In 1951, a B-29 Superfortress taking off from Lowry Air Force Base crashed in Denver’s Hilltop neighborhood. As the smoke cleared, the deadly crash illustrated the need for better safety procedures at military bases near residential areas and the necessity of regulating the expansion of military bases in the post-World War II era. Today, the Hilltop Bomber Crash remains historically significant as a visceral example of the growing pains urban and suburban centers across the nation went through during the unparalleled success of the post-war era and the rapid expansion of the military-industrial complex during the opening years of the Cold War.
During World War II, the sight and sound of Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses was familiar, if unwelcome, to those living in East Denver. But noisy as they were, the B-17s were eclipsed in size and power by the mighty Boeing B-29 Superfortresses by war’s end. Monday, December 3, 1951, started out like most early December days in Denver. The usual garlands and plastic Christmas decorations festooned downtown, especially the Sixteenth Street shopping district. While the upcoming holidays created growing anticipation, worrisome world events were also on the minds of many Denverites that first weekend of December.
At about eleven o’clock that morning, a four-engine B-29 Superfortress bomber, of the type that had dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was clearing the foothills west of Golden and heading toward Lowry. A few minutes later the plane was over downtown Denver, close to the Daniels & Fisher Tower and the state capitol’s gold dome; pedestrians who looked up saw the huge silver bird’s landing gear being lowered. Some also noticed that the propeller on the right outboard engine was “feathered,” meaning that its blades angled parallel to the line of flight, and that it was not turning. The plane seemed to be flying much lower than it should.
Thirty-three-year-old Air Force Captain James W. Shanks was piloting the B-29. He and his crew of thirteen had left Lowry at 8:30 that morning for a routine training flight to Wendover, Utah, but they began to experience engine problems and a fuel leak shortly after crossing the Rockies and were returning to base. It was Staff Sergeant William Zippel, the flight engineer, who noticed the green stain of fuel streaking across the cowling of the number-four engine. Zippel said, “I notified the pilot and feathered the prop.” Shanks, an experienced veteran, was not panicked by the leak or the failure of one engine; engines had stalled on him before. But as he lowered the gear, it seemed as if all the power was sucked out of his remaining three engines. He would later say, from his hospital bed, that “the engines had nothing left in them.”
It was a clear sunny day with visibility unlimited -- perfect flying weather. Shanks could see the Lowry control tower and the two large hangars five miles to the east; he felt certain he could reach them without mishap. But he was losing altitude- down to 1,500 feet- and a slight tingle of worry crept into his mind. Then another engine quit and a third began running roughly. Now, Shanks was fighting to keep the heavy craft in the air. He radioed the Lowry tower of his emergency. The base’s crash trucks were alerted and rolled out to the edge of the runway- just in case. Shanks and the plane struggled over York Street, then University Boulevard, then Colorado Boulevard. Shanks could see the wide, treeless expanse of Cranmer Park just off his port wing. The homes of Denver’s Hilltop neighborhood were leaping up toward the bomber’s large Plexiglas nose. The B-29’s fuel tanks were still nearly half full.
Shanks had hoped to make it to Lowry Air Force Base’s east-west runway, just a mile and a half ahead. The plane, although traveling between one hundred and fifty and two hundred miles per hour, was dropping so quickly that Shanks knew that he did not have enough glide left. There was no time or altitude for anyone to bail out, or even to alert the crew. Nineteen-year-old Corporal Raymond Widner, a gunnery student at Lowry, was sitting in the navigator’s seat when he saw Shanks fighting the controls. Widner said, “I knew we were in trouble, just before we hit I closed my eyes.” Then, as Denver Post reporter Bernard Kelly wrote, “The huge plane dived into the fashionable Hilltop section of Denver like a falling sword, smashed five homes like jackstraws and disintegrated in a tangle of wreckage.”
The bomber, its 141-foot wingspan acting like a huge scythe, sliced through utility poles and newly planted trees. The tail of Shanks’ doomed plane sheared off the peak of the roof of the Edwin P. Glick home at 70 South Dahlia. The B-29 bounced, rising slightly before falling onto the Tobias and Milstein homes on the next block. Upon impact with the Tobias and Milstein homes, the “greenhouse” nose of the bomber sheared free of the bolts holding it to the fuselage, careened another three hundred and fifty feet before ending up near First and Elm. A large chunk of debris -- possibly a wing or one of the plane’s 2,200 horsepower Wright Double Cyclone engines -- broke loose on impact and smashed into the home of Stanley and Rita Shubart. Their home at 60 South Eudora was one of five that was destroyed.
Barbara Tobias was putting away canned goods in her basement when she was suddenly engulfed by her collapsing home. She told a reporter afterwards, “The whole house crashed down on top of me.” Somehow she managed to climb the basement stairs. “I pulled open the door to the living room and saw the flames and the furniture scattered all over,” she said. She dashed into the back yard to escape the burning collapsing structure. The Tobiases’ maid, Murphy Tinsley, was not so lucky. She later said, “I heard the roar of the airplane getting louder. I thought it was coming through the window. I don’t remember then exactly what happened. There was a big crash, flash, and fire.” Tinsley was badly injured and temporarily buried in the rubble of the flattened home.
Denver police detective Bernard Hammons was the first plainclothes officer at the scene. He heard Tinsely’s cries and ran into the shattered remains of the Tobias home. While trying to pull the debris off the injured maid, he noticed a man standing in the rubble near him, busily looting the home. The detective said, “He told me he was just taking the stuff for safekeeping, but he dropped the stuff and ran… I was too busy with the injured woman and looking for the kids to follow him. I’ll recognize him if I see him again.” Four telephone workers also came running to the rescue of Murphy Tinsley. George Mummah told a reporter, “we ran to the scene and we could hear this woman screaming under the rubble at this one house.” Three of his coworkers, Ernest McIntyre, Joe Collier, and John Greenwalt, began pulling bricks and plaster and splintered wood aside to reach the maid in the shattered, burning home. “We finally managed to drag her out,” said McIntyre. “That woman was really messed up,” Greenwalt said. “It looked to me like one arm was almost torn off.”
In the space of a few moments the plane had carved a short swath through the trees, homes, and telephone poles, sending aircraft parts, fences, shingles, branches, and debris flying through the air and spewing flaming aviation fuel throughout the neighborhood- setting trees, shrubs, and lawns afire. The crash site was a vision of hell. Everything seemed to be on fire, the flames shooting one hundred feet into the air, and the gathering crowd could hear shouts for help from inside the tangled wreckage. Ella Sanchez, the Cranes’ maid, saw several crewmen drag themselves out of the wreckage. “One of them wasn’t hurt so badly, and he was helping the other four.” She ran over to offer assistance but the crewman told her to call the airbase. She ran back and did so; the Cranes’ phone was the only one still working in the neighborhood.
Those in the plane who had not been killed on impact were hurt and dazed, trying to figure out what had happened and where they were- and what they should do next. Sergeant Zippel said:
“I was knocked out for a few seconds after the crash. Then, when I got my wits back, I saw a big hole in the [right] side of the plane where the co-pilot sits. I could hear the other guys screaming and trying to get out. It was getting hot in there but the flames hadn’t reached me yet. I climbed out of my seat and started for the hole in the plane. Then I saw Captain Shanks. He was slumped over. I grabbed him and dragged him out of the hole with me. After I got myself and the captain away, I couldn’t do any more. So I yelled to some civilians to help the other guys in the plane.”
Corporal Widner recalled, “The crash threw me into the bulkhead in front of me and I was stunned for a second or two. I got out and wandered around, sort of dazed, until the doctors got there.”
The Denver Fire Department was doing its best to control the fire, but the high-pressure water seemed only to be spreading the flames. The crash trucks from Lowry had better luck, as their tanks contained chemical foam, a much more effective tool for fighting aircraft-fuel fires than water alone. It took about an hour for the burning plane and houses to be extinguished. The Lowry firefighting team then had the grim task of sorting through the charred, melted wreckage of the B-29 to recover the bodies of the airmen who had not gotten out. Many were burned beyond recognition. Incredibly, Murphy Tinsley, the Tobiases’ maid, was the only civilian casualty; she would survive her injuries. Five homes were demolished and many of the homeowners had to be hospitalized for emotional trauma. John Pearce, a Denver fireman, suffered a broken collarbone while digging through the rubble. Luckily, the B-29 had been carrying no bombs. If it had, the death and devastation undoubtedly would have been much higher.
In the days following the tragedy, the Air Force released the names of the eight dead and six injured airmen. Those killed were:
- Technical Sergeant Robert F. Jarvis
- Technical Sergeant Herbert Oeser
- Corporal Richard Yukob
- Private First Class James Snyder
- Private First Class Ronald Weirsma
- Private First Class William Ablondi
- Private First Class Baxter Surber
- Private First Class John Serbic
Limited Responses to the Crash
Although badly injured, pilot James Shanks and copilot First Lieutenant Robert Snure survived.
The December 3 crash pointed out the folly of locating a busy air base near a residential area, or rather, the folly of allowing residential areas to creep into the space needed for the safe operation of an airport or military air base. On January 22, 1952, three members of Colorado’s Congressional delegation began pressuring the Air Force to do something to reduce the dangers Lowry posed. Senators Ed C. Johnson and Eugene D. Millikin and Representative Byron G. Rogers met with Air Force personnel, who promised to study the proposal to expand eastward, but such an expansion never happened.
Adapted from Flint Whitlock, “No Ordinary Day: The 1951 Bomber Crash in Denver’s Hilltop Neighborhood,” Colorado Heritage Magazine, 26 no. 3, 32 – 47.