Diving Into the Past in Search of Understanding

Navy radio man Donald Wattenbarger died in a plane crash near

It’s not a story of romance, or deep intrigue.
It’s nothing out of a movie, and it’s not a relentless quest
into the past to reveal something about the future.
San Juan Bautista – It’s not a story of romance, or deep intrigue.

It’s nothing out of a movie, and it’s not a relentless quest into the past to reveal something about the future.

But it involves a family’s life, a young man taken too soon, a mother’s grief, and a niece’s curiosity into who her family’s identity.

Nineteen-year-old Navy radio man Donald Wattenbarger, whose family still lives in Hollister, died April 13, 1945, when the plane he was crashed into what is known as Pagan Hill overlooking sleepy San Juan Bautista while on a training flight from Hollister airport to Salinas.

Wattenbarger’s niece, Lorie Setterberg, wasn’t born until eight years after her uncle died and didn’t think much about him while growing up in the Prunedale area, she said. But one day, about two years ago, she was talking with her mother, Hollister resident Ruth Wattenbarger, about the family history and her uncle’s long-ago death struck a chord inside her.

“My mom and I got to talking and she was telling me how my grandmother, who I always felt was cold and business-like, was so affected by his death that she had to be put on tranquilizers for three days,” Setterberg said. “It piqued my interest and I just kind of locked on to it. I just have a curious nature.”

In her free time, Setterberg, who is a painter and now lives in Mariposa with her husband, began researching her uncle’s death, trying to find out exactly what happened and who this person was who appeared to be her austere grandmother’s favorite, she said.

“It’s nothing dramatic or romantic … to me it’s just interesting. I want to understand a little more about him as a person, to find anyone who had known him, even for a short time,” she said, adding that she was not close to her father during his lifetime and never had the chance to ask him about his brother.

After learning of her uncle’s death, Setterberg, 52, began digging into the incident that took his life. All she knew at the onset was her uncle was a radio man in the Navy, and while on a test flight with pilot Raymond Green, who was flying the SBD-5 Douglas Dauntless from the Hollister airport to Salinas, his plane took a nose dive into the area near Pagan Hill, about four miles south of San Juan Bautista.

The hill got its name because many years ago, Native Americans in the area used that area for religious ceremonies until the local white population discouraged their worshipping by erecting a huge Christian cross at the hill’s crest.

After first contacting the Navy – which wasn’t much help considering the crash occurred about six decades ago and they informed her they didn’t give out accident reports – she called the Federal Aviation Administration, which also turned up nothing.

“There was no one to talk about a crash that happened in 1945,” she said, and added that newspaper clippings of the crash were few and far between with little details about the actual crash. “FDR (President Franklin Delano Roosevelt) died and Ernie Pyle, the famous war correspondent, died around the same time. It wasn’t a big deal (for the media).”

So then she began surfing the Internet and stumbled on a Web site called accireport.com where she found the actual report of the crash. But all that told her was where the plane crashed and that the plane climbed to nearly 4,000 feet before diving into the hill, according to the report.

The report stated the cause of the accident was undetermined.

Although Setterberg went to the site in the hopes of finding some remains of the wreckage, there was nothing but gopher holes and cattle – not surprising considering the significant amount of time that has passed since the accident. She contacted the Hollister Airman’s Association and published a letter in its newsletter asking anyone with information about her uncle to contact her. That also got her nowhere.

Even eye witnesses to the crash, such as Hollister resident Chuck Ramires, who grew up in San Juan Bautista and was the first on the scene, couldn’t add much to what she already knew. Ramires was 14 years old at the time and saw smoke from the crash from San Juan Bautista, he said.

Ramires and some of his friends raced up the hill on their bikes where they found the burning wreckage. The entire plane was engulfed, and it was apparent the occupants had not survived the impact, he said. But soon after, emergency personnel arrived and shooed the boys away.

Another San Juan native, former San Benito County Sheriff Harvey Nyland who was also 14 at the time, saw the smoke from the crash and drove up to the hill with his father, he said.

He said Navy personnel came up to the site and hauled all the wreckage away, leaving nothing behind – although he remembered digging a 25 cent piece out of the dirt near the charred plane.

“All there would be now is a spot where the plane crashed … covered over with manzanita,” he said.

Other than giving some context to the aftermath of the crash, even Ramires and Nyland didn’t offer much new information for Setterberg.

While she has come to the realization she may never know much about her uncle – her grandmother died years ago, as did her father – she still holds on to the hope that someone who knew him will come forward.

“I have this impression that he was the exact opposite of my dad – two guys growing up in the same fatherless family,” she said. “I just want to find out what (my dad’s) brother was like.”

Anyone with information about Donald Wattenbarger or the crash should contact the Free Lance at (831) 637-5566 or send an e-mail to [email protected]

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