Drama. Tragedy. Irony. Unsolved mysteries. And throw in a little greed. Beneath Haunted Waters is not a ghost story; it’s not that kind of “haunted” at all. These are waters haunted by generations of people who cannot forget the story of how two B-24 Liberator bombers disappeared in 1943 and what happened to the boys on board.
During the World War II years, the convention was to call young men in their late teens to their late 20s, “boys.” The boys who piloted bombers and fighter aircraft during World War II were 19 or 20 years old - barely out of their childhood. Imagine boarding a 737 today and seeing a teenager at the controls instead of a person with greying temples. That was the situation during the war.
Beneath Haunted Waters is a story about that era, when children flew large airplanes equipped with enough firepower to destroy cities. And yet, boys they were, and boys they will always be. But it’s primarily a story of how they died, not in combat, but by accident. During World War II the USA lost 7100 combat aircraft and 5300 trainers, along with 15,530 pilots, crew members, and ground personnel in over 52,000 domestic accidents.
These statistics don’t compare to the huge numbers of RAF, 8th Air Force, and Luftwaffe losses during the European air war but the numbers are still frightening: Between 1942-1945, US aviation losses to accidents (12,400) exceeded combat losses (4500) to the Japanese. For every plane shot down in the South Pacific there were three lost to accidents within the United States.
While memoirs of those who served, histories of military and political leaders, and books about combat abound, very little has been written about the terrible toll of aviation training accidents during the war. Beneath Haunted Waters is unique because it tells this hardly known and little appreciated story.
Most information on this subject is covered in official reports. It appears in a casual way in many memoirs. There are a few histories of the air war during World War II that mention aviation accidents during training or once the boys were in theater. There has been no popular, academic, or comprehensive book on the subject. I propose to cover this subject within the more personal story of what happened to the two Liberators that wound up in Huntington Lake and Hester Lake.
Usually, pilots and crews of World War II aircraft were neither old enough to vote nor to drink. Many had never driven a car or taken a train ride much less been in an airplane. Nine months after enlistment they were flying the most technologically advanced, high performance, machines ever built. The same could be said for their navigation equipment and radio gear. But aviation had been around for only 40 years! Aircraft design was still in its infancy. Engines failed, pilots flew into mountains, navigators got lost, radios broke, and weather forecasts were frequently and fatally wrong.
Peter Stekel is the author of Final Flight, the Mystery of a World War II Plane Crash and the Frozen Airmen in the High Sierra (Wilderness Press), Best Hikes Near Seattle (Falcon Guides), and a mystery novel, The Flower Lover.
He has published feature stories in more than 700 magazines and newspapers, including stories on aviation, science and nature, Olympic sports, outdoor adventure and recreation, history, theatre arts and entertainment, and celebrity profiles.
In 1975, Stekel received a B.A. in botany from the University of California, Davis, conducted graduate work in ecology at Humboldt State University, and in 1982 received a secondary teaching credential in life science. He has worked as an educator, outdoor adventure guide, laboratory technician, botanist, and plant ecologist.
He lives in Seattle, Washington.