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Recovery Operations

Recovery Operations

The Review Journal article facilitated our finding people connected with the search and rescue parties. From the accident report and other materials, we learned that there were a number of parties that attempted recovery.

When the wreckage was first spotted in the afternoon of Thursday, November 17th, Mt. Charleston was experiencing the worst weather conditions seen in years. So deep was the snow that the Forest Service predicted the wreckage would not be accessible until approximately Jun 15, 1956, seven months later. The Air Force organized two parachute rescue teams from March Air Force Base in California with the goal of offering first aid to any who might have survived impact. However, wind conditions at the top of the mountain were so intense that the chances of the paratroopers hitting the mark were slim. The plan was abandoned.
The Air Force then decided to send a trained mountaineering team, also from March Air Force Base. On skis and snowshoes, they would climb the north side of the mountain and hopefully arrive in time to save any survivors. The team never made it to the crash site. They were lodged at the north side of the mountain, bogged in. They made camp as best as they could, keeping warm with pine tree leaves in sub-zero degree weather. One night, they slept on a six-foot ledge, their sleeping bags dangling over the edge. Within a few days, they were forced to return to base camp.

In the meantime, Las Vegas Sheriff Butch Leypoldt called out the Sheriff’s Mounted Posse to assist in military rescue efforts. Some members of this posse, along with two paratroopers from the original March team, were dispatched. Although, it seemed unlikely that anyone could still be alive, the priority of getting first aid to any survivors remained. Getting the bodies out was a secondary goal.

On Saturday, November 19th, this team set out on snowshoes. They avoided the north face and seemed to be making progress, but during the climb, one of the posse members became severely ill and had to be taken down the mountain by the other three members of the posse. The two parachute rescuers continued their climb and, upon nearing the crash site, radioed base camp. They confirmed that there appeared to be no survivors. They were then ordered to maintain distance from the site and await further instructions. Another party, with horses would soon be dispatched. They set up camp and waited.
In the official accident report, I had read that two colonels were dispatched to the crash site to direct these rescue efforts. I was completely surprised when a letter written by retired Colonel Frank Schwikert of North Carolina arrived at my home. Before I opened the letter, I knew exactly who he was. As far as we know, he is the only member of the rescue party still living. Schwikert writes:

“On that day (November 17th) I was the commander of the 42nd Air Rescue Sqdn, based on March AFB California when we received the notice of the USAF C-54 on Charleston Mt. It became our rescue mission. I dispatched one of our planes on the mission and went along myself. We over flew the crash site and knew from the large crash site that no one survived. From that time on it was a recovery job.”

The presence of the colonels ensured that top-secret documents and equipment would be recovered before the civilian rescue party approached the wreckage. Schwikert recalls, “…the AF Headquarters was in touch with me concerning the classified material aboard. They impressed on me the necessity of speed in securing the area.”

Upon landing in Las Vegas, Colonel Schwikert contacted Sheriff Leypoldt, who rounded up the Sheriff’s Mounted Posse, a group Las Vegas volunteers and set up a base camp at the bottom of the mountain. Within a couple of hours, everyone was assembled at base camp. This party consisted of Col. Schwikert from March AFB, Col. Pittman from Norton AFB, fifteen members of the Sheriff’s Mounted Posse and seventeen horses.

Later in his life, retired Sheriff Leypoldt described the mission to the Las Vegas Sun newspaper in 1973.

We were called in at 4 a.m. and set out from our homes, meeting at the Ranger Station above the Lodge. We set up a base there and unloaded and saddled up and were on the trail up the south face before daylight.

The group departed the base camp at 6:00 am, Sunday, the 20th of November. They decided on a route to the south of the mountain that was much longer but allowed horses access to the peak. They took no food or water with them except several cans of Spam. Col. Schwikert describes the journey that followed.

…in the morning we started up the switch back trail toward the ridge and then along the ridge to the peak where we collected things and loaded the bodies on the horses for the trek back down the mountain. I remember the horses were not happy with their job and needed some controlling to prevent their bucking. I’m 85 now and it all seemed like yesterday.

The Sheriff describes the weather that continued to plague the rescue.

In no time at all, the drifts became so deep the horses’ feet couldn’t actually feel the trail. If Roy Naegle hadn’t been along to guide us, I’m sure we’d have never reached the crash site. Roy is an old timer. He helped when the Civilian Conservation Corps built this trail in the early 30’s and was probably the only man alive who knew the way up. We hadn’t figured to be gone so long, so we hadn’t taken any food. Man, there were times when the snow was so deep our feet would drag behind the saddle, so we’d get off and just hang onto the horses’ tails and let them pull us along on our bellies. In those deep drifts, there was no other way…

When we finally reached the top of this slope, there was the plane…The nose and wings were on the down slope and the fuselage just behind it, tail down. It looked like it just snapped in two, like a matchstick. A couple of Air Force officers told us to wait about 35,40 yards behind while they went in first to check for classified material.

It was so damn cold, we could have frozen while waiting there. . . Then we started down, figuring it would be easier than on the way up.
It wasn’t. Even though we didn’t have to break trail, there was another problem. More than once, a horse would slip and roll down the slope, and we’d have to go down there and drag him back up onto the trail and start out again.

Merle Frehner , posse member, described the mission in his personal journal.

We started up the nine-mile zigzag trail. Gaining altitude we ran into deep snow, three to four feet deep. Horses had to lunge to get through the snow. About one-third of the way up we ran into the snowshoe troops from March Field, encamped all in small pup tents. They had been there most of three days. They all looked half frozen. They invited us to have coffee, but we didn’t have time to stop.

We had another problem on top of the high ridge. Up there the snow was only about a foot deep. A cold north wind had frozen the top three inches into ice. When stepped on, a horse’s hoof would break through the ice and cut his legs.

At one o’clock in the afternoon we reached the peak. Two Air Force colonels had ridden up with us, but behind us. They called a halt at the wrecked plane and rode the 100 yards up the peak. The freezing wind was blowing like 60 miles an hour. “We are going to freeze up here if we don’t get started going off this mountain, and so will our horses,” I said to the sheriff.

Immediately he climbed up to the colonels and got their okay to start loading bodies on our horses. It was quite a job. Men so tired got sick. It seemed more like we fell off the mountain.

All through their lives, when volunteer members of the Sheriff’s Mounted Posse reminisced about this experience, they remembered that after coming off the mountain, they enjoyed a steak dinner with the gratitude that only men who have been on the physical ordeal of a 20 hour rescue, half starved and half frozen can appreciate. The Air Force charged each of them for their meal and required each to take an oath of secrecy in relation to their experience on the mountain. However, in a letter from the Pentagon, they received high commendations for their courageous work.

Air Force Rescue Party Members
Photo courtesy of Donald Pipes.
November 1955
From left to right.
AIC Robert Taylor – Aeromed
AIC Gordon Bailey – Para-rescue
S. Sgt. Derald Parks – Para-rescue
S.Sgt. Walter Adkins – Para-rescue
A.B. Gilbert Seeburger – Aeromed
Sgt. Donald Pipes – Para-rescue
Msgt. Kenneth Woods – 1st. Sgt.
Rescue Party Personnel
Rescue Parties Personnel

1st Party:

All are paramedics from the 42nd Air Rescue Squadron,
Air Rescue Services, March Air Force Base, CA

S/Sgt. Donald S. Pipes: Non-Commissioned Officer, in charge
Sgt. Kenneth Woods
S/Sgt. Donald D. Parks
A/1C Robert L. Taylor
A/1C Gilbert Seeburger

2nd Party

Ranger Hank Hoffman
Sheriff’s Deputy George Dykes
S/Sgt. Walter F. Adkins, 42nd Air Rescue Sqdn., March AFB., CA
A/1C Gordon C. Bailey, 42nd Air Rescue Sqdn., March AFB., CA
Deputy Sheriff Vernon Bosserman
Deputy Sheriff Melvin Scholl

3rd Party

Lt. Col. George Pittman
Lt. Col. Frank Schwikert
Clark County Sheriff Butch Leypoldt
Deputy Sheriff Roy Neagle
Deputy Sheriff Floyd Hayword
Volunteer Vivian Frehner

Members of the Mounted Posse:
Eldon Ballinger
Harold Ballinger
Murdell Earl
Pat McDowell
Ray Gubser Sr.
Frank Scott
Merle Frehner
Charles Steel
William Stratman
Ed B. Taylor
Dr. Robert Clark
J.E. Williams
Russ Walters
Newell Knight
Hagen Thompson
Duain Titus
Photo courtesy of Donald Pipes
Taken November 1955

Rescue Story As Told By Pat McDowell
(This story has been edited for content)

Pat McDowell
As told to
Dr. William J. Burton

When the news was flashed that the Army C-54 airplane en route from Burbank, California to Groom Lake, Nevada Test Site crashed near the peak of Mt. Charleston on November 17, 1955 loaded with top secret equipment and fourteen passengers, rescue parties were immediately formed. The Air Force organized the rescue parties in hopes that help could reach the survivors, if any, before they perished from the twenty-degree below zero temperature, at the scene of the wreckage.

Shortly after the word of the crash came, Captain Harold Jones, of the Sheriff’s Mounted Posse, of which I am a member, called me by telephone, and said for me to report to Sheriff “Butch” Leypoldt, at one o’clock, and be ready to leave at three o’clock.

I trailered my horse and equipment up to the Mt. Charleston Lodge, twenty-five miles northwest of Las Vegas, and awaited further orders. Nearly the entire posse, headed by Sheriff Leypoldt, was assembled and ready to leave. Then the Atomic Energy Commission changed its mind and refused to let us go. They stated that there were no horses for their men and expressed doubt that we would ever make it up to the crash site anyway. I called Las Vegas and asked for every available horse to be brought to Mt. Charleston.

The first rescue party, left Friday morning, on foot. This was the paramedic group from March Fields, California, headed by S/Sgt. Donald S. Pipes, and included M/Sgt. Kenneth Woods, S/Sgt. Derald Parks, A/1C Robert Taylor, and A/b Gilbert Seeburger.

Late Friday night, additional horses arrived from Las Vegas, and we stood by waiting for orders to leave.

Early Saturday morning, the second rescue party took off on foot. This group included Forest Ranger H.C. Hoffman, Deputy Dykes, M.L. Eastep, Melvin Scholl, Bosserman, S/Sgt. Walter F. Adkins, and A/1C Gordon Baily, both of the 2nd Air Rescue Unit.

Shortly after the second party left, Sheriff Leypoldt gave us the word to proceed at six a.m. This group was the Sheriff’s Mounted Possee headed by Sheriff Leypoldt, and two air force Colonels, and included Deputy Sheriff Roy Neagle, Eldon and Harold Ballanger, Murdel Earl, Ray Gubser, Sr., Frank Scott, Merle and Vivian Frehner, Charles Steel, Bill Stratman, Ed W. Taylor, Dr. Robert Clark, Williams, Russ Walters, Newell Knight, Hagen Thompson, Duane Titus, and Deputy Sheriff Floyd Hayword and myself, Pat McDowell.

As we were preparing to leave, I had a pair of boot socks, one of which contained candy bars and sandwiches. The other sock contained a fifth of whiskey. I had tied the socks together, and was about to put them across my saddle when one of the Colonels came up and asked what I was taking. I said, “snake bite medicine.” The man looked a little surprised and asked if I expected to run across any snakes. “I might”, I replied. “But if I don’t, I’ve got a snake in the other sock.”

Headed by Sheriff Leypoldt, we began working our way up the mountains. The trail was an old hiking trail and the snow varied from six inches to six feet. The temperature was below zero and drifts reached twenty feet in depth. As we went higher, the wind increased in velocity and blew the fine powdered snow in our faces making the going still more difficult. Horses would slip and fall off the narrow trail, pinning their riders beneath them. Only the cushion of the snow saved braking bones.

It was noon before we reached Mt. Charleston. We were still six miles from the plane. A little further on we overtook the first army rescue team. These men were on skis and snowshoes and were cold, wet and miserable. Many of them were barely able to continue. We stopped and built a fire to warm our half-frozen bodies and eat some of the food we had brought with us and sample the snake medicine. The Colonel did not think this party able to proceed and ordered them back to the lodge.

About one thirty in the afternoon we arrived at the wreckage and here we were halted. We were then told we could not go near the plane until told to do so. After the Sheriff and Colonel had made an inspection, then we were allowed to proceed.

The ship had hit the mountain and disintegrated. The pilot had evidently seen the mountain just before the plane hit and tried to go over it, but failed. The plane had pancaked on the side of the mountain. Cargo and ten passengers had erupted through the top of the cabin and were scattered forty or fifty feet in all directions. The motors we found 20 or 30 feet from the plane.

Three men began putting the bodies over the saddles and two would tie them on. By three o’clock men began leaving in-groups of five on foot leading the horses. The cold was terrible and the wind still whipped the snow about us. The altitude made breathing difficult. The Sheriff and Colonels stayed to be sure everyone was out.

The trip down off the mountain, with the horses laden with the bodies, was a nightmare that I won’t forget. We had to walk and lead the horses. There were times when it became necessary to use a shovel to clear the trail. The bodies extending over the sides of the horses caught in brush and trees causing the horses to edge over on the narrow trail and lose their footing and fall.

Dr. Clark’s horse slipped, fell, and rolled down the mountainside, leaving the body on the trail. When his horse was one again upon it’s feet and back on the trail, Dr. Clark found that he was too exhausted and weak to put the body back on the horse.

Darkness set in, and we had no flashlights. We groped along the mountainside and hoped for the best. Now the men were beginning to stagger and fall. Some of them were holding to the saddle for support. We must have been about two miles from the rescue station at the end of the road when I began to waver. I drank what was left of the snake bite medicine. It gave me a lift. I got hold of the horse’s tail and let her pull me along but not for long. It suddenly seemed as though my guts had fallen out and I couldn’t go another step. I said, “Cindy, I hate to do this, but you’ll just have to carry double.” I managed to get on the horse, behind the body, and rode into the rescue station at 8:20 p.m. where I practically fell off the horse.

The Army had doctors, ambulances and horse feed. The State Highway patrol took us to the lodge in their cars. They took charge of the bodies and the Posse went to the rest camp where the Army set out steaks as big as the platters on which they were served.

About 10:00 p.m. I was feeling good again, I trailered my horse back to Vegas and then slept around the clock.

Recovery Photos


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