Son, family journey to Wyoming site of patriarch's death

Search for a lost father
2011-07-17T10:00:00Z Son, family journey to Wyoming site of patriarch's deathBy JOE O'SULLIVAN Star-Tribune staff writer Casper Star-Tribune Online

A shoebox in Bob Weaver’s hands contains everything his father, Don, carried the day he died.

A shaving kit. A leather belt. A long-expired California fishing license. A wallet still containing money.

“All of $27 in it,” Bob said.

The disappearance of Don Weaver when his plane vanished over central Wyoming 60 years ago sparked recurring grief. There were questions, blank spaces in the maps of loved ones’ hearts. What happened to the plane and its passengers? How did it just disappear? What remains at the crash site?

Those questions, those blank spaces, drove Bob and 11 other family members to Wyoming from points north and west to find their ancestor.

Even after he was dead, Don Weaver hadn’t completely died.

“We held onto the idea that there had been a forced landing and that Dad would be found safe,” wrote Bob in an email before his arrival in Wyoming. He was 7 years old and tying his shoes in the dining room of their house in Southern California the morning of Jan. 19, 1951, when his mother got the fateful phone call.

“After she had hung up, she shared with me that the plane was missing,” wrote Bob. “However, she reassured me that there were many remote sheepherders’ cabins in Wyoming where the plane was flying and offered the hope that everyone was safe and holed up in a cabin awaiting rescue.”

Now 68, Bob remembers nothing else of that uncertain time. Nothing but hope.

Don Weaver, then 52, was a petroleum geologist who lived with his family in Southern California and did a lot of work in the Mountain West, according to Bob. He loved the outdoors, too: riding horses, hunting, fishing. He had even bought a plot of land near Yellowstone National Park in hope of building a cabin.

It was to this open country — his flight was bound for Cody — where Don was scheduled to return on Thursday, Jan. 18, 1951.

That afternoon in Denver, he boarded a twin-engine Beechcraft with four others: pilot Ralph Meyers; Paul Stock’s secretary, Mabel Overly of Cody; Wilshire Oil President Jim Denver and geologist Orman Brown. Stock, a Cody oilman who owned the plane, had sent it down to Denver to pick up the group and bring them back as part of a business trip.

Meyers phoned Stock around 2:30 p.m. that afternoon to inform him of their departure, newspapers reported at the time.

About 3:30 p.m. that same day, a Dubois, Idaho, radio tower picked up a message from the Beechcraft, as it tried to contact the Casper airport.

Reporting its position as about 60 miles south of the city, the plane had apparently entered a storm front.

Nothing from the Beechcraft was heard after that.

Reconnecting

Bob talked about trying to find the plane for more than 20 years, according to his wife, Betsy Weaver.

“Every once in a while he’d bring out [the shoebox], and we’d look at it and he’d have lots of questions,” Betsy, 61, said.

It was not until his 50s that he really started thinking about trying to piece together that part of his life, according to Bob. Both his mother and his oldest brother — Don Jr. — died in the late 1990s.

“I became acutely aware that I had become a part of the Weavers’ oldest generation,” Bob wrote. “With that came an increasing sense of urgency about doing the research and recording this chapter in my family’s history for my sister and our families.”

So began the search. Armed with some newspaper articles that were passed down to him, Bob began calling people in Wyoming and elsewhere. Why did the plane crash? What happened to Don’s remains? Where is the wreckage? Can it be reached? What is left from that day?

“If the family story is going to get told one more generation, we just got to go look for it,” Bob said later.

Some of these riddles have been answered; some remain.

The search

Search parties in January 1951 also had questions as they combed the state for the plane that seemed to have vanished into the winter sky. Had it made a forced landing somewhere? Had it crashed into a mountainside? Were there any survivors?

On Friday, Jan. 19, the day after the Beechcraft’s disappearance, 23 Civil Air Patrol planes of the Wyoming Air Rescue Service, launched from airstrips across the state, began the search.

For 10 days, hundreds of aircraft streaked across Wyoming in search of any indicator of the plane, according to newspaper reports. Pilots flew three or more sorties a day, covering 75,000 square miles.

They ran down tips from people claiming to have seen the aircraft. A sheepherder in the Powder River Basin reported seeing a plane land Thursday afternoon and then take off again. Two men reported seeing a plane circling in southern Montana about the same time. Another tipster said he heard “something ripping through the heavy brush up the creek” near his ranch by Bates Hole.

In addition to the aerial search, at least two ground parties scoured Bates Hole, without luck.

By Monday, nearly 100 planes had joined the search. All types of aircraft dotted the skies: Grumman float planes, single-engine “grasshoppers,” twin-engine DC-3s. Among others, the U.S. Air Force sent a pair of B-29s, the same kind of four-engined bomber that dropped the atomic bombs on Japan in 1945.

Pilots from South Dakota, California, Colorado and Montana joined the search. They banked their aircraft and stared down into the state’s gnarly, frigid wilds: the Big Horn Mountains, the Ferris Mountains, the Rattlesnake and Laramie ranges, the Shirley Mountains and Shirley Basin.

The family of one of the missing passengers even offered a $10,000 reward for anyone who found the plane and its occupants alive.

But spotting a silver plane on Wyoming’s snow-covered terrain in often chaotic weather proved difficult. After 10 days and 713 individual flights covering 75 percent of the state, no traces of the Beechcraft or its passengers could be found.

Rescuers called off the search, and it was agreed to try again in the spring, when the snow melted.

The discovery

Bob and his family gathered Tuesday at the Miles Land and Livestock ranch, a few miles down Wyoming Highway 487. It’s a gorgeous timber house, the kind where people dream of retiring.

But little attention was paid to the decor. The action instead centered on the dining table, where Jim Price had laid out a wall-sized map showing part of his 50,000 acres of ranchland.

Price, 61, owns the ranch with his wife. In a short while, they’d bring the Weaver family — including Bob and his sister Jan Ousdahl, Don’s youngest child — to the Beechcraft’s final resting place, just north of a cabin on their property, in the Bates Hole area.

Two men involved in the January 1951 effort were nearly two hours into a springtime search for the Beechcraft and about 25 miles south of Casper when they finally caught a break.

It wasn’t the wreckage that Lt. Col. Lial Branson and Duane Williams first spotted from the air, but instead the burn marks, the patches of scorched shrubs.

It was May 20, 1951, four months after the plane disappeared. The spot is near where rancher Henry Garrett said he “heard a plane in the thick-falling snow between 3 and 4 p.m., then heard the sound of clipping limbs about 4:30 p.m.”

The ground parties reaching the crash site on May 21 encountered a scene of incredible violence.

“Wreckage and debris was strewn for some 200 yards on the mountainside — twisted and crumpled metal, splintered wood, broken glass, fragments of cloth and leather, odds and ends of personal possessions and fragments of the torn and battered bodies,” according to newspaper reports.

Only three of the five passengers were identified with any degree of certainty.

The remains of Mabel Overly were identified by fragments of gray hair. Jim Hay’s wallet was found in the fragment of a coat; his bill clip with the initials “J.H.” were nearby.

Another wallet was discovered lying by itself on the ground. It was the wallet of Donald K. Weaver.

Filling a hole

Bob Weaver held that wallet Tuesday as he stood over what is thought to be a piece of the Beechcraft’s right wing. That so much wreckage remains surprised the family. In fact, the rock-strewn hillside north of Bates Creek — within sight of the Price cabin — holds parts of the plane across its broad slope.

Joints, gears and pipes crop over or lie underneath bitterroot and Indian paintbrush. Scraps of aluminum, from tiny pieces to broad sections, dot the landscape. There’s a shredded tire. The skeleton of a seat and its cushion springs. An RPM indicator from the instrument panel.

The Prices joined the Weavers on a walk-around of the site.

Price was 19 or 20, “young and dumb,” the first time he saw the wreck. He didn’t give it much thought. But he now feels a stillness on the rare occasions he visits. Compared to its surroundings, Price said, this part is especially quiet.

“It’s kind of an eerie calm in this pocket,” Price said. “Maybe it’s all just from the feelings that everybody was here.”

Bob repeatedly describes the hillside as a comfort.

“It’s a little more comforting to know it’s a beautiful spot,” he said. “It’s beautfiul, the kind of place he would have really loved.

“This whole thing has not been one of sadness. It’s been like filling in a hole in the memory or the family history.”

Some of the holes have indeed been filled. Bob learned that after Don’s remains were gathered, he was cremated in Denver. And now he has a portrait of the wreckage and crash site that for 60 years has only been an educated guess.

Some mysteries remain. Due to the steep incline with which the plane’s two propeller engines were buried into the hill, officials on the scene in 1951 concluded it dove into the earth.

Bob said he remembers at some point having the Civil Aeronautics Board accident report that listed the accident’s cause — ice gathering on the wings, he believes, was the reason.

Over the course of life, however, Bob lost the document and could never obtain a replacement. He’s tried looking through the now-defunct board’s records without success.

Peter Knudson, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, the CAB’s successor, said the only records still on file from that era relate to commercial flights. Natrona County Emergency Management Coordinator Lt. Stewart Anderson said the county has no records pertaining to the crash.

Finally, Bob wonders why his older brother never came searching for the site.

He’ll probably never know.

‘A lot of processing’

Down the hill, Jan Ousdahl stood alone.

“Why I’m down here is they said parts of him were found down the hill,” Jan, 64, said.

The youngest of Don’s children, Ousdahl (pronounced Os-dahl) was 4 when her father disappeared. Ever since the trip was conceived, she had been thinking back to that time.

“I’ve done a lot of crying over the last six months, a lot of processing,” she said, clutching a piece of metal joined with some pipe. “I feel very connected to my dad.”

Being so young in 1951, Ousdahl doesn’t have many memories of her father. But the search for Don led to the unearthing of his personal correspondence that occasionally refers to her.

Just as the crash site affects her, so did Bob’s shoebox.

“I was terrified of that box as a child,” she said. “On the other hand, I found it very comforting that there were pictures of me in that wallet.”

Up the hill a little way stood Steve Young. Young, 39, couldn’t believe how light the wreckage was, how the metal skin of wing and fuselage just picked right up off the ground.

“You feel it’s aluminum, it’s like it’s tin, right?” he said.

One of Ousdahl’s sons, Young said his grandfather’s death wasn’t much talked about, probably because his grandmother remarried. But that silence stuck in Young’s mind over the years.

“My question is, ‘Why couldn’t somebody find out before?’” he said. “Probably because of the times. My grandmother probably didn’t want to relive it.”

Young, who along with much of the family lives in Southern California, started thinking about the crash a few years ago. When Bob announced his intention to find the site, Young jumped on board, eager for a connection to a family member he knew more as a myth than a man.

“Kind of like Davy Crockett, right?” he said. “He’s a legend, he’s my grandfather.

“It’s humanized him, for me, for us.”

‘A freeing feeling’

Bob and Price, two men close in age but so far apart in lifestyles — one a lawyer in South California, the other a lifelong Wyoming rancher — developed certain kinship during the visit.

Bob told Price he’s glad that the crash site was in his care. Price told Bob that the crash held a place in the ranch’s history, and he’s glad to have put a human face on it.

Before the family headed back to Price’s cabin for a picnic, many of them picked up small pieces of the wreckage to take home. Bob pulled out one of his father’s business cards from the wallet. Each family member signed the back of the card, and they fit it into a piece of wreckage.

“I hope you have the same freeing feeling I do,” Bob told them, before describing the journey as “putting a glue to our family that will hold the Weavers together for a long time.”

With that the family left the hillside, left the Beechcraft’s remains, left its lingering questions to the stillness of that eerie calm.

Reach reporter Joe O’Sullivan at 307-266-0639 or joe.osullivan@trib.com. Read his blog at http://trib.com/news/opinion/blogs/osullivan. Follow him on Twitter: @caspercityjoe

Copyright 2015 Casper Star-Tribune Online. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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