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Searching for a lost hero

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Posted: Friday, June 15, 2012 9:56 am

"I see something," Mitch said, pointing to a glint in the forest maybe 50 yards ahead.

I sloshed through a creek and climbed over a fallen tree. My heart started racing. Finally, in the middle of a Sierra wilderness, among soaring pines and lush ferns, we were upon it: the silvery wing of a bomber.

The wing is part of the wreckage from a B-17 that tumbled from the sky on Nov. 2, 1941. The plane's remnants are scattered over an area of  the Sierra near Tells Peak. 

Our hike to the crash site was glimpse into military history — and an act of heroism. 

We began our hike at a trailhead in the Desolation Wilderness west of Lake Tahoe. 

I was joined by Mitch, my older son, and Brian, one of Mitch's colleagues at CBS13 in Sacramento.

Brian had a GPS and the coordinates of the lost bomber. We hiked along a well-worn trail for about 40 minutes, then veered west down toward a creek. The trail diffused among shattered slabs of granite, manzanita thickets and fallen trees.

We bushwhacked, eyes scanning, for perhaps 10 minutes. Brian told us the GPS would get us in the vicinity, but it would not lead us precisely to the wreckage.

We found the right wing, the largest piece of the bomber still intact. It was an eerie sight, a huge thing of twisted metal in such a green and pristine forest.

Affixed to part of the wing was a small plate that hinted at the story of the bomber that crashed so long ago.

At the controls of the B-17, also known as a Flying Fortress, was 1st Lt. Leo Walker. The plane was traveling from Salt Lake City to Sacramento for maintenance. Bad weather forced a layover in Reno, but after two days, reports arrived indicating the skies over the Sierra were clearing.

But as the bomber flew above Lake Tahoe, communications started failing. Walker was unable to drive the huge machine higher, above the darkened skies. The plane's mechanical systems started shutting down.

Besides the pilot, there were seven men aboard. Walker ordered them to grab their parachutes and get ready to bail. That order saved their lives.

In moments, Walker lost all control. The plane started spinning toward the earth.

The men bailed. Walker stayed at the controls. Stayed with his plane.

He perished in the crash. The others survived. The B-17 broke into pieces as it plunged to the ground.

The metal plate we found on the wing states in part: IN MEMORY OF 1st LT. LEO WALKER AIRCRAFT COMMANDER OF AAF40247

With a sense of awe, we read the words and quietly inspected the wing. We then continued our search and found other pieces of the B-17; part of the left wing, the tail, a wheel.

Altogether, we covered about six miles.

It was a good and strenuous hike on a beautiful day in the Sierra.

A day to learn a little about history.

And remember a hero.

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