A week before the D-Day invasion that heralded the defeat of the German army during World War II, a dozen young Navy men were killed in an aircraft collision during a training exercise over Palomar Mountain in northern San Diego County.
News of the midair crash on May 30, 1944, was little noticed with the war raging on several continents. And over time, the details of what happened were largely lost.
But a group of dedicated researchers, aided by the two men on whose property the debris has sat for decades, last month paid tribute to the fallen Navy fliers with a bronze memorial and a family crucifix one of them had been given when he went off to war.
The crash occurred roughly a mile and a half east of the Palomar Observatory as a group of PB4Y-1 Liberator bombers were flying low and interacting with FM-2 Wildcat fighters who were doing mock intercepts. One of the fighter planes collided with one of the bombers.
"Tragically, that one FM-2 pilot misjudged and hit that airplane and that wiped out 12 people," aircraft accident researcher Pat Macha said. "People don't realize in the Second World War we lost almost 25,000 airmen and women right here in the continental United States during routine training, testing and ferrying of aircraft."
Back in December, a man named Paul Cimbron, a Rhode Island resident suffering from cancer, was on a mission to find a permanent home for a family heirloom.
Ten years before Cimbron was born, his uncle, Navy aviation radioman Raymond L. Shovelton, went off to join the war. Just before leaving, he was given a 2-foot-tall crucifix by his parish priest and nuns from St. Mary's Cathedral in Fall River, Mass. Shovelton would die soon afterward as a crew member of the bomber involved in the Palomar crash. The crucifix was returned to his family.
"It hung in my grandmother's house for years, then it went down to my mother's house, and then it ended up with me," Cimbron said. When Cimbron retired two years ago, he started doing research. His goal was to find the crash site and have the crucifix placed there as a memorial to his uncle and the others who perished. He had little luck until finding a book written by Macha about historic plane crashes in San Diego County.
Macha knows more about air disasters in the Southwest than just about anyone. He is the founder of Project Remembrance, a volunteer group dedicated to helping next of kin who want to learn more details about the aircraft accidents that took their loved ones.
When Macha heard from Cimbron, given Cimbron's medical condition, he felt a sense of urgency. He knew where the plane crashed, but in the past had been unable to gain access to the private property. He called Jamie Lievers, a Project Remembrance team member in Vista, who penned about a dozen letters and drove to the mountain. He put the letters next to a locked gate leading deep into the mountain where a handful of cabins have been built.
"I made the case for us coming up there and surveying the wreck and leaving some sort of small memorial," Lievers said.
"It was crazy, I drove up in the morning and left the letters and I got two calls within three or four hours."
The calls came from from Phil Boczanowski, who bought the land where the planes crashed around the turn of the century and developed 20 lots, and from Mike LaPlant, who bought one of those lots and built a cabin. It sits right next to where most of the wreckage from the crash still lies.
"We've known about that aircraft wreckage for years," said LaPlant, a part-time Palomar Mountain resident. "I got that property in 2006, and we had heard some rumors that it was military, but absolutely nobody knew anything about it until we were contacted. It was really an eye-opener."
A team from Project Remembrance, with LaPlant's and Boczanowski's permission, came to the mountain in early January and documented the site. They identified all the wreckage, placed the crucifix next to some of the bigger pieces, and observed a moment of silence for those who passed so long ago.
But LaPlant and Boczanowski wanted to do more. They commissioned the casting of a bronze plaque listing the name of the dead and placed it on a boulder at the site last month. Then, last week, Boczanowski built a case to hold the crucifix, protecting it from the weather, and placed it nearby.
"Life is precious," Boczanowski said. "I'm a very spiritual man and so is Michael and we wanted to show respect to the dead. It was the right thing to do."
"We thought it would be a nice tribute to honor the fallen airmen," added LaPlant.
Cimbron on Wednesday said he was thrilled that the crucifix has finally made its way to where his uncle died.
"I'm beyond pleased; it's a fantastic thing," he said. "It wouldn't have happened without a bunch of good people out there."
The crucifix was not the only personal item related to the crash that helped complete a family story decades later.
In 1988, a Lakeside man, Rob Young, was hiking in the area and exploring the crash site when he found a high school graduation ring beneath a log. The ring, it was later determined had belonged to Aviation Machinist's Mate Clinton Baker of St. Cloud, Minn., another member of the doomed bomber's crew.
Young's stepfather, Ray Wilson, would later travel to Minnesota and present the ring to Baker's younger brother, who in turn gave it to his son, Clinton, whom he had named after his long-lost brother.