EAA Chapter 420 Members Assist in Discovery of B-24J Crash Site

By Mark Milliken, EAA 1363495

The Mission

It had been a long, cold, dark, and stressful night in the cockpit of B-24J 42-95559. But now, at 2200 hours on New Year’s Day 1945, aircraft commander 2nd Lt. Robert E. Murchison and his copilot 2nd Lt. Harold B. Paulk were relieved to be finally descending into the Casper, Wyoming, area. They would intercept beams of the Casper low frequency radio range (LFR) for a westerly approach to Casper Army Air Field (CAAF, now Casper/Natrona County International Airport). The mission was a round-robin navigation training exercise to Nebraska.

The Murchison crew was almost an hour overdue because weather forced them to reroute south of a weather front at Douglas. Being a navigation mission, the gunners were left behind. The crew of six was likely still recovering from New Year’s Eve, which didn’t help the monotony and discomfort of a cold, drafty, and noisy airplane.

B-24J 42-95559

B-24J 559 was one of eight aircraft on the mission. Six aircraft landed at alternate airports. One aircraft climbed to 14,000 feet and found the Casper LFR cone of silence for a landing. Murchison was over Lusk, Wyoming, on the return leg to CAAF, when a radio call signaled an intention to climb above the weather. He had only 6.5 hours of instrument time as pilot in command, a normal situation in wartime training. It was 2030 hours, and 559 was about 108 miles east of CAAF. It may have been Paulk who radioed the change of altitude. Another airplane received the transmission, the last words ever heard from 559. Radio static from the storm was severe.

With poor navigational aids and no radio communication, the crew may have been flying north on the Casper LFR beam over what they thought was Bates Hole and Muddy Mountain. Their shallow descent into the Casper area was now on a northeasterly heading and 1.8 miles east of the LFR beam they had been following.

Descending at an altitude of 7,000 feet at cruise speed, the cockpit crew were sure they were comfortably north of the 8,130-foot high Casper Mountain. Being just a few minutes from base, Paulk advised the crew to assume positions for landing. The prospect of a hot meal, hot shower, and a warm bunk were welcomed by all. Outside the cockpit, it was total blackness with no visual references whatsoever.

Suddenly and without warning, BANG! A severe upward crashing jolt threw the crew to the floor and around the forward cabin. Murchison and Paulk quickly realized the airplane was executing an unplanned 200 mph crash landing. Within one second, the bomb bay was crushed and propellers scattered across the prairie. The shattered ball turret and bombardier’s greenhouse were shedding Plexiglas, armored glass, and shredded aluminum along the aircraft’s path.

The cockpit crew would have had a natural reaction to pull back on the stick. Still with flying speed, the B-24 may have briefly become airborne. Sliding downhill in deep snow, 559’s toboggan ride took about seven seconds to cover a distance of 1,300 feet. In that short time, perhaps the crew was wondering if the airplane would soon grind to halt so they could all jump out and wait for rescue.

Another jolt occurred as the aircraft bumped over a knoll before flipping upside down and falling 40 feet into Bates Creek. The instrument panel clock stopped at 2208 hours. B-24J 559 and its crew came to rest 25 miles south of their estimated position.


The crash site was found by the Colorado Civil Air Patrol at 5 p.m. on January 3, 1945. It wasn’t until January 5, 1945, that the base doctor and recovery team managed to get a snow tractor into the remote site to recover the deceased crew. Weather was a factor in the delay. The CAP map plot was about five miles in error, a fact probably not helpful to crews attempting to make a timely recovery. According to local ranchers, the site would have been cleaned up by May 1945, when access to the area was possible. Wreckage would have been a hazard to livestock and wildlife, and a nuisance to the rancher. Since USAAF had large numbers of underutilized troops at this stage of the war, they did a thorough cleanup of the site.

AAF crash photo of B-24J 42-95559 taken on January 6, 1945.


After the war, ranchers and other locals quickly lost interest in the site. It was out of sight and out of mind. No specific information was passed on to younger generations and subsequent landowners. It was virtually invisible to ranchers and sportsmen. Local tales and rumors prevailed as decades passed, but no one seemed to know or care about the site. Most ranchers thought the nearby 1951 crash site of a civilian Beech D-18 was the Murchison B-24J. Perhaps B-24J 559 and the souls of her crew were destined to be lost forever to history.


In 2018, the Wyoming Veterans Memorial Museum in Casper requested Friends of the Wyoming Veterans Memorial Museum (Friends) and the Colorado Historical Aircraft Society and Aviation Archeologists (AvAr) to research and discover the mysterious Murchison site. AvAr had success in locating and documenting training crash sites immediately adjacent to CAAF. Finding the Murchison site would be a much more challenging task, given the lack of accurate location data and remote wilderness location.

References to the crash site location are many and often exceedingly inaccurate. They included the USAAF report, newspaper articles, published articles, official photographs, and local lore. The locations were plotted on Google Earth and included within a polygon that covered 186 square miles. That was a large and unworkable search area that needed revision.

In 2018, Friends embarked upon a campaign to acquire permission to access land in the vicinity of the CAP location, the only hard location data we had. Land owner and rancher Rob Shook was very cooperative and assisted with permissions from adjacent land owners. In 2019, Shook joined the Friends and AvAr on several unsuccessful foot traverses in the vicinity of the CAP map location.

B-24 bomb bay bracket found over a mile from the crash site by EAA members. The #32 identifies the part as being from a B-24.

As a result of these dead-end traverses, the CAP location and surrounding vicinity was ruled out. Clearly, a new approach was required. A careful analysis of terrain description and photos in the accident report led to recognition of unique geology and topographic features at the crash site. Geologic and topographic models were built and applied to published geologic maps and Google Earth imagery to restrict search areas.

In 2020, EAA pilots were conducting overflights of terrain they thought matched the topographic model between Muddy Mountain and Shirley Basin. During a ground recon on some promising terrain, EAA members discovered aircraft castings in an old sheepherder’s trash dump. From the casting numbers, AvAr identified the pieces as B-24 bomb bay door mounts. Although the dump is not the crash site, the parts suggested that research was closing in. The dump is five miles south of the CAP location.

The discovery allowed the search area to be refocused to a three-square mile area northeast of the dump, including Bates Creek. Applying the geologic model to Google Earth imagery, a series of topographic profiles were studied. One profile in particular stood out as a near-perfect match for the crash site model.

On May, 22, 2020, about 75 years after the crash cleanup, Friends and AvAr researchers set out on foot along the profile. They immediately found aircraft wreckage strewn along a narrow path to the north-northeast for about 1,300 feet. The trail of debris took them down a gentle slope, to the top of a low knoll, and then down a 40-foot bank to Bates Creek, the final resting place of 42-95559 and the Murchison crew. The debris field was photographed and GPS-ed. The landowner had no idea a crash site was there.

The Debris Field

The search area was reduced to a three-square-mile area including Bates Creek and northern Shirley Basin. Several topographic profiles were captured from Google Earth imagery across Bates Creek. One particular profile matched exactly the topographic model determined from the photos and accident description.

On May 20, 2020, researchers from Friends and AvAr found aircraft wreckage as they traversed the Google Earth line of profile. Later, several members of AvAr visited the location to further document the crash site. GPS locations and photos were taken of the debris. Some work was done was with metal detectors and drones, but much wreckage remains unaccounted for.

The debris path tells a story of how the aircraft was shedding parts. A group of propeller pitch control gears suggests where the props hit the ground. Smashed practice bombs are from the collapsed bomb bay. Bullet-proof glass suggests where the ball turret hit. Thick Plexiglas fragments are from the bombardier’s greenhouse. A fragment of green glass is from the starboard wingtip navigation light. Aluminum skin and longeron fragments litter the prairie, hiding amongst the sagebrush bushes. A metal frame was once a mounting base for the aircraft communications radio. Blobs of molten aluminum mark the aircraft’s final resting place.

Brian Richardson of AvAr with a 100 lb. sand-filled practice bomb from 42-95559.

The Memorial

A granite plaque was engraved with Murchison crew names and placed at the crash site. In early 2021, Friends researchers began contacting living relatives of the crew using ancestry software. Planning was begun for a memorial service at the crash site that would include a military funeral conducted by the Wyoming Army National Guard. Nineteen relatives of Murchison and Paulk accepted the invitation.

On the evening of July 21, 2021, Ray and Christy Paulk, and Ken and Marsha Pence came through the Casper airport arrival doors. They had been traveling from Georgia and Florida all day, suffering through canceled flights and weather delays. Ray and Marsha are siblings. Their sister Carol Greenway would arrive with her husband Jimmy later by car. Their mother is 2nd Lt. Harold Paulk’s aunt (in her 90s), who couldn’t come. Paulk was stationed on the very ground where Ray and Marsha were now standing.

Memorial plaque honoring the crew of 42-95559 on the knoll above Bates Creek.

The family of Sheryl Wilson drove and flew in to Casper from the Sacramento, California, area. They are related to 2nd Lt. Robert Murchison. The families were amazed to learn that their airliners landed on the same runway that Murchison and Paulk flew off of many times in 1944 as training for a combat assignment in Europe. It may have been the same runway from which the Murchison crew took off from on their mission to eternity.

On the morning of July 24, 2021, a caravan of cars headed south to the Bates Hole area on a dirt road that predates the modern highway to Medicine Bow. With dry roads, clear skies, and comfortable temperatures, the group was escorted to the memorial plaque on the knoll. As the group arrived, a rattlesnake on the stone had to be shuffled away. Carol Greenway reflected that her uncle Harold Paulk was always prone to practical jokes.

The National Guard funeral team was resplendent in their uniforms. A 21-gun salute and taps were performed by the guardsmen. There was not a dry eye on that knoll. Two American flags were folded and handed to the family matriarchs, Sheryl Wilson and Carol Greenway. After some pensive moments, the families made their way back to the cars through the sage brush and debris field. While walking, they reflected on the meaning of this day and of the horrific tragedy that occurred on this plain 76 years ago.

The Friends and AvAr have moved on to researching other long-lost CAAF crash sites. More crew family reunions are planned for 2022 and 2023.

Family matriarchs Carol Greenway (left, Lt. Paulk) and Sheryl Wilson (right, Lt. Murchison) receive flags from the Army National Guard. In the background is Sgt. Shane Vincent, U.S. Army Tomb Guard.


Friends of the Wyoming Veterans Memorial Museum (Friends), Central Wyoming Chapter 420, Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), Colorado Historical Aircraft Society and Aviation Archeologists (AvAr).

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