The first time I saw the San Francisco Peaks, driving in from the west on Interstate 40, I was taken aback by the aberrant rise of the extinct stratovolcano hanging above Flagstaff. Almost vulgar in its rebellion from the high desert flats, the mountains seemed willful, self-minded, unfettered by supine decency of the surrounding plateau.
My surprise was pleasant. Others have been not so. Between Oct. 2, 1941, and Sept. 18, 1944, five separate planes, blinded by weather, found the mountains staunchly in their flightpath. In each case, the resulting collisions tragically claimed the lives of the airmen aboard.
As may be evident by the timeframe, these flights were related to military operations of the second World War.
When I heard of these crash sites, I felt a morbid intrigue. Quickly, I discovered I was not alone. Enthusiast and Flagstaff resident Bill Ferris developed a similar interest in the summer of 2013, culminating in what he described as a “whirlwind tour” of the various sites.
“I caught the bug,” Ferris said when I met with him. Sitting at his home computer, we perused his photography of the wrecks.
Ferris pointed out the condition of the debris.
“There’s so much aluminum and so many metals that don’t corrode, it looks like a crash that could’ve happened the day before,” he said.
For Ferris, recognizing the function of certain debris also aided his sense of empathy and proximity.
“Finding a piece of wreckage and seeing the open frame of what was a window creates for me a very personal connection,” he mused. “You’re faced immediately with the reality that there had been persons inside this wreckage...in the plane, in the air…looking out that window.”
When Ferris became interested in these sites, he tapped into a body of research from the late 1980s conducted by then-Northern Arizona University student Morgan Tyree. Tyree’s engrossment was spurred by his military family.
“My father was an aviation ordnance technician in the Navy,” Tyree reported. “[He] instilled in me a bit of his passion for aircraft of that era.”
Like Ferris, Tyree recalled being stunned by the wreckage.
“To visit such sites and see so much physical evidence of a flat-out brutal force really gives one pause,” Tyree described. “It's hard to stand in such a place and not imagine what it must have been like to be in the place of those vanquished aviators.”
Comparably, Ferris expressed that the sites gave him the opportunity to commune with history.
“Part of my interest is the quiet voices of the dead saying, ‘Remember. Remember the price we paid,’” he revealed. Further compelling Ferris is a sense of responsibility to the quiet voices.
“I felt something of an obligation to know about this so that history wouldn’t be forgotten, so that I could play a small role in keeping that memory alive as part of Flagstaff’s history,” he said.
In this sense of responsibility, Ferris is not alone. Each of the five sites is under protection of the United States Forest Service, which prohibits removal of the historical debris. For the most well-known crash site, a B-24 bomber that struck the western face of Humphreys Peak on Sept. 15, 1944, a stone memorial on the trail commemorates the incident with names of the eight deceased airmen.
As it should be, said Ferris.
“I think there is a legitimate case to be made that it’s sacred ground, that they’re tombs of sorts. People did die here, and it’s appropriate to preserve the evidence of that loss of life,” he said.
Tyree agreed, and called the sites “unique and rare…we should protect them.”
Following the footsteps of Tyree and Ferris, I resolved to indulge my morbid curiosity and visit a crash.
I set sights on the aforementioned B-24 site. As the most-well documented and preserved wreck, it seemed a natural first choice.
Finding directions was not challenging. Though there is no sanctioned trail to the site itself, numerous resources on the web made its location quite clear. One can even spot debris on Google’s satellite images of the area.
Setting out with a couple of friends, we started at the Humphreys trailhead around noon. Our plan was to take the summit trail about 2.4 miles up, to the fifth switch back, where the trail bends at the side of a large lava scree rock field. From there, we would trek out onto the scree and follow it east, nearly straight up from the mountain. At its upper eastern boundary we would hold our bearing through the forest until we came to another rock field opening. There, we would find the crash.
Starting the hike with the jovial tone of a Saturday stroll, we soon broached the unsettling topic of visiting a place marked by death. Our discussion came to settle around the assessment that, beyond paying respect, the appeal of visitation was analogous to standing in a high place and reveling in the urge to jump. The French have a term for this: l’appel du vide, the call of the void.
Soon in a high place, our analogy became more like reality. We reached the first rock field with ease, only to be struck by the vast plateau of the San Francisco Volcanic Field stretching interminably to the west. Distant prairies seemed within grasp. Aspen stands, already bare with winter, clustered like gray lichens on the tall hills beneath us. Still, we had elevation to gain.
Unlike most trails, where hard-packed paths reflect the solidity and permanence we usually associate with mountains, traversing the scree revealed an ephemeral face of the old volcano. Every rock seemed loose, every step a precarious testing of the ground, lest it roll from under you. Slowly, we climbed.
At the forest edge, free of rocks, we met ice. On this western face of the mountain, afternoon sun melted a layer of snow that quickly refroze each night. Consequently, patches of snowpack were crusted and slick, forcing us to kick in toe holds with every step. We proceeded carefully, often grasping low branches of ponderosa for balance.
As predicted, through the forest we reached a second rock field. Within seconds I spotted the angular gleam of something manmade.
“That’s metal,” I remarked. “This is it.”
We filed out onto the field of stone. Across the scene pieces of wreckage glinted, quietly affirming our destination.
After a moment of silence, we split off individually, surveying elements of the wreck in meditation. The silent mountainside betrayed the savagery of the remains. Here was a twisted piece of fuselage, there a torn wing, there a scrap of steel mangled beyond recognition. Tyree’s words rang clear. Brutal force.
We eventually re-gathered near a landing gear stood vertical at the top of the ruins.
“Look at this.” I gestured to an embossment on a piston. It read ‘FORD MOTOR CO.’ in a jumbled, imperfect script. “Guess they made plane parts too,” I uttered dully.
Nearby, an amorphous heap told the tale of fire. Melted masses of metal pooled around steel burned with iridescent scars. “Got really hot,” one in our company remarked. It seemed we were all stupefied by the obvious trauma of the scene, unable to conjure compelling words that could match the scale of destruction.
Small flags had been placed about the ruins in memorial. Onto one wing, a plaque had been riveted by the American Armenian Airmen’s Association. Together with the wreck, these tokens of respect made a graveyard for the eight men who perished in this devastation.
Yet, like no other graveyard I’ve seen, the raw intimacy of the wreckage evoked a grim rapport, a warm humility and a gratitude for the fragile gift of life.
Before our descent we looked west again. Thousands of feet above everything else, it was easy to imagine a plane cruising at eye level. Staring into the sky, the void called loudly. Propellers hummed in my head. Out of the clouds, the ghost of a great metal bird dove where I stood, striking the pit of my stomach.
We went down another way, following the trail of debris as it scattered into the forest. There, we came across more pieces among the pines, including an engine block and what may have been the remains of a gun turret. A sense of cathartic circuity emerged. This was a B-24, a bomber, a war machine. Though its last flight was in peace, it found a way to be an instrument of death nonetheless. Sometimes, the calamities of this world are oddly balanced.
Once we rejoined the trail, I found myself sympathizing with Ferris’ assessment of sacredness. To see the strongest metals of industry crumpled like paper upon an unshaken mountain is a humbling testimony to the fortitude of nature and the smallness of man.
But Ferris and I are not the only ones to experience sacredness through the history of these peaks. Dook'o'oosłííd to the Diné, Nuva'tukya'ovi to the Hopi, the San Francisco Peaks have been called many names by many people, and are held as sacred to at least 13 indigenous groups in the Southwest.
Thankfully, the WWII crash sites on the San Francisco Peaks are protected by law. However, on the same mountain, the indigenous do not enjoy the same privilege of respect for their history. Consider the ongoing Snowbowl conflict, wherein those that hold the mountain sacred claim the use of recycled wastewater in snowmaking amounts to spiritual and cultural injury. Despite ardent protest and legal battle, these grievances are repeatedly muffled out of court.
Something tells me if wastewater were sprayed over sites such as the one I visited, where men lost their lives in service of their country, the complaints would not fall on deaf ears.
In honor of those that died to uphold the principle of spiritual and religious freedom in this nation, let us remember that sacredness expresses itself to different people in different ways. It is not our place to judge validity, only to enforce respect.