Julie McDonald Commentary: Airmail Plane Downed in Onalaska Triggers Pastor’s Memories


As snow flurries clouded the sky one winter night in early 1932, residents of Onalaska heard an unusual sound amid the quiet snowfall and, looking up, saw an airplane circling above in the frigid night.

Although he was only 6, Darrell Dow remembers that night nearly nine decades ago. He was in town with his family when they all squinted into the white-filled sky, reflected by snow-covered streets and fields.

“They finally got the fire truck out and shined its lights in a field up above Onalaska,” he recalled. “It was so soft (the plane) ended up on its nose.”

Residents rushed to the field to see if they could help the injured pilot — if he even survived the crash landing that left his plane upside down. He had clipped a tree while attempting to land.

“When we got there, the pilot was standing alongside the plane with a pistol in his hand, protecting the mail,” Dow said. “They got the postmaster to get the mail.”

No newspaper records recount the unexpected late-night landing in Onalaska.

Dow graduated from Onalaska High School and entered the 3rd Marine Division, where he fought at Guam and Iwo Jima during World War II. After the war ended, Dow returned to Onalaska and married his high school sweetheart, Naomi Davis, at her home in Cinebar. They raised three sons.

Dow trained as a barber and ran his shop in Onalaska for 42 years until retiring. He and Naomi marked their 75th wedding anniversary April 13. Asked about the secret to staying married, Dow quipped, “Keep your mouth shut.” His wife added, “I told somebody ‘don’t die.’”

Although he described himself as legally blind and legally deaf at 95, “otherwise I’m doing fine,” Dow said.

Years ago, Dow shared his recollections of the airmail pilot’s crash landing with the pastor of Centralia’s First Presbyterian Church. When he showed him photos, it triggered memories for Rev. John Haberlin.

Haberlin, 80, grew up in Seattle and served at churches in California, Yakima and Bremerton before arriving in Centralia just before the February 2001 Nisqually earthquake, which left the First Presbyterian Church on North Rock Street with structural damage. The congregation eventually found a new home, becoming the Harrison Square Presbyterian Church. He retired in May 2006 after 39 years in ministry but filled in for vacationing pastors when asked.

That’s when he spoke with Dow, who had attended the Onalaska school reunion and showed him pictures of the upside-down plane. Gazing at the photos, Haberlin recognized the plane’s insignia as a Boeing Model 40 and knew his father had a patent on its tail skin.

His father, also John Haberlin, started designing biplanes at the eight-year-old Boeing Co. in 1924. He was an engineer and designer who had 10 patents, including one for the tail skin, another for the first toilet and a third for the place where tail gunners sat in B-17s.

“He went from designing biplanes in 1924 all the way up to 1968 and he was designing rockets,” Haberlin said. His father’s ingenuity yielded him a paycheck and “a pat on the back.”

His father was listed in an aviation journal as one of 17 people who pulled Boeing through its early dark days. Although he knew his father worked at Boeing, he never realized the role he played in the development of its planes.

“I didn’t really know who he was,” Haberlin said. “He died when I was 24. You’re too stupid to talk to your parents. Every once in a while, I got an inkling of what he was working on but no details.”

He remedied that lapse through research and publication in 2011 of a 75-page booklet about him called “Fingerprints on Aviation: The Life of John Haberlin.” His father was born in Switzerland in 1900 and immigrated with his family to British Columbia when he was 3. One day, as a teenager working in a Canadian mine, he saw an aerial plane flying overhead. It changed the direction of his life. He joined the Canadian air forces during World War I, but the war ended before he could fly in combat. He served in the U.S. Army Air Service and flew in the Philippines with aviation greats Billy Mitchell, Eddie Rickenbacker and Charles Lindbergh.

As for the Onalaska airplane, Haberlin said they removed the wings and hauled them away on an old logging truck and the plane flew again but crashed three years later at Burbank Airport in California, killing three or four people.

His father also collected rocks and studied minerals to figure out how to create metal planes that wouldn’t break. In fact, his father was instrumental in January 1949 with naming the Sebac Mineralogical Society, with Sebac an abbreviation for Seattle Boing Airline Company, a club known today as the Cascade Mineralogical Society.

One day when Haberlin was about 10, their fundamentalist pastor reluctantly allowed members to share their hobbies with others, so his father brought his rock collection. He also did faceting — grinding, cutting and polishing gemstones. 

“The pastor takes me aside and says, ‘See your dad over there? If he really loved the Lord, he wouldn’t lay up treasures on earth,’” Haberlin recalled. “That put a rift between me and my dad.”

“He wanted me to be the next president of Boeing,” Haberlin said. After receiving the call to ministry, he met his father at the Boeing cafeteria to share the news.

His father looked at him, a cigarette clenched between his lips. “Why are you going to do a damn fool thing like that? There’s no security in that.”

But after he graduated from Seattle Pacific University, he knew his father was proud.

“I will never forget at my ordination the tears of joy in his eyes,” Haberlin said. “Dad was one who was absolutely enthralled with the awesomeness of God and how that God would love us.”

Haberlin also learned how to facet stones. “Every stone I cut is kind of an apology to my dad.”

He also shared an interesting tidbit of aviation history connected to the Northwest.

His mother had dated a young man in the Gorst family, which lived in an unincorporated area six miles from Bremerton.

One of the family patriarchs, Vergne Centennial Gorst, who was born in August 1876, was fascinated with aviation. He taught himself to fly and started Pacific Air Transport in 1925 for airmail service and landed a contract to fly mail between Seattle and Los Angeles.

According to a 2015 blog post at kitsapcareshomescommunity.blogspot.com, four aviation company owners — among them William Boeing — met in 1931 at the Gorst home to discuss consolidation. Boeing’s United Aircraft and Transport combined with Varney Air Lines, Gorst’s Pacific Air Transport, and Nationals Air Transport to form United Air Lines.

The insignia on the plane that landed in an Onalaska field was distinctive, Haberlin said, bearing the words United Air Lines with the Boeing bug in the center like a totem.

I learned a lot about the state’s role in aviation development simply because an airmail pilot crash-landed in Onalaska on a snowy night and a nonagenarian shared the story with an airplane designer’s son.


Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at memoirs@chaptersoflife.com.