Of interest to Ross Valley residents is the November 2, 1941 crash on Bald Hill. Two Army P-40 pursuit planes crashed into the side of the hill at 5:40 P.M. killing the two pilots, Lieutenants Russell E. Speckman and Thomas LeRoy Truax. A third pilot, Walter V. Radovich, bailed out of his plane near Lucas Valley Road.
The three planes were part of the ill-fated 57th Pursuit Group (PG) commanded by Maj. Clayton B. Hughes, which had departed from March Field in Riverside County on October 24, 1941, heading for Sacramento with 19 aircraft. Over the Sierra Nevada, the group encountered bad weather, and five planes were lost and nine made forced landings elsewhere. Two pilots were killed and two pilots survived in the snowbound back country of Kings Canyon National Park.
The 57th PG continued on to Oregon with 13 aircraft for maneuvers, and on a flight from Medford, Oregon, to Fresno on November 2nd encountered bad weather, heavy fog and rain, over the Central Valley. The group split and seven made it to Fresno and three landed in Oakland. Speckman, Truax and Radovich were lost and looking for a safe place to land, not realizing they were only a few miles from Hamilton Field when the crashes occurred.
First on the scene were Frank Chamberlin and his son Bill who lived at the end of Oak Avenue. When interviewed, Bill, age 18, said he ran out of the house when he heard the two planes approaching with a terrific roar. “We couldn’t get near the plane because of the flames. There was wreckage, pieces of instruments, guns, and fuselage lying for yards around. I felt sick because there was nothing I could do,” said Bill. The San Anselmo police and fire departments were next on the scene, followed by Hamilton Field personnel and a steady stream of curious spectators and souvenir hunters. Bill Wessell of the San Anselmo Fire Department was quoted: “I heard the planes far off and listened to them approaching. I walked perhaps a 100 yards when suddenly they were roaring down my neck. I turned around and began jumping up and down, waving my arms. Get up higher, I yelled. I saw one plane whip out of the thick mist and disappear immediately. Then I heard the explosion.”
Lt. Radovich was rescued suffering with a broken leg and was initially treated at the hospital at Hamilton Field. He spent seven months recuperating before going overseas. He eventually was promoted to major and was awarded with the Distinguished Flying Cross twice and numerous other medals and citations. He died in 2006. Lt. Speckman was buried in Ottawa, Illinois. Lt. Truax was survived by his wife, Iona, and was buried in his hometown of Madison, Wisconsin. The Army Air Field at Madison was named in Lt. Truax’s honor and is still active as Madison’s Regional Airport and Air National Guard Base.
The 57th PG served with distinction in North Africa and Italy flying P-40s and later P-47 Thunderbolts.
With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, the Bald Hill crash passed from front page news and the minds of San Anselmo residents, but today it is still a vivid memory for many longtime San Anselmo residents. Peter Deetken recalls seeing and hearing the low flying planes and the glow from the fires from his Barber Tract hillside home. Irene Thornton walked up the hill from her Sunnyside Avenue home the evening of the crash and said in an 2009 interview “I can’t tell you what I saw!”
With the help of eye witnesses to the crash and a 1946 aerial photograph showing the craters created on impact, Marin Municipal Water District Ranger Matt Cerkel was able to identify the crash site in July 2009 after searching for it since 2005. “These were the breaks I needed to find and confirm the site! The site is very overgrown now with brush and a fair amount of poison oak; the two craters seem to be visible when you look carefully in the brush,” says Cerkel. Small parts from the wreckage, donated by retired MMWD worker Allen Best, who visited the crash site on November 3, 1941, have been added to the collection and archives of MMWD.