. According to records at the Golden Gate National Cemetery, he was a Major at his death though his obit in the newspaper refers to him as a captain. Was he promoted prior to, or after, his death? A friend of mine says that, before modern budget cuts, it was typical of recently deceased career military to be promoted so their heirs would receive a larger pension.

Capt. Sulzbacher's plot is at Section G Site 2017-A where he is listed at Captain Roy F. Sulzbacker. Golden Gate National Cemetery is the same place where Lt. Gamber and his three cadets were "interned" after their "recovery" by Capt. Sulzbacher's team. Their plot is in Section F Site 43 - or just across the street. How ironic.

At this time I have no further information about his mother, Ethel Mary Sulzbacher. Her younger brother, James Jerome, lived with the Sulzbacher family [according to the 1920 and 1930 census].

Gary Simmons from the Abraham Lincoln High School Alumni Association replied to my query that Arnold R. Sulzbacher [who would have been Roy F. Sulzbacher's nephew] died in 1 July 1994 in Napa, California. "He was married to a Alyce M. Fox (not an alum of Lincoln High School) in 1961 and was divorced in 1967. They MAY have had one child, Marilyn M. Sulzbacher. Born on March 7, 1966 in San Francisco." He has three separate addresses for Alyce [two in Napa, CA and one in Vacaville, CA], but nothing for Marilyn.


Mendel Glacier, Kings Canyon National Park

October 30, 2007 [Ruth Mortenson]

Today I contacted Ruth V. Mortenson, the 97 year-old older sister of Cadet John M. Mortenson. Miss Mortenson lives in the Magnolia neighborhood of Seattle, about a 20 minute drive from my home in West Seattle. I spoke with her caregiver for the last three years, Erlinda, who seemed dubious that I would want to come visit. She kept mentioning visits from CNN [back in 2005-2006 when Cadet Leo Mustonen was found and being identified] and couldn't seem to grasp that I would want to talk to Miss Mortenson since the other body found this year had not be identified. I kept telling her that I was the person that found the second body. Her reply was that Ruth was very hard of hearing.

I was able to convince Erlinda that, living very close to Miss Mortenson, it would be easy for me to come visit. Erlinda said that Miss Mortenson was up by 10 AM every day and took naps around 3 PM. We set up an appointment for November 1 at 10:30 AM.

To prepare for my visit, I printed out photos from my August trip to Mendel Glacier. I figured that Ruth Mortenson would be interested in seeing where her younger brother was killed.

October 29, 2007 [Cadet John Mortenson's sister, Ruth, found!]

Due to Marge Carpenter's superior research skills I now know where Ruth V. Mortenson [born June, 1910], John Mortenson's older sister, lives. And, strangely enough, she lives in Seattle, about 10 miles away from me.

Between 1941-1945 Ruth Mortenson taught grade school at the E.C. Hughes School in West Seattle and between 1978-1984 worked at the Seattle Engineering Department of Citizen Participation and then the state Department of Transportation. She was involved in a major West Seattle highway project and got a lot of press in the area community newspaper - the West Seattle Herald. I suspect she must have been a local! Ruth Mortenson would have been in her late 60s-early 70s at this time so it looks like she was able to retire from one career in education and successfully embark upon another in public contact. As I think of it, there are a lot of similarities between the two fields!

Evidently she was living in Magnolia with her older sister, Anna [Born in 1907, Died 1/14/89] in 1989. Until I learn more, I suspect that Ruth Mortenson retired from the DOT and moved from West Seattle to Magnolia in the late 80s.

October 7, 2007 [The Ring]

Chuck Perov, along with his wife, M.J. Bishop, organize a bicycling and wine tasting trip every year to the Yakima Valley in eastern Washington. The ride serves as a fund-raising event for the local NPR radio station - KDNA: "La Voz del Campesino." Chuck figures the several thousand dollars we raise every autumn for the station is a great way to make a return to the local community. KDNA plays music and also sponsors social improvement programs and provides services that include food distribution to the hungry and operating a community technology center for farmworkers.

Given that background itís easy to figure out the kinds of people on the bike rides. All professions are represented including dairy farmers, doctors, teachers, bureaucrats and writers. Chuck is a case worker at the International Rescue Commission and his social consciousness runs deep. We are an interesting and eclectic group and conversations tend to run deep. In an email prior to the trip, Chuck had made sure there wasnít anyone on the ride that hadnít heard of my August discovery and plenty of people wanted to know more. One of those people was Mikki Lippi. Sheís an artisan jeweler and in the course of telling her about my research, I showed her a photo of the ring.

Mikki examined the ring photo and couldnít tell me anything beyond her impression that it was a manís ring and no longer fashionable. She suggested I contact a friend of hers, Karen Lorene, owner of FacŤrť Jewelry and Art Gallery. Located in downtown Seattle, Lorene shows the work of some 50 or so artists as well as antique and vintage jewelry.

After our bike ride, I gave Mikki a few days to lay the ground work and then called Karen for an appointment.

Meanwhile, Marge Carpenter [my fantastically talented genealogist and internet researcher friend] was trolling the web for ring information. She found a bunch of old newspaper advertisements for menís rings that were very close in character to what I had found on my aviatorís finger.

Most of the rings ranged in price from $12.95 to $33.75. I was grateful for the data but it also suggested that the ring would turn out to be nothing special - not a family heirloom or something handed down from father to son.

I met Karen a week later and after outlining the story basics, showed her my photos. Seeing the disappointment in her face, I knew my supposition wasnít incorrect. She confirmed the ring was a popular style in the era between 1930-1940 and that the stone was most likely hematite or black onyx though she leaned towards the former since that was more the standard at the time for the intaglio style. She also dismissed it as nothing special except to the owner. When I asked Karen about the special jewelry men wore in the 40s she replied that, "His watch and his ring were probably his jewelry. Thatís what men got from their fathers. One at high school graduation and the other at college, if he went to college."

"Thereís no particular symbolism to the design," she said, pointing out that it was either a Greek or Roman soldier. "Itís a manís ring. A warrior." What a perfect explanation for a young man going off to war. And she added that intaglio rings were the most common manís ring of the period. Karen felt that, though the ring wasnít likely to be passed to him it still could have been a present. From a girlfriend, maybe?

Next, she turned her eye back to the craftsmanship and ring quality and dismissively told me it hadnít much value. As for the gold, it was probably 10k like the cheaper versions Marge found in the newspaper advertisements and now only worth, "$300 - mostly to collectors." Not jewelry collectors but to collectors of memorabilia. "The ring would have more value to them if a photo appeared in a book," she added. As for other options, "A 14k gold ring would have a $600 value today and an 18k gold ring, rare, would be worth around $800."

Even without having it in hand, she still felt confident the ring was die-struck. That is, the ring was punched out of a flat sheet of gold and soldered in back. The hematite carving wasnít done by a master but not done by machine either. "Probably a medium quality carver who went, zip-zip." Her fingers danced back and forth in a limited number of graceful movements to demonstrate for me what she meant. Then, removing several pieces from a display case, Karen showed me the work of a master carver and, for comparison, something less than master. Even my poorly developed sense of style could instantly see the difference in quality, workmanship, design and detail.

I thanked her gratefully for her time and she was happy to have helped. She said, "Itís not much and itís generic knowledge."

"Yes," I agreed, "but not to someone like me."

"Every little bit of information helps, doesnít it?" she replied.

That's certainly how I felt.

October 1, 2007 [A Possible Television Special]

I spoke with Craig Miller today. He's an independent radio and television producer [ and] interested in doing a documentary story about the "missing airmen" for a National Geographic TV special. "This is a story that covers all the bases," he told me. "Science, forensics, a very human component, adventure..."

At this point Miller isn't sure if the program would be entirely about the Mendel airmen or if it would be one of maybe three or four different stories - all tied together by the Sierra Nevada and lost or mysterious airplane crashes. If he is able to sell the idea, I might be hired on as a consultant to take him and his crew to the glacier.


August-September 2007 blog


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FINAL FLIGHT: coming in late 2009 from Wilderness Press