Saturday, December 31, 2011

Staff Sergeant Ralph Wenz - WWII Casualty

Staff Sergeant Ralph Wenz became Sutton's sixth war casualty of World War II when he died in the crash of a B-24 Liberator bomber on a hilltop in the Yukon-Charley River National Preserve in Alaska on December 21, 1943. His parents, Mr. and Mrs. L. C. Wenz were initially informed that the aircraft and their son were missing after departing the base at Fairbanks.

SSgt. Wenz remained in “missing” status for some time.

Staff Sergeant Ralph Wenz - killed in aircraft
crash in Alaska December 21, 1943
The mission of the flight was to test a procedure to feather the propeller. Only five men were on board for this flight including an officer who was listed as a propeller specialist.

The crew encountered a thick fog that restricted their horizontal visibility just as their instruments failed. The plane went into two spins which the pilots were able to correct but as a third spin began the pilot called for the crew to bail out. Only the co-pilot 2nd Lieutenant Leon Crane and the Crew Chief Master Sergeant Richard Pompeo were able to get out of the plane before it crashed.

Crane and Pompeo made it out of the plane through the bomb bay doors. Lt. Crane saw Pompeo drift over a ridge but he was never seen again. Crane had cold weather gear but did not have gloves as he landed in the mountains of Alaska, in December. He found a series of trapper cabins where he found more cold weather gear and food. It took him weeks to cover 75 miles where he found an inhabited home where he was given a dog sled ride to a settlement where a mail plane brought him back to his home base in mid-March of 1944, almost three months after take-off.

Lt. Crane led rescue workers back to the plane where the bodies of the propeller specialist 1st Lt. James Siebert and the radio operator S/Sgt. Ralph Wenz of Sutton were found in the plane. There was no sign of MSgt Pompeo or the pilot 2nd Lt. Hrold Hoskins.

Staff Sergeant Ralph Wenz’s body was recovered and he was buried in Alaska.

Wenz was an experience flyer having flown mail in Alaska starting in 1939. He joined the marines after the Japanese attacked Dutch Harbor and was assigned to instruct army pilots in the hazards of flying in sub-zero weather in the North. His last visit to Sutton was in mid-August of 1943 when he had ferried a B-29 to California after test flights in Alaska.

An Air Force historian at Elemendorf Air Force Base in Alaska had previously worked as the park historian for Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve and had visited the crash site first in 1994. He became interested in the site and on a later visit he found metal objects in the burned wreckage of the plane. He instigated further research and in 2006 searchers found human remains near the wreckage. A DNA test with Lt. Hoskin’s brother led to positive identification of the pilot’s remains.

SSgt. Wenz’s pilot, 2nd Lt. Harold Hoskin was buried at Arlington Cemetery on September 7th, 2007.

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