Memorial Being Planned For Tragedy of Yesteryear

By Lisa Deemy 

Sun-Gazette Staff

"The GPS says we keep going, " yells Boy Scout Bryan Makos, his voice crackling over walkie-talkies in two vehicles behind.

     In less than two hours last weekend, members of Boy Scout troops and staffers from Ghost Wings Magazine, using  today's satellite technology, found what 200-plus military men and civilian searchers could not locate using the best available technology in 1946.

The small group, searching May 13, quickly pinpointed remnants of a P-47 aircraft that crashed on a remote mountaintop in southern Tioga County, 20 miles northwest of Slate Run, in April 1946.

     Some 54 years later, the crash is still shrouded in mystery, innuendo and rumor, having become local legend.

     In response to Makos' disembodied direction, the lead vehicle in the tiny convoy suddenly pulls to the side of the narrow road.

     Makos leaps from the vehicle.

     "GPS says it's about a mile that way," he says exuberantly, pointing across the road and up a steep ravine.  "We hike the rest."

     "We have coordinates of the crash," adds Vince Quick, scoutmaster for Troop 93 of Church of the Savior Lutheran in Williamsport.  "We have compasses as backups and maps.  Let's find it."

      "And remember, we're not taking anything from the crash site.  We're going in to find and protect it, not take things from it," Adam Makos, Bryan's older brother, reminds the searchers.

     After a briefing on safety-and-search techniques, scouts and Ghosts Wings staff swarm up the rugged terrain, adults working hard to keep up or trailing behind in the humid heat.  Reaching a logging road at the summit, Bryan and Adam Makos and Quick recheck "GPS," or Global Positioning System, to see which direction to search.

     GPS is a hand-held computer that, ideally, simultaneously accesses three satellites to triangulate on the entered coordinates and indicate a location.  Using coordinates of the crash site, the GPS gives the scouts direction and distance within 100 feet of the destination - in this case, a 54-year-old P-47 crash site hidden in thickly forested, rugged terrain. 

     The group gathers around the GPS operator to study the map.

     "It looks like we can follow this road for awhile.  It should be right over in that area," Quick says, pointing.

     The state-owned land is being logged, and the group is racing to save the crash site from accidental destruction.  They hope to raise public awareness about the site and arrange for a memorial to the pilot.

     "Dying for freedom isn't the worst that could happen.  Being forgotten is," actor Tom Hanks says in an advertisement for the National World War II Memorial.

     Ghost Wings staff agrees wholeheartedly.  Ghost Wings Magazine is dedicated to "preserving the sacrifices of American veterans."

     The group moves down the road, talking excitedly about the prospect of success in extremely rough terrain now covered with tree tops from the logging.

     Searchers include Eric Quick and Pilar Castro, both of Troop 93.  The Makos brothers, both of Troop 172 at Farragut United Methodist Church; their sister Erica, a Cadet Girl Scout; their father Robert, and Joe and Rob Gohrs, of Ghost Wings Magazine, continue the trek.

     Farther down the road, Quick tells all to "spread out."

     "Let's go in," he says.

     They begin searching through dense woods, staying within sight of the next person in the formation, Bryan Makos checks the GPS again as the group starts losing sight of one another.

     "C'mon, c'mon," he mutters.

     With only two satellites available, he is unable to get a fix on the crash-site coordinates.  In this terrain, after half a century of erosion and forest growth, the searchers stumble past it.  He sighs in exasperation.

     Hot, sweaty and bug-chewed after combing the woods for 25 minutes, Quick reins in the group.

     "Let's check this way for awhile," he suggests, pointing east.  "Bryan just got another reading and it says this way."

      "We found something here," someone shouts.  The others crash through tangled branches toward the shout.  There, in the leaves, is a metal object, melted into a glob, barely recognizable as an engine part from the P-47.

    "Your instincts were right, you walked right up on this, Pilar," Bob Makos says, grinning at the boy.

     Giddy with excitement, their hope of finding rest of the site blossoms.  After roping off the object with orange tape to mark its location, they search farther east.

     Another 20 minutes go by.

     "C'mon guys, we should get going.  The road is right over here," Quick says, eliciting groans as the group starts to slowly close in in him.

     But then he shouts, "Hey!  I found it.  Waaaahooo!"

     A chorus of "they found it" echoes through the woods.  The group gathers excitedly, but their exhilaration suddenly is replaces by a silence.

     Standing at the edge of the 12 by 6 foot crater, staring at the melted, twisted fragments of the aircraft, "Lest we forget," Quick says in a hushed husky tone and calls for a moment of silence.

     Silence last longer than that, though, as the searchers consider the fate of the man who died there.  Silently, they begin their work to protect the site, taping off the crater and searching for more pieces of the craft in the woods.  They place two American flags and laminated-paper memorial markers nearby.

     Inspecting the site, they found it less than 200 feet from the logging road, trees surrounding it all marked for cutting.

     "The district forester from Wellsboro, Roy Siefert, told us they would protect it from logging now that we found it.  We got there in the nick of time," Robert Makos said.  "People who have parts of the plane are calling us, asking if they can return them," he said incredulously.

     "We feel like this project puts our mission into action," said Joe Gohrs, production manager for Ghost Wings Magazine.

     "We believe in the old adage, 'A country defies itself by the quality of the people it chooses to remember,'" added Adam Makos, Ghost Wings' editor.

     The pair was in Savannah, Ga., last week, making a presentation at the 37th annual reunion of the National P-47 Pilots Association.  They were invited to make the presentation about the magazine, and their efforts to recognize and honor Capt. Lawrence Ritter of Yonkers, NY, the pilot killed in the crash.  The association is interested in the story, and Ghost Wings' efforts to protect and erect a memorial at the site, tentatively set for June 16-17.

     They also plan to visit the Might 8th Air Force Heritage Museum to see what else can be learned about the pilot who died.

     Ghost Wings Magazine's fourth issue is due out this summer.  Its web address is www.ghostwings.com