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Mystery of the Missing Pilot

By Lisa Sonne
5/16/2018 • Aviation History Magazine

An airman who helped find the ‘Lost Battalion’ during World War I gained his greatest fame when he disappeared on a night airmail run.

At 10:10 p.m. on January 10, 1930, Maurice Graham took off from Las Vegas in stormy weather in his Western Air Express open-cockpit biplane, a red Boeing 95. His mission was to fly 691 pounds of mail and securities to Salt Lake City, along a route he had helped pioneer and flown for years. He never arrived.

Graham was so highly regarded as a “champion airmail pilot” and World War I aviator hero that it was inconceivable to many that he could have crashed. The newspapers had a field day attempting to cash in on the mystery surrounding his disappearance. Was Graham shot out of the sky, the victim of the first airplane robbery? Did he abscond to Mexico with $1 million in securities that were rumored to be in the mailbags? Was he wandering the wilderness with amnesia, in danger of freezing to death? Had some of the local Piute Indians taken him in or harmed him to settle scores?

One of the largest manhunts to date was launched, with civilians and military, professionals and volunteers donating aircraft and time to find Graham and the mail. Western Air Express offered a $5,000 reward—a substantial sum, especially just three months after the stock market had crashed.

Lieutenant Maurice Francis Graham, known to many as “Maury,” had made headlines before. In March 1928, the Professional Pilots Association and newspapers hailed him as the “world’s champion mail pilot,” who flew “175,000 miles on the Los Angeles–Salt Lake City route without an accident, forced landing, or loss of an ounce of mail. He never has been late.”

Three months later, Colliers touted Graham as the “champion air mail flyer” who “has flown 213,931 miles in 2,220 hours, a distance more than eight times the circumference of the earth.” The magazine featured Graham in an article that hailed the country’s air routes as “a new kind of highway for a new age, air avenues as characteristic of our times as Caesar’s military roads were typical of imperial Rome.”

Like many airmail pilots of the 1920s, Graham had been baptized under fire during World War I. On September 7, 1918, he joined the 50th Aero Squadron in France. Its fleet of de Havilland D.H.4s bore the “Dutch Girl” insignia, the trademark icon of Old Dutch Cleanser, so the squadron could “clean up Germany.” The unseasoned group of fliers and heavy, two-seater D.H.4s—notorious as “flaming coffins”—did not initially seem suited to the job. But the 50th became the only squadron in the U.S. Army Air Service to produce two Medal of Honor recipients, and the D.H.4 was the only American-built plane to see combat with the USAS during WWI.

After only three weeks as an active corps reconnaissance squadron, the 50th was tasked with locating the celebrated “Lost Battalion,” some 550 troops from the 77th Division who had been cut off by Germans in the dense Argonne forest on October 2, without enough medicine or food to survive for long. D.H.4 after D.H.4 flew over a ravine on October 6, searching through fog and hilly forest. Pilots were wounded, planes were shot up and one crash-landed, but still there were no sightings of the American battalion.

First Lieutenant Harold Goettler and 2nd Lt. Erwin Bleckley had survived one run with 40 holes in their plane, but decided to fly even lower to encourage German groundfire so that a map could be marked with the enemy positions, and the Americans might be located by a process of elimination. By the time their shot-up craft landed among the French, Goettler was dead and Bleckley was going fast, but the map survived. Both men posthumously received Medals of Honor.

Next up in the approaching night, Maury Graham and his observer, James “Mack” McCurdy, undertook the same dangerous mission, following the fatal flight path. Graham flew so low that the Germans were shooting down on the plane from the hilltops as well as up from the ravine. McCurdy was shot in the neck but survived. “We located the exact position and reported it to headquarters,” he remembered. For his role in finding the Lost Battalion, Graham was recommended for a Distinguished Flying Cross. He was also commended for shooting down an observation balloon behind enemy lines and avoiding five pursuing Fokker D.VIIs.

Many of his fellow airmen thought Graham was by far the squadron’s best pilot. “We never seemed to have any difficulty evading antiaircraft fire,” recalled McCurdy. “I asked Graham once what method he used. He said he would decide which way he should turn to get out of fire, and then turn the opposite way. He figured the German gunner was thinking about it like he was, and he did the opposite, so the gunner would be confused.”

Lieutenant M.K. “Micky” Lockwood, another observer in the 50th Squadron, recalled a routine reconnaissance mission during which he and Graham came under fire from a German gun position: “While Maurice took evasive action, I got busy, marked on the map and then—purely for information—pointed it out to Maurice. I can still see that grin on Maurice’s face as he nodded his head and then, to my surprise (shall I say, horror), he pointed that Liberty straight down and, both of his guns in action, proceeded to shoot the place up. He pulled out at about 200 feet, set the plane on its tail, and gave me a chance to use my tail guns. Then away we went, with him grinning and happy as they come.”

“I happened to be in the C.O.’s office when he balled out Maurice for spiraling around the ancient cathedral spire,” recounted Phillip P. Morse about their last billet in Clamecy, France. “He said, ‘I don’t doubt you could do it, but you are the only one who could do it with a DH 4 (which was a nose heavy plane). I pray that your example will not induce someone else to try it, for it would cause an international incident if the cathedral were damaged.’”

In April 1919, after the Armistice, Graham began flying Salmson 2A2s as well as D.H.4s for the 24th Aero Squadron in the Army of Occupation. He did reconnaissance, ferried airplanes, familiarized himself with the Rhine area, gave joy rides to officers and enlisted men, conducted dual instruction sessions and tested new motors, wings, rigging and “wireless.”

In July he flew a 15-day trip around Europe before sailing to New York, where he got to fly in a Curtiss JN-4H with a Hispano-Suiza engine. The Army discharged him on October 16, 1919, and he was home in California by the 19th, giving a ring from Tiffany’s to his fiancée, Alice Eduoart. They married four days later.

His logbook shows seven civilian flights in the next few weeks, then goes blank. He took various jobs, including serving as an assistant director at a movie studio and working with Rudolf Valentino, but the veteran pilot was waiting for his own bigger role in the skies. In 1924 he started flying again—first with the 115th Observation Squadron and then the California National Guard. He eventually became a captain.

New opportunities arose when the 1926 Kelly Act privatized the airmail business, which the U.S. government had boldly created, and Western Air Express was launched for commercial enterprises. To recruit its founding pilots, Western’s vice president of operations, Corliss C. Moseley, selected aviators he had worked with as commander of the National Guard at Griffith Park in Los Angeles.

Graham was one of the first hired. With Fred Kelly, Jimmie James and Al Degarmo, he became part of an intrepid quartet sometimes called the Four Musketeers or the Four Horsemen, a popular phrase describing Notre Dame’s famous football backfield. Before flying the mail on Western Air Express’ inaugural route between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City, the pilots drove the route together—scouting, considering alternatives, asking about local weather conditions, and getting to know ranchers and families who could help light the way at night. They also laid out more than 100 large canvas Ts at sites selected for emergency landings.

Graham won the coin toss to be the first pilot to fly the mail route eastbound. On April 17, 1927, he took off with great fanfare from Los Angeles in a red Douglas M-2 biplane with a 415-hp Liberty motor and an arrowhead painted on its tail. His cargo included a breakfast of ham and eggs, kept hot under the engine cowling, for special delivery from the president of the Breakfast Club in Los Angeles to Salt Lake City’s mayor.

James flew the reverse course at the same time. Without instruments or radio beams, they had agreed to stay close to the right of the railroad tracks to avoid crashes or getting lost due to poor visibility. They both encountered bad weather on their return flights.

“I thought I was flying about as low as I could and slowed my forward speed by rapidly fishtailing and zigzagging,” recalled James in a 1974 Westways magazine article. “It was while hugging the ground that I was suddenly aware of a rapid swish below me. I knew then there was still navigable air between me and the ground, for that was Maurice Graham passing underneath me on his return flight from Salt Lake.”

Graham flew thousands of hours successfully for Western, carrying the mail as well as occasional journalists and passengers. In his new 1929 aviator log, he summarized his 1926-28 flying as “almost entirely Douglas Mail Planes, with a few trips with Fokker tri-motor F7 and Lockheed, Fairchild and Ryan.” Under the engines column he wrote, “almost entirely with Liberty 12 motors, with a few trips with Wright Whirlwind and Pratt & Whitney Wasp.”

Western claimed to be the largest airline in the world from 1928 to 1930 in terms of routes. According to a company history, the airline received radio frequencies in 1928 when a pioneering innovator, Herbert Hoover Jr., the president’s son, served as Western’s superintendent of communications. He headed the research and implementation of the first modern two-way radio system for flying. Out of Western’s labs came the first radio beacon marker and the directional radio compass—but not quite in time to help Graham.

Graham’s wife recalled him having “imprints made of his ears for radio contact the day before he left,” and wished it could have been earlier. It wasn’t until 1932 that vanguard Western also hired the first meteorologist to advise pilots on takeoffs. Would Graham have been told to stay on the ground that fateful night?

Graham waved goodbye to his wife Alice and 8-year-old twins, Monte and Melodile, at the Alhambra airfield in southern California just before 7 p.m. on January 10, 1930. He was wearing an additional layer of eiderdown that Alice had sewn onto his sweater the night before, because he had remarked on the cold up high. She had just learned to drive, and taking the children back home would be her first foray in the car without another adult. He kissed her again and said: “I hope you get home okay, Hon. Take it easy, OK?”

His fellow pilot, James, was at the airfield, having just come in from Salt Lake City. He warned of inclement weather and said he didn’t think Graham would get much farther than Victorville, about 100 miles out. Despite snowfall between Victorville and Las Vegas, Graham got close enough for Las Vegas ground crewmen to point a bright beacon straight up to guide him in when he found a hole in the clouds, according to pilot Jack Laass, who later wrote about Graham’s disappearance.

Two other pilots already at the airstrip had decided not to continue their routes west in the rough weather, but Graham was determined to try to reach Salt Lake City. He asked the attendant to refuel his airplane quickly so he could at least look around up there. His decision was likely influenced by several factors: He had flown in worse weather, he had a record to keep, people depended on his deliveries and Western only got paid when the mail arrived on time.

Less than an hour after Graham took off, people on the ground thought they heard him circling to look for a break in the clouds. But the ceiling was thick and unforgiving. One of the worst blizzards in memory was brewing. Reports came in of a plane heard that night in locations away from the standard route. When Graham failed to show up in Salt Lake City, Western launched a manhunt.

Alice recalled that on the next night “the phone rang and a real gruff voice” asked for the Western Air pilot. When she said he wasn’t there, the caller replied, “There are lots of negotiable papers on his plane that are supposed to be at their destination and haven’t arrived yet.” She remembered he was “impatient, nasty, and very gruff.”

Within the first few days, newspapers reported how clues triggered specific searches, including a flare light seen in the Sawhill Canyon area, an unconfirmed sighting of a plane that had cracked up 16 miles west of the Bristol Mines and an observation that two spruce tree tops had been clipped off in the Bristol area. By January 16, the front page of the Los Angeles Times reported that “Six days of unceasing search by air, foot and horseback had failed last night to locate Maurice Graham, 34-year-old Los Angeles airmail pilot,” and that “the most widespread search ever organized for a single pilot and plane has failed to unlock the secret of Graham’s landing place.” A later edition of the Times that same day added, “Radio communication between Las Vegas and Western Air Express headquarters here was instituted yesterday with the arrival in Las Vegas of a tri-motored Fokker, equipped for sending and receiving radio messages.”

The next day newspapers reported that Army airmen were joining the search with planes from Rockwell near San Diego and March Field at Riverside, because “the army is fond of Maurice Graham.” Large headlines the following day read, “350 men, 40 pilots…Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Railroads Join In Seeking Lost Flyer, Desperate Struggle Waged In Big Storm, Searchers Are Ordered To Remain Out Until Some Result Obtained.”

Searchers tried to track down every lead that came in from the public, but as Laass wrote in 1930: “If Maury had all the flares in his ship that they said they saw, he could not get off the ground with the load. But they meant well and really tried to help.”

Night pilots only carried several days’ food rations, and the cold had gotten quite severe in that region. The odds of Graham’s survival, if he had crashed, decreased daily.

On January 21, a Western official made a radio broadcast to reassure the public about Graham, who “has flown more than 420,000 miles! That, my friends,” he told listeners, “is equal in distance to 167 trips across the Atlantic Ocean, and always he has been the perfect pilot.” The broadcast lamented the bad weather that had hampered search efforts, but pointed out that oil companies and railroads, the three military services as well as government officials were all part of the search, and that “other air transport companies carrying air mail have loaned us their pilots, so that our own pilots, who know the territory so perfectly, may devote all their time to the search.”

Alice Graham had waited during the war and throughout years of night flights for Maury. She waited now, with faith that he would be found alive and exonerated. But meanwhile she had to endure speculation and a parade of would-be helpers. She heard that her phone had been tapped in case her husband had skipped the country and was trying to get in touch with her. People also started calling her, claiming they could find Graham if she paid them money. Maps arrived from individuals claiming to have psychic ability. A telegram from Oklahoma proclaimed that a man looking like Graham who couldn’t remember his name had turned up. It proved to be a false lead.

New searches were launched on February 6, when “four miners came out of the hills for the first time in more than a month and told of having seen a mysterious fire on the slope of a hill,” and on February 10, when an expedition was led by Julian Anderson, who claimed to know the missing airman’s location because of “Captain Sterrett’s ‘radio wave’ set, which picked up the ‘vibrations’ of Graham’s body.”

The same week, one newspaper reported that it looked like Graham had been rescued by Piute Indians in the area, and another paper later announced that, following up on an investigation that Graham “may be held prisoner by renegade Piute Indians on their wilderness reservation, Sheriff Niles Jensen of Beaver County, Utah, and a posse of men today invaded the Indian reservation in search of the lost flier. The Piutes are known to be unfriendly to travelers and are reported to have fired upon low flying airplanes at various times. They are said to resent the sky machines because the roar of the motors frightens game away.” Alice later recalled that the Piutes had actually helped with the search for Maury.

Articles claiming that Graham’s plane had carried between $250,000 and $1 million in securities also began to appear. One paper suggested that Graham might have been killed and the plane burned to destroy the evidence of a robbery. On March 15, the Pacific Coast News Service reported fears that Graham “may have been the victim of the first air mail robbery…swept through the wastelands of Nevada today, as the federal government inaugurated plans for a 300-man search.” Members of the postal service, forest service and police were all engaged in the effort.

Officials were quick to follow up in the papers, assuring the public of the mail’s safety, stating that airmail pilots, and therefore bandits, couldn’t know what was being carried. A Western representative reported: “The mail left here sealed in sacks, which in turn were sealed in a steel cabinet, not to be opened until it reached Salt Lake City….It carried 691 pounds of mail, averaging 40 letters to the pound, totaling 27,000 pieces of mail.”

Graham’s fellow “Musketeers” spent days and nights flying the route and tracking down any promising clues, sometimes on company time and sometimes on their own. Alice even went up to provide an extra pair of eyes while her mother watched the children. Her cousin, J. Fowler “Jimmy” Allen, also continued the search efforts.

The snows finally started melting in late spring and revealed the ground below, increasing the likelihood of finding Graham if he had crashed. On June 24, according to Alice’s writings, two young men building a fence went looking for nails and saw something glistening in the distance. When they investigated and realized it was probably the missing plane, they notified the authorities in Cedar City, Utah. They didn’t find any signs of Graham near the wrecked aircraft.

Alice recalled that Western immediately sent a plane and a truck, but before they could arrive, souvenir hunters had scavenged the wreck, and the plane was almost demolished by the time Western got there. Still, she wrote, “All pilots who saw it remarked it was a most wonderful landing, and considered it almost a human impossibility.”

A Cedar City newspaper credited youthful shepherds with the long-awaited find, 23 miles from the city. It added, “Spurred by the offer of $100 for discovery of the body of Maurice Graham…hundreds of men, women and children prepared to start an individual search in this vicinity tomorrow.”

Although traces of blood found at the site indicated that Graham might have been injured, he had taken the time to protect the mail. His flight card noted that he had landed at 2:35 a.m. It also appeared that he had tried to use his tools to cut the cowling. Did he plan to use it as a sled, or possibly to reflect sunlight to attract the attention of other fliers? Was he pointing it in the direction of a nearby stream as a clue?

The missing pilot was once again getting headlines. Despite the ravaging storms, Graham had saved the mail. He hadn’t parachuted out of the plane, leaving it to crash and burn. He hadn’t left the mailbags in the cockpit to get wet, either.

In the same edition of a western paper that gave one inch to Amelia Earhart’s breaking the international speed record for women by flying 174.9 mph, a long article on Graham reported that the 13 pouches of airmail and 289 pieces of express airmail had been padlocked and kept dry, “so the securities are evidently intact.” Other papers proclaimed that he had saved $300,000 in mail and securities.

Yet again the search for Graham was on, and those involved declared that they wouldn’t give up until they found him. After many unsuccessful days of fanning out, however, Western and others did stop their full-press search. Major Richard McDonald and Alice’s cousin Jimmy Allen continued on, helped by local Cedar City boys. About a mile and a half from the plane they saw three burned treetops that they interpreted as an SOS attempt by Graham.

As they continued their search, Allen wrote that they ran out of food and shot and roasted prairie dogs for dinner one night. They had a breakthrough when they saw “a dozen three feet tall fresh green wheat stems apparently seeded by kernels dropped in the snow by Maurice.” Graham had given up smoking and drinking and taken to eating wheat kernels for his health.

“Another quarter of a mile we found a ragged faded cloth canteen cover,” wrote Allen about July 16. “As we rounded a bend in the stream, we saw him fully clothed, seated erect on a large log,” about six miles from his plane. He had frozen to death in the way that Alice said he had always wanted to go, “With his boots on, and during service.”

“Ironically in carrying the news of finding Maurice’s body to other members of our search party,” wrote Allen, “I passed a log cabin a quarter of a mile from the find site. The next day, Western Air Express sent a special tri-motor plane to Cedar City, Utah, to carry Maurice Graham’s remains and me back to Los Angeles.”

A funeral was held for Graham at Forest Lawn Mortuary in Glendale, Calif., with Christian Science and Masonic rites. According to the papers, Western Air pilots conducted their own tribute that day when they “saluted the dead pilot by throttling the motors on their ships and gliding in silence for 15 seconds.”

Graham had one last flight with the airmail that night over his familiar route, but his good friend Fred Kelly was in the pilot’s seat. While they were over the mountains, Kelly and James sprinkled Graham’s ashes into the winds.

His wife later typed out a fitting epitaph that she credited to The Blue Book of Aviation: “Probably no pilot has ever acquired a greater wealth of esteem, admiration, affection and respect from his associates and friends than did Maurice F. Graham.” She didn’t want him to be forgotten.

 

Freelance writer Lisa Sonne thanks Monte Graham for sharing the family’s archives and memories of his father. Graham and his wife Margaret are working with Sonne on a book and possible movie. Sonne can be reached at lisa@sonne.org. For further reading on the earliest airmail days, she recommends Mavericks of the Sky: The First Daring Pilots of the U.S. Air Mail, by Barry Rosenberg and Catherine Macaulay.

Originally published in the November 2008 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here

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