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The Plane Spotting Lady of 1942

At 7.30 on the morning of January 21, 1942, Mrs. Edna Wallach of Bell Valley pulled on a coat and, raising an umbrella over her head, stepped outside to check the damage the two day storm was doing to her garden. It was still raining hard and the wind was so strong it blew the umbrella wrong side out. Mrs. Wallach, turning back to the house, had just stepped onto the porch when she heard something above the roar of the wind. She looked up and passing very low over the house was a huge airplane, so low in fact, that Mrs. Wallach could see the position of the various colored lights and even the lights glowing inside the plane.

Edna Wallach was a certified plane spotter, having taken on the job December 8, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor. She continued on the job until the war was over and, though she logged over 30 pages of plane spottings in her official book, the plane that barely topped the hill behind the house on that moming was the most dramatic if tragic moment of her long and dilligent career.

Mrs. Wallach’s first thought on seeing the huge plane overhead, which tumed out to be a Navy Clipper, once a Pan American civilian passenger plane called the Phillipine Clipper, was that as low as it was it couldn't possibly clear the mountain between Boonville and Ukiah. The phone lines were down due to the storm so Mrs. Wallach wrote down all the information she had — size and description of the plane, direction it was heading, etc. — and managed to get it to Piggy Hogan, a member of the highway crew who in tum turned it over to James Busch, District Attomey of Mendocino County.

For some reason, whether the informetion was not reported immediately or the goverment sources were unsure of its validity, it was several days before planes were sent over the area to search for the wreckage.

The Clipper en route from Honolulu to San Francisco was fogged out of the bay and told to either head for San Diego or Clear Lake in Lake County. There were reports of a plane over the lake and that was the first area searched. Planes flew over Bell Valley and the surrounding hills for one day without spotting anything. But Mrs. Wallach said they were too high to see anything. She begged people to walk back in and search the area as she had had a dream in which she saw the wreckage of a plane and knew in her mind just where it was. One pilot decided to make another search and just as the sun was setting, it was he who spotted the sun’s rays reflecting off a piece of aluminum.

Edna and Pearl Hutsell were watching the search plane and saw it tip its wings three times. “They found it,” Edna said. And they had. Just where she said it would be. The wreckage was lying almost exactly as she had seen it in her dream in the area of Big Basin near the old hunting camp.

Now came the armed forces by the droves. Because the plane was carrying nine service members in addition to its civilian crew of ten, and because some of the victims had been carrying top secret data, the Ukiah-Boonville road was cordoned off and only authorized personnel were allowed in the area. When the bodies were finally removed from the wreckage, local help was enlisted and pack horses belonging to Cat Tarwater, Kent Wallach, Max, Vernon and Fred Rawles and even a pony that belonged to young Frank Wallach, Edna's son, were used to bring them out to the main road.

Among the victims was one woman, a Lieutonant Adna O. Morrow, a nurse, who was being sent heme trom Hawaii because of illness. Also aboard was Rear Admiral Robert H. English, Commander of the entire submarine force of the United States Pacific fleet. Admiral English was on his way to meet with President Roosevelt and his briefcase contained much of the secret information that was aboard the plane.

Later when Miss Blanche Brown and a group of her students were exploring the site, one of the boys found a black box containing micro-film. Miss Brown tumed it over to the Navy at Mare Island and, though it was never verified, it was believed to have contained top secret information also. This discovery led to another search of the area by government officials who never disclosed whether or not anything else was found.

Mrs Edna Wallach

Mrs. Wallach suffered for days with the thought that someone might have survived the wreck and was lying out there while the authorities made up their minds whether or not her report was authentic. Watches on two of the victims however, both stopped at 7:30 am., the time of impact, provided proof that all of the victims were killed instantly. A purse belonging to Nurse Morrow was found and contained her watch which was still in working order.

Later, Jack June found a 1927 class ring with an inscription on it and he was able to retum it to the victim's wife who lived in Virginia. Eventually, the government had the wreckage site dynamited and Alex Willis was a member of the crew that did the job.

Mrs. Wallach received phone calls from as far away as New York and has in her possession many letters commending her for her fine work, including one from the President's office requesting her attendance at a hearing in San Francisco. 

Mrs Wallach was asked at the time never to divulge anything that took place at the hearing and she hasn't done so to this day, although she says she has made several people angry by her refusal to do so.

District Attomey Busch spoke of Edna Wallach as “the most devoted and faithful of observers” in a time when people all over the United States were at their observation posts in the same service of their country. Most thankfully, without the same dramatic results.

In 1970, 28 years after that fateful moming, Mrs. Wallach had a visitor at her home. It was a lady and her 28 year old son who had been born at the time of the plane crash preventing his mother from coming up here or attending her husband’s funeral. Needless to say, the young man never saw his father.

Almost every year on the 21st of January, someone visits Edna at her Bell Valley home in search of memories of someone who lost their life in that last tragic flight of the Philippine Clipper that lost its way in a storm and crashed against a hillside in Mendocino County.

(From Donna Pardini’s ‘An Anderson Valley Love Story,’ 1980)

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