The REAL Ghosts of Florence Pass

Cloud Peak Wilderness, 2010. My son, Alec is fishing in Florence Lake, Florence Pass is at far right. Summit of Bomber Mountain is top center. Crash site is on the ridge left of center.
Cloud Peak Wilderness, 2010. At left, my son Alec is fishing Florence Lake. Florence Pass is at far right. Summit of Bomber Mountain is top center. Crash site is on the ridge left of center.

 

A while back, (a long while back) I said I was going to talk about the inspiration behind Ghosts of Florence Pass.

Better late than never.

As long ago as I can remember, I’ve been making semi-regular trips to the Bighorn Mountains in north-central Wyoming, specifically to backpack in the Cloud Peak Wilderness. (formerly the Cloud Peak Primitive Area) Early on, I would tag along with the Boy Scout groups my father took there, and when I was old enough, as a scout myself.

My scouting days are well behind me, but the mountains still call. Fortunately, I’ve kept up with most of my hiking buddies from those formative years and still make the trip when I can. In addition, my wife and kids have made the trip on more than one occasion, which makes me happy beyond measure.

Bomber Mountain Memorial, 2010. Looking towards Bomber Mountain crash site (top center) and the memorial. (bottom right)
Bomber Mountain Memorial, 2010. Looking towards Bomber Mountain crash site (top center) and the memorial. (bottom right)

In the heart of the Cloud Peak Wilderness at an elevation of 12,448 feet is Bomber Mountain, named in honor of the ten crew members of a B17F “Flying Fortress” Bomber that died when their plane crashed there on June 29, 1943.

I’d been to the crash site several times over the years, but only had the vaguest idea of what had actually happened until I read a wonderful little book by Scott Madsen called The Bomber Mountain Crash Story: A Wyoming Mystery. A search on Amazon shows that the book is currently out of print, but you can get a pretty good summary of the events surrounding the crash here.

Fast forward a couple of years.

In the summer of 2007 I was at the crash site again with one of my long-time hiking buddies, contemplating the wreckage. In contrast to the excitement we felt in our early years–our “wow-look-at-the-size-of-that-tire-that’s-so-cool-man-this-is-frickin’-sweet” attitude towards the site–this time we were generally thoughtful and somber about the whole thing.

Bomber Mountain Crash Site, 2007.
Bomber Mountain Crash Site, 2007.

As I sat there looking down the mountain listening to the breeze rattle the peeled aluminum skin of the plane’s fuselage–as it had for the past sixty-four years–I thought about a passage from Madsen’s book. Some on the recovery team (helping to carry the soldiers’ bodies down the mountain) claim there was one member of the crew who may have survived the initial crash. They reported that one of the dead crew members was sitting against a rock with an open bible and photographs of loved ones spread out nearby.

Whether these accounts of a crash survivor are truth or legend may be lost to the ages, but as I sat there among the wreckage, the possibility of its truth was chilling to say the least.

For years afterward, I thought about the crew of the ill-fated bomber and the airman who may or may not have sat among the remains of his crew mates and their plane. I tried to fathom the sadness and the fear and the anger and the hope and the despair. I couldn’t imagine any of it.

Bomber Mountain Crash Site, 2007. Note the large sections of tire cut away by souvenir hunters.
Bomber Mountain Crash Site, 2007. Note the large sections of tire cut away by souvenir hunters.

Ghosts of Florence Pass is about a boy named John Parker who’s gravely injured when the plane carrying his family home from a lakeside vacation crashes into a remote mountainside. All around him is death and destruction and what he does in the days following the crash makes up the bulk of the story. I may not have captured what another young man may have been going through in the summer of 1943, but that’s okay. If John Parker’s story resonates with just one reader in the same way my hike up Bomber Mountain did in the summer of 2007, that’s more than okay with me.

Thanks for reading…

 

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