Tony Krizan

Chasing history

Twin Creek above Germantown Dam in Ohio during the winter of 2001.
Twin Creek above Germantown Dam in Ohio during the winter of 2001. Special to Sierra Star

Sometimes we make major decisions after some forethought and other times they are just spur of the moment ideas. Roughly 30 days before I decided to visit family in Ohio for the holidays, I thought to myself ... what if I shared one of those historical hikes into Kings Canyon National Park looking for those five P-40 fighter aircraft that crashed? Maybe someone in Ohio may be interested in our California aviation history.

I figured my Kings Canyon P-40 slide show would possibly create an interest at my high school in Middletown Ohio. Maybe I’ll contact a few of the alumni and after my program we can share a few exciting past experiences.

Then I realized from previous research of these five pilots, one of them was from Kinsman Ohio. Immediately I opened my computer and searched for relations of Lieutenant William H. Birrell. I came up with four names. The line was busy on my first call but on the second attempt, I spoke with Robert G. Birrell Jr. the owner of Birrell’s Towing Service.

After I introduced myself and explained my reasoning for the call, he stated that his father was the cousin of the pilot that crashed on Gray’s Mountain on Oct. 24, 1941. He agreed to share my information with family members. Two days later I received a call from Mrs. Barbara Birrell Hyde and during our phone conversation she informed me that her father was the youngest of three brothers. Lieutenant Birrell was her father’s oldest brother.

Many of the family members wanted to see my program but the weather conditions were much too severe for them to attend. Would you believe Mrs. Hyde drove from Cleveland Ohio which borders the Great Lakes, through snow conditions for over five hours at four degrees below zero to see my slide show presentation about her uncle.

After my program, Mrs. Hyde shared personal family information on her uncle. He was born in Kinsman, Ohio on Dec. 9, 1918. He graduated from high school in Warren, Ohio. After high school, he entered West Point and graduated in 1940. He entered flight school and received his flight training at Stockton and Moffitt Fields in California, and earned his wings March 14, 1941.

Army Air Force records show Lieutenant William H. Birrell blindly dodged the high peaks for almost 40 miles back in 1941 before his luck ran out just north of Bass Lake.

At Grays Mountain a woodcutter at an abandoned CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) camp south of Yosemite National Park heard an aircraft in the clouds overhead. After following the sound and within an instant he saw a flash of light through the clouds followed by a sound of impact. Lieutenant Birrell’s P-40 crashed into Grays Mountain around 5,100 feet.

Today all that remains at this site is part of his 12 cylinder Allison Engine, a granite memorial marker placed in 1942 and a brass plaque placed in 1996. Both markers were placed by family members.

After my conversation with Mrs. Hyde, I agreed to visit the Birrell family in Northern Ohio sometime in April or May of 2017 to share my P-40 presentation.

I also had five members from my graduation class plus a few alumni attend my talk along with students and faculty from Bishop Fenwick High School.

With my presentation being a success, I took a little time to hike one of two historic wilderness areas in Southern Ohio. Germantown Dam recreational area came into the public domain in 1918 when the Miami Conservancy District bought land along Twin Creek for constructing a flood-control dam. These 361 acres added to and become a part of the 1,400 upland acres.

During the winter of 2001, I grabbed my snowshoes and spent more than six hours hiking and photographing this wilderness area. My snowshoes handled the 10 to 20 inches of snow, but the 20 degree temperatures were the major adjustment.

I was surprised at the amount of wildlife that made this area their home. Deer, bob cats, raccoon, beavers and many species of bird life were posing for my camera.

The second area is called Yellow Springs. Once again in 2001, I was trekking during the winter using snowshoes. My second hike was during early spring taking advantage of the wild flowers and the local trees first blooms. The many colors of spring changed the atmosphere of this wilderness adventure especially along the banks of the creeks that flowed into the Miami River.

With temperatures dipping down to eight degrees below zero and roads being impassable, maybe I’ll have to wait for a rise in temperature to travel the 37 miles along Ohio’s snow covered highways. I must confess - Mother Nature did not cooperate and I could not revisit those wilderness areas.

When spring arrives in 2017, I’ll fly to Cleveland to present my slide show to the Birrell family. Which means, I’ll make the time to revisit those wilderness locations and experience those spring colors only Ohio can offer.