Ray Rossman sat quietly as he flipped through the pages of his two-inch binder wrapped in a sketch of a B-24 bomber. Tears formed in his eyes with one escaping to his cheek.
His eyes searched the many pages documenting a tragedy that occurred 75 years ago. His voice cracked with emotion as he described the details of the crash which claimed the lives of 11 crew members aboard bomber No. 41-29027.
Rossman, whose thick, white hair betrays his age, spent 20 years as a U.S. Forest Service archaeologist with the Gunnison Ranger District. The better part of that time he dedicated to honoring the sacrifice made on that hillside just south of Taylor Canyon Road, northeast of Gunnison. His wife, Bev, even laments that she considered herself a “widow” through the many hours Rossman spent on the project.
“It’s a piece of history,” said Rossman. “And this is a token of the sacrifices that were made.”
It is evident that the book that he quietly thumbed through is a labor of love.
In search of closure
Just 18 months into World War II, the United States was amping up its military. Rationing of food, fuel and leather products was common, and social change was underway. Two million women, typified by “Rosie the Riveter,” had entered the military workforce. Military aircraft were being produced at rapid rates, and young men were trained to operate them.
On July 19, 1943, crew No. 14 left Casper, Wyo., at about 10 a.m. on a training flight to El Paso, Texas on the four-engine aircraft. Just two hours later, the plane — only 13 weeks old — crashed into the Taylor Canyon cliffs.
Shortly before noon, the fireball was reported to the Forest Service, which dispatched crews to fight the blaze. They found 2,000 gallons of aviation fuel burning among the scattered debris of the plane. The fire burned so hot that no one could approach the wreckage for days.
Aluminum melted in the fire “flowed like water down the hillside,” Lewie Miller told the Gunnison Country Times in 1993. The father of longtime Gunnison history buff C.J. Miller, Lewie was the funeral home director at the time.
Investigators later determined a portion of the tail broke free from the plane and collided with the remainder of the tail assemble, essentially ripping it off.
Not much was written about the wreck at the national level. Rossman said the country didn’t want to reveal tragedy to its enemies. But there were local articles, and Rossman’s interest in the crash — and his compassion for the fallen servicemen — led to his pursuit of a federal memorial at the site. It was a way for the families of the victims to receive closure at the loss of their loved ones.
‘Something that tugged at my heart’
In 1992, Rossman sought to erect a commemorative plaque, but the Forest Service does not typically construct memorials, Rossman said. Instead, he researched the possibility of establishing “interpretive signage.” The application process involved much documentation on the accident.
Yet, his involvement went far beyond simply compiling facts. While he collected almost every record associated with the flight — the military order, accident reports, notifications to family members and the process of transporting the remains of each victim to his final resting place — Rossman also reached out to family members. He conversed with them to learn about their lost loved ones and helped to return additional keepsakes found as the crash scene was surveyed in 1992 as part of the application.
A wedding ring carved with the “flower of love” and a watch were recovered at the time, in addition to more human remains. With great care, Rossman packed the watch and ring to return to family members. Alas, the ring was lost in the shipment.
He had a 48-star flag packaged in a special trophy case, engraved with the bomber’s image, to give to family members. And he ensured the additional remains were treated properly before they were eventually interred at the crash site.
In 1993, the plaque was installed at the crash site as part of the 50th anniversary of the accident. Family members — such as the brother and the daughter of the bombardier on the flight, James Allen — attended the memorial. Allen’s daughter, Hillis Minnich, had never met her father. Rossman’s voiced cracked again as he recalled her story with a mix of mourning for the victims and compassion for their families.
“It’s always been personal to me,” Rossman said reflecting on his own military service in the Air Force.
His work, he said, was his duty. It was a way to honor his bond of brotherhood with fellow airmen.
“It’s something that tugged at my heart,” he said quietly.
Gone, but not forgotten
Following the memorial ceremony, Rossman continued to collect information. His binder is full of almost any fact one would want to know about the bomber and its crew. It’s as if he knows each crew member on a personal level — their young ages, and their lives and professions before entering the military. All those details are neatly organized in his binder.
At the conclusion of his career with the Forest Service, Rossman guarenteed the crash would not be forgotten by ensuring interpretative signage was installed near mile marker 15 along Taylor Canyon Road, providing visitors information about the event.
On Monday evening, Rossman spoke at a 75th anniversary ceremony at the Pioneer Museum — an event, he noted, which was important to the community. About 40 people ranging in age attended.
“There’s a whole generation that doesn’t know about what happened and the sacrifices that were made so we can have the world we have today,” he said.