Like its deeper, bigger cousin, the Pacific Ocean, shallow Vancouver Lake doesn’t give up dead airplanes easily. The depth of the Pacific embraces them, but the lake’s muck entombs them. Two fighter planes crashed into its silty water and disappeared. Neither flew from Pearson Field, but one was from the 123rd Fighter Squadron of the Oregon Air National Guard and flew out of Portland Airport. The other’s origin remains unknown even after a part of it curiously resurfaced during the dredging of the lake.
After finishing a gunnery training exercise over the Oregon Coast, 1st Lts. Richard Price and Robert Patten flew their F-51 Mustangs back to their Portland base. Each pilot performed slow barrel rolls just before noon over Vancouver Lake. During a roll, Price’s aircraft spun into the lake, shattered and sank. He died instantly.
The rescue team hurriedly arrived, followed by reporters and civil and military police. After several hours, the rescuers recovered Price’s body, but his plane was rubbish and slid back into the lake. The Columbian and Oregonian reported the accident in the shallow pond on April 5, 1951.
Military police, aware of the 1947 Roswell media incident and the ongoing Korean War, overreacted, clamping down on the press. They set up roadblocks, called the area a “military reserve,” and halted reporters and photographers from viewing the crash site. They threatened to arrest reporters who interviewed witnesses or snapped pictures of the site. They also ordered witnesses not to talk.
To dissuade the media, military police demanded Deputy Sheriff Arthur Darby detain an Oregonian photographer, Allan deLay, for obstruction. The deputy declined. A second Oregonian photographer, Carl Vermilya, landed near the shore in a seaplane. After rapidly snapping photos, he turned and pitched his camera to the pilot, who shuttled it back to Portland.
The next day a Columbian headline blared, “Gestapo in our Midst?” The attempted media suppression caught national attention. The American Society of Newspaper Editors warned 400 editors a few weeks later, demanding they fight any “arrogant suppression of news” by the government.
Locals forgot the F-51 disaster for three decades. Then in 1982, contractors received a $17 million agreement to dredge a 12-foot-deep trench around the lake and dump the tailings in the lake’s center, forming a tiny island. The workers understood they might uncover the airplane.
On Dec. 29, 1982, near the mouth of Burnt Bridge Creek, the dredger’s clamshell shovel lifted out a battered chunk of aluminum with hinges on one side. Its olive drab paint suggested a fighter from the 1940s. Was the wrecked F-51 found?
The piece was sent to federal aviation officials for inspection. But instead, it was the cockpit door of a World War II Aircobra P-39 single-engine plane. No one is sure how the P-39 got into the lake. Local papers between 1939 and 1950 reported regularly on other crashes of that model, but none mention an accident anywhere in Clark County.
So where is the Mustang? The dredging missed it, perhaps even buried it under the lake’s new island. Or it may rest shrouded in mud, hiding for a future archeologist to discover.
Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.