The Ghost Bomber of the Monongahela River

Somewhere in the murky depths of the Monongahela River sits a broken and bent B-25 Mitchell bomber of WWII heritage, forgotten by all but the older generation of Homestead, Pennsylvania, a few miles away from Pittsburgh. The story surrounding this aircraft, one of over 9800 built, is rife with rumors and legends.

On January 31st, 1956, Major William Dotson and Captain John Jamieson were about to step off on a flight to Olmstead Air Force Base near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where they would deliver a few passengers and pick up spare parts to be returned to a different base. The two would be piloting a TB-25N, a modified navigational trainer variant of the B-25 Mitchell, which had long since outlived its days as a frontline combat aircraft. The flight originated at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, the day before, and had two stops before it reached its final destination. After stopping briefly at Tinker AFB in Oklahoma, the Mitchell carried on to Selfridge Air Force Base in Michigan, where it was supposed to refuel and then fly on to Harrisburg. Since they were on a tight schedule, the aircrew of the TB-25N departed Selfridge without refueling, as ground tanker crews informed them that the process would take around three hours- time that they didn’t have. After lifting off and raising the landing gear, Dotson and Jamieson vectored in on their pre-planned route, and the two settled back for what would hopefully be an uneventful trip. While en route, all that was about to change when the twin engines and cockpit instruments began to show signs of fuel starvation. Immediately banking away from their intended route, Dotson and Jamieson looked for the nearest available airport on their charts while wrestling the big bomber onto a new flight path that would take them to Pittsburgh, if their luck held.

It didn’t.

After some quick thought and consultation between the two seasoned pilots, the decision was made to align with a body of water, as close to land as possible, since it wasn’t likely that the engines would remain alive long enough for the aircraft to reach the Greater Pittsburgh Airport. Dotson and Jamieson worked to lower the flaps and warned the crew and passengers in the rear to brace for imminent impact, just when the engines sputtered and died. Flying low and perpendicular to the span of the Homestead High Level Bridge, the two pilots swooped in low and barely skimmed the surface of the Monongahela River, squeezing out every last bit of lift the wings had left in them before the belly of the Mitchell touched the water’s surface. Rescue and emergency services in nearby Pittsburgh were scrambling to the location of the Mitchell, which was now floating downstream while taking on water. All but two of the men aboard the TB-25N were able to escape with their lives; the latter succumbed to hypothermia and drowned before being picked up. The bomber quietly slipped beneath the surface of the Monongahela, never to be seen again.

The four survivors were rushed away from the site for medical evaluations, while the search carried on for the other two airmen who remained missing. Before long, rumors started to spread around town. To some, the Mitchell was carrying a secret cargo of nuclear weapons. To others, it carried spies or people of extreme [unknown] importance to the government and/or military. A few people even reported as many as five or six men being pulled from the water and spirited away. The local news media, apparently caught up in the sensationalism surrounding the crash, corroborated these eyewitness accounts.

Courtesy Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - Copyright 1999 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Courtesy Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – Copyright 1999 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A Coast Guard vessel was dispatched to the location of the crash landing to oversee the recovery of the lost aircraft. Dragging the river bed, which wasn’t as deep as one might think, proved to be unfruitful. In the process, thanks to all the other bits and pieces of scrap and junk on the river bed, a number of cables used to drag the bottom were irreparably broken. The US Army Corps of Engineers arrived on location and took over from the Coast Guard, performing their own dragging and dredging operations. At one point, some locals noted the presence of a helicopter hovering over the river with what appeared (to some) to be a Geiger counter. This supposed sighting exacerbated the rumors, which were already spreading like wildfire. In the two weeks after the crash, both the USACE and the USCG couldn’t find anything that proved a medium bomber even existed in the location, let alone crashed there. Though search crews claimed to have hooked onto something that could have been a wing of the bomber, the contact was quickly lost and whatever it was that they briefly latched onto was gone for good. There wasn’t much that the Department of Defense could do to recover their missing bomber, so the Army and Coast Guard left the area, giving up the search. Many of the locals, by now, felt that the government was somehow still deceiving them. It didn’t help that the Air Force, when contacted, consistently refused to give anything but vague cookie-cutter statements. Among the most popular versions of the story that accounted for the missing aircraft was that the TB-25N was secretly raised during the night by covert government operatives, loaded onto a flatbed and driven to a nearby coal plant, where the entire aircraft was dropped into a furnace and melted down into unrecognizable heaps of molten metal.

In the following decades, speculation abounded but efforts to find the aircraft were still unsuccessful. In the 1990s, a team of researchers came together to determine the final resting place of the lost Mitchell, concluding that it was likely located in a gravel pit on the river bed. As it turns out, years ago, “gravel pirates” would dredge up certain parts of the Monongahela bed for gravel, which they’d ferry up and down the river to customers. The team figured that the Mitchell, after the ditching, floated downstream taking on water and eventually, unfortunately, sank right into the pit. The next forty years or so led to the gradual filling of the pit with sediment and silt thanks to the movement of the river waters, burying the Mitchell completely. That was the only plausible solution to the mystery of a bomber a little too large to go missing in a river that wasn’t all that deep. Known as the B-25 Recovery Group, the team now plans to confirm the existence of the Mitchell in the pit via dredging and underwater imaging systems. Perhaps they’ll finally be able to put a definite end to the mystery of the ghost bomber of the Monongahela river.

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