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Gertie’s Resting Place Remains A Mystery

OSWEGO, NY – When you see someone sailing on Lake Ontario and they are looking at the sky, you think they are checking the wind speed or other celestial guides.

They might just be on the look out for falling airplanes.

That’s right, airplanes.

Most boats that have vanished into Lake Ontario’s depths have been forgotten over the years.

Divers still search for the remains of some. In fact, one was made an underwater park last year (2000) in a ceremony that was celebrated from beneath Ontario’s waves.

One of the ghosts that beckon divers to the bottom of the Great Lake is named “Getaway Gertie.”

On Feb. 18, 1944 “Getaway Gertie,” a B-24 Liberator bomber went down in the lake somewhere between Nine Mile Point east of the Port City and Port Ontario.

Experts believe it is somewhere in relatively deep water.

“The crew and the plane crashed into the lake during a blinding snowstorm from what I remember about it,” said Bill Gregway.

Despite the best efforts of many divers over the years, the plane and its crew of eight has never been found.

According to news reports from the time, “Gertie” was on a routine training flight from the Army Air Base at Syracuse, a bomber staging area during World War II, according to the late Anthony Slosek, a former city historian.

A little past 2 a.m. Feb. 18, the bomber radioed its home base at Westover Field, Mass., that it was circling above Syracuse municipal airport.

It was reportedly dangerously low on fuel and unable to land due to poor visibility.

The crew was ordered to bail out.

According to the calculations of military officials, “Gertie” could have stayed in the air until 7 a.m. if its fuel was stretched to the utmost.

News reports said radio monitors were keyed to the wavelength of the plane’s radio.

But it was never heard from again.

The crew consisted of: Wendell K. Ponder of Jackson, Miss., and Raymond A. Bickel of Springfield, Mass., flight officers; Sgt. Audrey H. Alexander of Rogersville, Ala., Sgt. Kenneth M. Jones of Milwaukee, Wisc., Sgt. Thomas C. Roberts of Boston, Mass., Sgt. Joseph M. Zebo of Pawtucket, R.I., Capt. James O. Cozier of Tulsa, Okla., and Phillip R. Walton of Berkeley, Calif.

A massive air search got under way.

Residents from Rome to the Galloo Island claimed to have heard the loud roar of a plane as it flew low overhead.

Oswego and Henderson Harbor Coast Guard officials were alerted.

Some reports had placed the plane in the area of the Adirondacks and forest rangers and game protectors were called in to assist with search efforts.

The search of the lake proved futile.

Freezing temperatures caused any hole in the ice-covered water to quickly freeze over.

The search lasted for many days.

On Feb. 25, Army observation planes from Rome Air Force Base and “flying jeeps” of the Civil Air Patrol spotted a wing panel floating about 700 feet off shore near Pleasant Point, according to news reports.

It is believed that the wing panel may have “floated for several miles.”

Eventually, the search was terminated.

In recent years, several divers’ groups have sought to locate “Gertie’s” final resting place.

“The Oswego Maritime Foundation’s submerged cultural resources program embarked on a search for the B-24 a few years ago with the help of Tim Shippee and Doug Low, who had built a side-scan sonar,” said Phil Church, director of OMF’s submerged cultural resources program. “They searched an area we designated, but did not find the plane. Instead they located a tugboat called the Cormorant.”

Last year (2000), the search went very high-tech as the U.S. Navy took part.

The Kingfisher, one of two minesweepers visiting Oswego as part of the Navy Great Lakes tour of ports, used its equipment to search for “Gertie.”

“Last summer the Kingfisher ran a search grid adjacent to the area Shippee and Low searched,” Church said. “They did not find it, either.”

Church said last summer that he was “disappointed but not discouraged” by the results of the Kingfisher’s efforts.

The OMF, he added, is following up on the information the Navy gathered.

“We may find it by finding where it isn’t,” he quipped.

The Kingfisher searched a two-square-mile area where the wing panel had been discovered after the crash.

It was the same general area where the side-can sonar system was conducted.

The probability of the plane being in the vicinity is high, most “Gertie” searchers agree.

“I’m not aware of any planned expeditions for this year.  We are told many stories and many rumors every year by people claiming to know the location, and we check them all out as time allows, but none has ever panned out,” Church said.

The OMF considers the plane a war relic.

The group hopes whoever finally finds “Gertie” treats the plane with the respect it deserves.

“Gertie” isn’t the only plane to be in Lake Ontario, either.

Just four months later, another crashed.

On Friday, June 23, 1944, a disabled yellowish brown airplane, possibly a Canadian training plane, fell into Lake Ontario, near Montario Point, 14 miles northwest of Pulaski, at about 2 p.m., according to information received by the local media.

An explosion was heard following the crash but the plane remained afloat for a short time after the blast before sinking in 60 to 70 feet of water.

Reason for believing the plane was a single-engine Canadian Trainer was because of the color markings of yellowish brown, as this type of plane was often been seen over Pulaski and vicinity, according to information provided by Terry Prior, director of the Oswego County Historical Society.

Later information indicated the plane was gray, with orange markings, having a white star on the tail.

It was identified later as a C-47 transport.

According to local news reports: two Army airmen, second lieutenants Frederick Frenger of Los Angeles, pilot and Curtiss L. Aultmann of Lynhaven, Fla., co-pilot, had narrow escapes from death Friday afternoon when their big C-47 transport plane crashed had sank in the waters of Lake Ontario about one-half mile west of the Sandy Pond outlet, near the Oswego-Jefferson county line.

“Escaping from the plane and taking to the water before the big ship sank, they were picked up in a motorboat from Green’s Point, Sandy Pond, manned by Mr. and Mrs. Elwin Kast, Milford Tifft, Christine and Faith Sawyer, and Clairene Greene, all residents of the vicinity. The party had seen the plane crash in the lake and had taken a fast motorboat from Greene’s Point out into the lake where they found the two men swimming toward shore,” the report stated.

A report from the Syracuse airport officials indicated the plane had been on a routine training trip.

The indistinctness of the plane as it passed Montario Point had caused many to describe it as yellowish in color, leading to a belief it was a Canadian training plane.

According to the Sandy Creek News of Sept. 13, 1944, plane sections were found on the lake beach.

“While walking on the Lake Beach between the Hawkins cottage and the Renshaw late Saturday afternoon, Mrs. Axel Correll and her sister-in-law, Mrs. Robert Sheldon discovered five pieces of various types that appeared to be airplane wreckage,” the newspaper reported.

“The matter was reported to the State Police sub-station in Pulaski and the Rome Air Base,” the report continued.

“It is presumed that these pieces which included part of a first aid kit and some medical supplies, a ten-foot section of airplane wing or tail, and a board with switches for the releasing of some mechanism, are a part of the wreckage of the C-47 transport from the Syracuse airport which crashed in the Lake near this point early last summer.”

A few years later, Prior said, another plane went into the lake near Rudy’s fish stand.

The five members of the crew bailed out over Rome and left the plane headed toward the lake after one of it developed engine trouble, Prior noted of the crash described in “Bay of Dead Ships,” a book by Larry Reich.

“There is one section in here dedicated specifically to the lake from here to Mexico,” Prior said.

According to reports in the Post-Standard from Friday, Sept. 12, 1952:

“Parachute Jump First For 5 Abandoning Plane Which Fell In Ontario.”

The newspaper reported that:

“Five men who had never parachuted before told a tale of abandoning a crippled C-45 transport near Utica Wednesday night. Meanwhile, a military search party combed the Oswego area Thursday hunting for the still-missing plane.

“The search was being concentrated in the Oswego area, 65 miles northwest of here, after persons in the region reported that an unidentified two-engined craft plunged into Lake Ontario about 11 p.m., an hour after the five parachuted to earth at Schuyler Corners near Utica. However, Griffiss Air Force Base said it had no reports of any crash elsewhere.”

The plane was en route to Griffiss Air Force Base on a routine training flight from Bedford, Mass., when it developed engine trouble and lost altitude.

The pilot, Lt. Col. Charles A. Callahan of Monticello, Miss., ordered the two officers and civilians with him to bale out. He set the ship on automatic control.

“The Good Lord was looking after us,” Col. Callahan told the newspaper. He added that none of the five had ever parachuted before.

The public information office at Griffiss Air Force Base told the newspaper it was “quite sure that the plane is in the lake.”

Other crew members were Lt. Col. Joseph S. Lambert, Newport News, Va., First Lt. Samuel A. Scharff, New York City, William P. Bethke, and Joseph M. Eannarino. The last two are civilian electronics engineers with the Rome Air Development Center and were aboard as part of the training and observation procedure.

Jack Mulcahey and Rudy Gadsalia, operators of Lakeside refreshment stands in Route 104-A, told the newspaper they saw the plane crash into the lake. Mulcahey said it appeared to be a twin-engined ship and came from the east.

He said it circled the area, then dived into the water about a mile off shore and three miles west of Oswego. Officials said they were convinced the plane was the same as that from which the airmen jumped. The time element checked and no other planes were reported missing in the vicinity.

The missing plane had about sufficient fuel left to reach the lake, air force officials said. If the plane did circle over the water as reported, officials said, it could be caused by one motor going dead before the other.

A flash, reported by witnesses, probably occurred as the ship hit water.

The lake is 80 to 100 feet deep at the point of impact.

Gregway remembers the plane going over in the evening.

“Everyone went outside to look for it,” he said. “It must have been close to 11 p.m.”

“I wonder what those people might have been thinking when they heard this low-flying plane going overhead,” Prior mused. “Remember this happened in the early 1950s. It wouldn’t surprise me if some of them thought it was an invasion.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally ran in February 2001.)

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