For 20 years, I lived across a Wyoming valley from 12,005-foot Medicine Bow Peak. I knew how it looked on winter mornings, obscured in snow clouds. I knew how it looked on summer evenings, casting deep blue shadows over the valley floor. I even knew how it looked from the hiking trails that wound their way among rocky slopes and alpine lakes. But I’ll never know how the rock face at 11,570 feet looked to those aboard United Flight 409, where it crashed on October 6, 1955, killing all aboard.
Because I was born in 1959, the year 1955 doesn’t seem all that long ago. Indeed, when I started writing about this ill-fated flight, I’d hear from people who were connected to what was then America’s worst commercial aviation disaster. Perhaps someone they knew was scheduled to be on board but missed their connection. Perhaps they lost a loved one in the crash. Or perhaps they were on the ground, as one of the legions of workers who helped with the recovery effort bringing the remains of 66 bodies down from the mountain. I look at that mountain now through a time shadow that ever darkens through the passage of years. The alpine climbers and others who were in their 20s in 1955 are now in their 80s.
I continue to seek their stories, currently with the support of the Wyoming Historical Society. Several individuals saw my notice in the society’s newsletter and contacted me.
Now I’m not writing a news story. I’m writing a living history.
Robert “Bob” Harrower
In 1955, Bob Harrower was a student at the University of Wyoming. He would go on to a long career as an engineer and rancher, based in Pinedale, Wyoming. He’s spent the years writing down his thoughts and memories of this event, partly as a way to pin them down. Recollections which he shared with me will be available through the archives of UW’s American Heritage Center later. For now, here is an excerpt of what he shared with me. Because he provided his first-person account in written form, I’ve directly excerpted a portion of it here. I have removed some of the more graphic detail, at his request.
“The wreckage was discovered about noon of that day. A group of us who had climbed and skied together were recruited to climb the mountain searching for survivors. So, at first light we were on the mountain. The Albany County Sherriff’s office—or United Airlines—had called a group from Boulder, Colorado, that called themselves Rocky Mountain Rescue. Many of these, boys and girls, were there, but they were not prepared to do the technical climbing required or mentally prepared to handle the mostly dismembered bodies that had been severely scorched by the explosion. Although participants would come and go, very few had the climbing ability or mental perseverance to handle the bodies.
“Our first day was an exercise in frustration. Our first attempt to retrieve the bodies was to put them in a body bag and physically lower it. This was just too difficult on the ragged and steep slope. Our next scheme we constructed a ‘Tyrolean traverse’ by stretching climbing ropes from one rock outcrop to another and then attempting to slide the bags along the ropes. This too failed as the nylon ropes stretched too much, allowing the bags again to scrape the sharp rocks.
“As three of our group were then student engineers, we devised a cable system with a trolley. The cable ran from an anchor point near the wreckage to a point 300 or 400 feet from the base of the mountain. It was stretched tight with a chain fall and stayed clear of the mountain. The bags containing mail, aircraft instruments, personal belongings, and bodies and parts were placed in bags lowered by the trolley. A group of 30 to 50 college students pulled the rope that would raise and lower the trolley. The bags were then transferred to pack horses, which took them to the highway and thence to a temporary morgue.
“It took us seven or eight days. The U.S. Postal Service was also demanding, wanting us to recover all of the mail, and the FBI wanted two leather pouches recovered, but we never saw them. The FAA or United wanted all instruments or control mechanisms saved.
“My thoughts on this tragedy are, the crash site including the bodies should have been left unmolested and the area declared off limits to all, with a posted guard if necessary. There was a clear and imminent danger of the steep mountain, blowing and flying debris and aluminum, loose wreckage falling, extremely dangerous work, but miraculously there was no serious injury. We had climbed the face of this peak several times before this accident as a recreational climb. It is an extremely tough climb without the wreck.
“It is now my very strong belief that someone should have yelled stop. Who should have done this? There was no one there from victims’ families, religious organization, the federal or local government to say that the recovery efforts were intrusive and extremely disrespectful. Perhaps it was up to us to say that this gruesome effort be halted and the entire site be allowed to rest. Remove the six or seven bodies that were recoverable, say whatever prayers and benedictions the victims’ friends and relatives felt appropriate, and let the site rest and be closed to everyone for many years.”
Ronald “Ron” Clark
Ron Clark was 16 years old in 1955. As a kid, his dad bought a grocery store in Laramie, and moved his family there from Iowa. Clark made new friends among kids who were interested in aviation. In fact, they belonged to the Cadet section of the Civil Air Patrol (CAP), Laramie Squadron. He recalled to me in a recent email exchange that their group took part in search missions and helped as much as possible, but the regular CAP pilots did most of the search flying. Occasionally they got to fly along as observers. When United Flight 409 hit the mountain, Clark’s group was among the first to set up headquarters at the base of the mountain. This team ascended the lower portion where most of the wreckage was strewn. They were based below where Harrower’s group was working.
Clark recalls a Movietone news crew filming as the group climbed up to begin stringing ropes to bring the bodies down. Next, a Life Magazine photographer arrived on the scene. Clark recalls the group being asked to stand facing the rock wall and to spread their arms. The photographer took several pictures from below “making it appear we were following a narrow ledge,” Clark recalls. “We were all disgusted at how dramatic it was made to appear. At least I can say I appeared in Life Magazine.”
After this encounter with the media, Clarks says they sat back down and finished splicing rope lines. Then, they made a relay point and sent additional ropes down the hill so the bodies from above could be lowered to the base of the mountain.
“One of the first bodies was a little boy whose bag covering him came loose from his upper body,” Clark recalls. “I will never forget this bloodied arm hanging outside the bag. It was as though he was waving to us as he went by.”
Clark worked at the site from October 6 until October 11, when the recovery of the bodies was complete. The 28-member Laramie squadron would receive a Unit citation for Meritorious Service. Clark still has those newspaper clippings, as well as a letter he received from William A. Patterson, then president of United Airlines. It reads in part, “I wish to express to you my sincere appreciation for the wonderful work which you performed for our company in connection with our recent unfortunate accident at Medicine Bow, Wyoming. During such an emergency it is a tremendous help to us to have people such as you come to our aid. The special skills that are required for such work were certainly valuable to us.”
After high school Clark entered the Air Force and spent four years in California and England. He settled in Seattle and would earn a commercial pilots license with single- and multi-engine land ratings, single-engine sea rating, and instrument rating. He also qualified as a certified flight instructor. He operated a business for 35 years selling printing services to Seattle area customers. He retired in 2002 and moved to the blue-sky country of Sedona, Arizona, in 2009.
Robert “Bob” Bruce
Bob Bruce was born in Laramie to a University of Wyoming faculty family. He was a junior at UW at the time of the accident. He was studying history and working at the UW Science Camp, a research facility at the base of the mountains, complete with numerous cabins, a large kitchen, and a crew to cook and support logistics of visiting scientists. He recalled his story for me via a Zoom interview, which will be available in the AHC archives at a later date.
Bruce began working at the science camp as a “kitchen boy” and after a few years started driving a truck to take food and other essentials from Laramie up to the camp, roughly 30 miles each way.
“When Flight 409 hit the peak many of the people who worked there weren’t available so they grabbed the people they could find to do logistics,” Bruce explained. “I actually was in a seminar when one of the faculty people came in, tapped me on the shoulder, and said ‘we need you.’ The professor was not too happy that I was pulled out of class.”
There were at least two shifts of workers, not only from the recovery crew but from United Airlines, itself. “There was a lot of brass was there, as you know, and the clubs were climbing the peaks and a variety of other people were around, and so they wanted to feed them roughly on meal hours,” Bruce recalled. He was responsible for driving back and forth to pick up the items that they wanted from the grocery store in Laramie. There was even a chef, flown in from Chicago. The chef wanted things that aren’t normally available at the camp, let alone in the small college town of Laramie.
A retired librarian, Bruce has lived in Northfield, Minnesota, for decades but still has family in Laramie. He sometimes makes the trip up to the Medicine Bows to visit the alpine lakes, but says he rarely thinks about the events of October 1955.
When we spoke, he noted that he hadn’t thought about the accident for years until he saw my notice in the history newsletter.
“I’m an emotionally challenged person,” he told me. “I don’t have any particularly strong memories. Other than the fact that it was a horrendous event in people’s lives, but not so much in mine. My role was very tangential to what was going on.”
Like the others, Bruce was there at the science camp for about a week. He compares his experience with the other workers on the mountain, some of whom he knew well. “Some were intimately involved in taking bodies down, and that would have been much more emotionally draining than anything I had to do.”
Instead, many of his memories of that time and place are of Samuel “Doc” Knight, who founded the science camp, or T.A. Larson, a noted history professor from whose class he was removed on that day. Bruce can still sketch a verbal map of the layout of the science camp, clear down to the position of a tree around which one of the structures was erected.
Talking about it with me now, he says, “it makes me feel there is a gap in my memory of knowledge.” He says that our conversation and a previous article I’d sent him “helped stimulate my little piece of what went on.”
The Search Continues
There are many discussion forums and websites and related material on the internet concerning this airline disaster. The most important, in my mind, is the booklet Flight 409 by the late Wyoming historian Mel Duncan. There are also plenty of recorded oral histories with individual who worked the accident site. For myself, I am not seeking answers to technical mysteries, such as why the captain, Clinton C. Cooke Jr., routed the non-pressurized aircraft over the mountains rather than follow the recommended path around them. Instead, I’m seeking to remember the people who were affected, and help tell their stories.
For example, in 2019 after a previous Daily Yonder story, a woman named Sofia contacted me to say she had been adopted from Greece in September 1955, during the Cold War. At 15 months, Sofia came to the U.S. with her mother’s sister and possibly one other little girl. They flew from Athens to New York on October 6 but missed the connection to Salt Lake City. That was almost certainly United Flight 409. Instead, they continued by train. In Salt Lake City she met her new parents then headed to their home near San Francisco. “I feel like I won the baby lottery three times. First, the adoption, next missing our flight, and finally meeting a new, amazing, loving family.”
Her message and others like it prompted me to cross over into a resource I use frequently as a hobby but hadn’t considered for this particular research effort: Ancestry.com. It didn’t seem efficient to start with the first death certificate and work my way through 65 others, searching for names online and trying to learn more about each one. Instead, I began with those who had connections to southeast Wyoming or other areas of personal interest to me. That’s how I discovered that 22-year-old “stewardess” Patricia Shuttleworth was listed as a resident of Cheyenne, Wyoming. I entered her name, city location, and date of death into the Ancestry search box. I found her listed in the family tree of a man called Father Leo. I sent him an introductory message, and he replied the next day.
He wrote, “While I think this would be a fun project, I’m afraid that I won’t be much help. My connection to ‘Pat’ is that I found the paper trail. She’d have been on my mother’s side of the family. My great-grandmother and ‘Pat’s’ grandfather were siblings. I’d be very much interested in hearing what you find out.”
So, although this path didn’t lead me where I’d hoped, it did lead me to some photographs of Pat, as well as a picture of her graveside, as posted online by the volunteer organization Find-A-Grave. I also hope Father Leo will bookmark our conversation in his memory. One never knows when another “dot” will present itself, begging to be connected.
From the American Heritage Center archives collection, I have notes from a guest registry for a Flight 409 exhibit held there. Even this goes back more than two decades, to 1997. I see that a group from Utah visited on May 23. One of them wrote, “As family members to Lawrence Malnar, we found this exhibit to be a closure to our hurt and family loss. Thanks to all who spent considerable time and effort.” I cannot find a contact person to reach out to, all these years later. Instead, I find Malnar’s death certificate in the archives. J. Lawrence Malnar was a 25-year-old “never married” plasterer, born May 1, 1930, in Utah, the son of Joseph Sam Malnar and Rose Wilkerson. He resided in Neola, Utah. He boarded the plane at Denver, bound for Salt Lake City.
Another entry in the guest register was signed by a person from Utah, who wrote: “My Grandmother Grace and Uncle Dale Brown were on this flight. Thank you for the informative memorial. I will use this in our journals and family history.” Their story concerns Grace Brown and her son Dale, both of Honolulu, Hawaii. They boarded the flight at Omaha, bound for San Francisco. Dale was a 35-year-old single man who had served in World War II and worked for Dole Pineapple. His mother, born Grace Walmer, was a 58-year-old widowed housewife, born in Lucas, Kansas. It is hard to think about family groups being killed in this way, and I know they weren’t the only ones. But this pair had its origins in my home state of Kansas. I’d visited their native Russell County many times, cruising the Post Rock Scenic Byway through the Smoky Hills. Another reason to feel connected.
As was the case in these examples, all 63 passengers and three crew had the following details in common. Place of death: Carbon County, Wyoming. Medical certification: Multiple Severe Injuries. Cause of death: Accident. Place of death: Mountains. Interval Between Onset and Death: Instant. Date of death: October 6, 1955.
Pondering these lives over the relatively small expanse of time since they were ended brings to this English major’s mind the novelist Henry James, who was forever interested in expression of psychological subtleties. James knew that the past couldn’t be recreated, not really. He puts the point perfectly in this excerpt from his unfinished novel published posthumously in 1917, in which a character muses about his failure to understand what came before his time. I once kept this quotation tacked to my bulletin board; now it resides on my computer desktop.
“What he wanted himself was the very smell of that simpler mixture of things that had so long served; he wanted the very tick of the old stopped clocks. He wanted the very hour of the day on which this and that happened, and the temperature and the weather and the sound, and yet more the stillness, from the street, and the exact look-out, with the corresponding look-in, through the window and the slant on the walls of the light of afternoons that had been. He wanted the unimaginable accidents, the little notes of truth for which the common lens of history, however the scowling muse might bury her nose, was not sufficiently fine. He wanted evidence of the sort for which there had never been documents enough, or for which documents mainly, however multiplied, would never be enough.”
But James was a novelist, not a journalist, or a witness. Thankfully, we have this gift, from the recent past, in these words from Bob Harrower.
“After recalling, rethinking and noting these memories I am no longer troubled with the two most vivid recurring, troubling dreams or visions that I recently experienced. One, the image of a friend, after digging in the wreckage, standing up, holding the body of a baby in his arms with tears in his eyes; the other, an image of the body of the stewardess, hard against the rock face of the mountain after being ejected from the plane as it broke open. Thank you for providing me with the impetus and excuse to rehash all of this. You have cured me.”
Julianne Couch is a writer based in Bellevue, Iowa. Her research for this story was supported by the Lola Homsher Grant from the Wyoming Historical Society.