the rescue & death of air mail pioneer harold elwin buckner


Harold Elwin BUCKNER [1]

“Pilot Harold Buckner couldn’t have been happier; flight training in the army had paid off. He’d been accepted to fly the mail for Walter T. Varney’s new airline, Varney Airlines. The 435-mile route would be between Elko, Nevada and Pasco, Washington with a stop in Boise, Idaho.

“Some called Contract Airmail Route 5 (CAM 5), the least promising of the U.S. Air Mail Service’s new contract lines, said it was a ‘nowhere route’ over a bunch of ‘cow towns.’ But Harold considered the new route, launched on April 6, 1926, far from shoddy; besides he liked Varney, a flier himself and owner of a flying school and an air taxi service. No one in Harold’s family could convince the young pilot to choose another profession, avoid what he considered the promising new field of aviation, even though the chosen route included a dangerous succession of mountains, high desert landscape, deep canyons and sparsely-settled terrain.

“All went well at first. Harold took pleasure being recognized at flight stops as the Varney pilot. People in town called him by his first name. ‘Harold’s arrived’ they’d shout when the whirl of his Swallow biplane sounded overhead. His wife Anna enjoyed status as wife of the valiant Varney air mail pilot.

“Flying the route in winter, however, was daunting even for a veteran pilot. In January 1927 Varney pilot George Buck flew through sleet and ice so thick he unbuttoned his safety belt to see over the ice-clogged windshield. Harold understood the dangers of winter flying; but he prided himself on coming through, delivering the mail no matter what the conditions. Thanks to Harold and fellow pilots, revenues were up and climbing. In 1927 Varney replaced his Swallow biplanes with the more reliable Stearmans.

Harold Elwin BUCKNER With His Plane [1]

“It was a Stearman Harold was flying Friday January 18, 1929, when he left leaving Pasco for Boise. The weather was terrible, snow, fog, ice, much the same conditions Buck had encountered and survived two years before. At 4:10 p.m. the manager of the La Grande, Oregon airport heard Harold’s plane pass over. Two hours later Boise reported he had not arrived. Calls immediately went out along the line. A plane had been heard over horse ranches in the Minam, Oregon area 20 miles east of Cove. Harold was far off course and possibly lost.

“Varney officials from Boise immediately headed to La Grande, arriving late that night. The next morning, just as they were formulating plans for an extensive search of the Minam area, a telephone call came through from the forest ranger at Cove. The plane had crashed; the pilot was safe and injured. He had passed over the ranger station at 5:20 and ten minutes later dived into a tree about a mile from a cabin occupied by two trappers. A rescue party from La Grande, a few on horseback, set right out.”[1]

The Rescue Party [1]


“My best efforts will be given in relating the facts of the very sad accident which seemed to be preceded by an omen of death:

Harold’s Rescuer, W. L. BROCKHAM, Trapper [2]

“On the night of January 17, 1927, at approximately 5:05, my partner reached for his rifle, and at the same instant I heard an approaching sound which through the canyon walls and storm seemed strange indeed. Upon rushing to the door a second later, I discovered it was a plane. While Jack was replacing his rifle, I rushed outside. The snow was falling heavily, so heavily that it would have been impossible to tell just how high the plane was. Looking intently that I might get a glimpse, for I was well able to follow the sound, I imagined that I caught a feint (sic) glimpse of light, which has been related to me as the exhaust. The plane promptly changed course almost directly above our cabin. Jack came to the door and listened a couple of seconds and the plane at this time seemed to be traveling under a burden–spluttering and missing at intervals. Then, changing its course at this moment, I said to Jack that the poor fellow was lost and could not possibly get out of the mountains in that terrible storm with some eight or nine hundred feet of elevation. I walked to the other corner of the cabin that I might hear the last vibrations of the plane. Upon approaching the other side of the canyon, the plane set up the most hideous cry imaginable, which vibrated back to the apparent base of Last Chance Creek, the course being followed now. I stood in awe, wondering how it was possible that he, Harold, was ascending the height. The shrill cry continued to remain behind, though the plane bore diligently on, on.

“I gathered that the plane was equipped with some kind of siren rocket in case of such a storm, and that the boy was going to land in a big open burn. I called to Jack to come and hear the noise, but when I did get him outside, the sound had silenced with the faintness (sic) of sound from the plane. Still I remained and at last, turning in close attention for any sound, all was lost in the distance. In a couple of moments I entered the cabin. I told Jack that the poor fellow would never get out of the mountains in this storm, which was indeed falling fast, and on the high mountains could be heard strong wind gathering. We talked of landing possibilities, of the La Grande Landing Field, and agreed on the point that that must have been his destination, and under the circumstances that it must have been a mail plane. Twelve minutes possibly had elapsed when the plane again was heard. Rushing outside that I might again follow the course of the plane, for I had already imagined the siren bomb, which I had related to Jack to guide the plane down. We had spoken of the possible lighting in the burn, and now we thought that he had glimpsed it on going over. I called that he was just above the river and coming straight down its course. Jack came to the outside, and just at that instant, before the final crash, we both caught the imaginative sound of a tree crash. I said, ‘My God, the poor fellow is down, Jack. We must get after him at once.’ As I started to speak the second crash came, but we knew he was down, so all that remained was finding him, but my talking had interrupted the last crashing sound, so there was much discussion in regard to the plane’s exact location. However, two minutes later, we were snow shod and bundled and on our way.

“I took my rifle to signal. We each had lights. We walked nearly a mile, but still I thought we were going directly to the plane–so why shoot? All of a sudden Jack hollered and I silenced him with the long suspense of listening. He asked me what I thought I heard. I told him the fellow was right down in the edge of the burn, but he was hurt. We went on, side tracked, circled, crisscrossed, looked and discussed and finally turned our attention along the river. At this point, the search seemed at an end, with the rugged, rolling, heavily timbered wilderness at the base of the mountain on either side, and on the right hand side, especially where Jack had calculated, high up on the mountainside. I still persisted. I shot. We went back toward the cabin. Finally we came to edge of the burn again, and again the search seemed at an end.

“There was an opening down to the river. Jack mentioned it. It was our last hope. He had been through before, so I had him lead the way. We looked all up and down the river. Surely I couldn’t not be mistaken in the location of the plane. He started for the trail, relating that we had a big search tomorrow in an awful jungle, and that we would be up early in the morning… My decision that I would give up the search then led to a compromise. The course was to vary two routes along the river and to the apex in the trail half a mile away. We turned and started. Ten steps and there the plane loomed up before us, our light showing on the underneath side of the wings. We stopped in amazement. Ten steps from the trail where Jack had first called, I had heard a faint sound which I had, for some reason, disposed of. There near us was the wreck, where the streamer wires had made the hideous sound. Jack wondered if he had jumped. We related that there had been no sound to our signal. We rushed forward, Jack on one side and me on the other. There was a saddening sight. The boy was fully conscious. His first words were, ‘My poor legs. Get me out of here.’ The plane was upside down. He had been driven directly onto the head of the engine. His head and shoulders were lying well out of the up-turned car with his arms being free. He was trying to raise himself up. Again he said, ‘My poor legs.’ Jack said he knew his condition. I had to take it very jovial for I had an idea at this time that my partner was sickening. I shot in around the motor to discover, if possible, how much he had bled. We then began to look for a way to get him from the wreck over the cumpled and upturned wings, with nearly four feet of snow–twenty inches just fallen and soft. We could not twist, break or move a thing to make it easy to get him out. We took his body, and the first touch he spoke of unbearable pain. My partner turned away. He told me he couldn’t stand it. I almost laughed aloud. Perhaps I did. I began to inform him the the man was insane and we must disregard all feelings–that it must be done. Again we got hold, lifting him into our arms. We clambered out down through the plane, over the wing and had the lad rolled snugly in the parachute in seconds. Harold broke the silence. He asked me for some snow to eat, and I thought he wanted the snow brushed out of his face, so I fixed him as comfortable as I could and covered his face with the parachute. But he informed me that I was making a serious mistake. He wanted some snow to eat and did not want the parachute over his face.

“We fastened one side of the parachute to a limb and then began to figure how to get him out. He informed us where he lived and for whom he was working and wanted to get in touch there, but we related that we were doing all possible and at this point he became aware of where he was, or rather that he did not know. He asked of the Whitman National Forest and Minnam River, and begged us not to leave him. He related that he would have died had we not found him. The circumstance was getting altogether too conversational. I broke it abruptly by relating our whole plan to him of going and making a stretcher and taking him to our cabin, getting a doctor and aid. He blessed us with the fact that we were his saviors and that he knew we were doing all possible, but that he had people in Boise that he must get word to. I again informed him at this point that they would be reached from the outside, so I shall always feel that I deprived the boy from saying something at this time, but he seemed so hopeful of life that I thought it was only a matter of action. We thought on the way to the cabin that we had a comparatively small man to handle. Upon this point we congratulated ourselves. We hastened back, and he complained of his hands being cold. We took the liners from his mittens and gave him more snow. When we were ready to put him on the stretcher, he insisted on helping us by putting his arms around our necks and lifting. We trudged little distances at first, and finally could only go steps at a time without resting. We got to within a hundred and fifty yards of the cabin and my partner began to pray for strength as only a man of the world can pray in great need, for it was indeed a hard trip in the snow.

“We took him into the cabin, and he promptly called for a glass of water. I noticed then that he looked very pale. Jack was going to make some coffee so I asked Harold if he wouldn’t join Jack in a cup of coffee–that I was on my way. He said that he would appreciate a cup of coffee; that ‘he did not want to act like a baby’ with his injuries, I presume, and at that time was relating that he should have jumped. Some little discussion came up regarding what could be done. There was nothing. We did not have any aid. We dared not remove his clothes. All we could do was keep him warm and give him a little care. They were busy talking as I departed, and I had Jack ask his name. He had talked, drunk a cup of coffee, eaten a couple of cookies, related that he did not know anything of the country he was in, had Jack rub his hands and chest several times, explained that he should have jumped, and that he did not want Jack to think ‘that he was acting like a baby’ and that the little comfort Jack could afford him was soothing to him.

“He asked of my trip, how soon aid would come, and again that we were doing all possible. He was going to have the second cup of coffee. This was the occurrence of perhaps an hour and a half. Then he asked Jack to rub his chest again. Upon doing so his words were, ‘No, no I can’t stand that! Rub my hands.’ At that, he said, ‘That feels wonderful.’ A pause, then, ‘I am going to die’ came as heroic and bravely as the brave part he was to play in an awful tragedy, for after the first complaint he never mentioned it again until the cabin was reached. He knew we also were under a heavy burden. He seemed to be amused when my partner was in his most trying moment.

“The eulogy of Mr. Harold Buckner is as strong and brave as a man can live, and he died as bravely.”[2] 

Harold Elwin BUCKNER’s Grave Marker [3]

A 3rd cousin twice removed to myself, Harold Elwin BUCKNER (June 13, 1896 Dorris, Siskiyou County, California-Jan. 17, 1929 Cove, Union County, Oregon; buried San Francisco National Cemetery (Plot: Section B Site 346), San Francisco, San Francisco County, California) was the:

  • grandson of Methodist circuit-riding preacher & American Civil War veteran, Union allegiance, Rev. Nixon S. BUCKNER;
  • eldest child & only son of Methodist circuit-riding preacher Rev. Harold Huse BUCKNER &, Mable May BOUTELLE;
  • husband of Anne EPPERSON (Apr. 1, 1896 California-Nov. 5, 1990 Alameda County, California; San Francisco National Cemetery (Plot: B, 346)), daughter of Esic Anthony EPPERSON & Ola Margaret (RIGGINS);
  • father of two sons.



1. Air Mail Pioneers, “Dedicated To The Former Employees Of The U.S. Air Mail Service,” at , accessed June 22, 2016.

2. Air Mail Pioneers, “Dedicated To The Former Employees Of The U.S. Air Mail Service,” at’s%20crash.htm , accessed June 22, 2016.

3., memorial no. 64778497, “Pvt Harold E Buckner,” at , photo contributed by “Carol;” accessed June 22, 2016.

This entry was posted in BUCKNER, California, Genealogy, Oregon and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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