Updated: Jul 14
Norman Potter (Figure 1), a 33-year-old airmail pilot from Salt Lake City, woke up the morning of January 5, 1929, expecting a normal day of ferrying mail on his route between Salt Lake City and Cheyenne, Wyoming. With a stop in Rock Springs, Wyoming, it was a familiar route to him. On his way to Cheyenne, he always took comfort in seeing the beacon light on Sherman Hill (Figure 2), indicating his trip was almost over. As an airmail pilot, he certainly had occasion to see the stamp that the Post Office Department (POD) issued in 1928 picturing that very beacon light (Figure 3).
Norman flew one segment of the transcontinental mail route from San Francisco to New York that the POD completed in 1920 (Figure 4). The POD flew this route itself until the Air Mail Act of 1925 (also called the Kelly Act after its sponsor, Rep. M. Clyde Kelly of Pennsylvania) authorized it to contract with commercial airlines to transport mail. The POD awarded the western portion of the transcontinental route - the leg from San Francisco to Chicago - to Boeing Air Transport (BAT) in 1927 and designated it "CAM 18," standing for "Contract Air Mail Route [Number] 18" (i).
Norman was an experienced pilot. He was a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Service during World War I and had been flying since 1917. He was well versed in flying the Boeing Model 40B, which was introduced as a passenger and mail plane in 1927 (Figure 5).
Norman undoubtedly understood the risks of being an airmail pilot. In fact, it was one of the most dangerous professions in the late 1910s and 1920s. The life expectancy of the first mail pilots was as short as 900 flying hours. These pilots flew without parachutes, weather reports, wing de-icers, or radio guides. There were no lights - in the planes or on the ground - for night flights. There also were few, if any, emergency landing fields. No wonder that 35 of the roughly 200 pilots hired by the Post Office between 1918 and 1926 were killed (ii).
With experience and technological improvements like the lighted beacon on Sherman Hill, the death rate dropped from one pilot for every 115,000 miles flown in 1919 to one pilot for every 2.6 million miles flown in 1926. By 1929, the odds of surviving had improved dramatically, but it was still a dangerous job as Norman was soon to find out.
His day took an unexpected turn when after landing in Cheyenne, he was asked to continue east and fly his load of mail to Omaha. He nearly lost his life as a result - twice, in fact, once due to the crash of his plane and again when he tried to save the mail from the ensuing inferno. Only about a quarter of the mail survived the fiery crash, including the cover shown in Figures 6 and 7.
The cover was postmarked on January 4, 1929, in Glendale, California. It is franked with the 5-cent airmail stamp depicted in Figure 3 and was addressed to Thomas H. Purdy who was staying at the YMCA in Columbus, Ohio. Thomas was a 19-year-old advertising salesman for a newspaper.
Who sent the cover is unknown. There was no enclosure in the cover, but there is a return address on the back of the cover: "202 N. Cedar/Glendale, Calif." That property was owned by Charles and Laura Newhouse (who were both in their mid-50s), and it was occupied not only by them, but by their 23-year-old son George and four boarders: a mother and her daughter, ages 54 and 17, and two men, ages 26 and 32 (iii). Given that Thomas was just 19, my guess is that one of the younger members of the household sent this letter. Based on purely circumstantial evidence, I am going to guess that it was the 17-year-old, Bonita Muller.
My evidence, such as it is:
First, the handwriting is very precise. I'm no handwriting expert, but given my handwriting and that of other males, my guess is that this is a female's script.
Second, look at the back of the cover (Figure 7). The edge of the flap has a frilly goldish edge, and there is a handwritten note - "SWAK" for "Sealed With A Kiss" perhaps, which became popular on soldiers' mail in World War I? The envelope has a floral or some sort of decorative embossment. For me, those point to the correspondent being female.
Third, Bonita was born in Harlan, Iowa, in the western part of the state. Ella May Williams, who would marry Thomas in 1930 or 1931 in Ohio, was born in Michigan but moved to South Dakota at a very young age and then lived in the western part of Iowa before moving to Ohio in the late 1920s.
Were Bonita and Ella May friends? Was Bonita playing matchmaker for her friend Ella May who had recently met Thomas in Ohio? Or was Ella May visiting Bonita in California, and did she send a letter to her beau Thomas? Who knows for sure, but the odds are better than 50-50 that a woman sent a letter to Thomas in my estimation. Now back to the postal history...
Once this cover entered the mail system in Glendale, which is just north of Los Angeles, it had to make its way to the transcontinental mail route for its journey to Ohio. There were two possibilities: Los Angeles to Las Vegas to Salt Lake City (CAM 4) or Los Angeles to San Francisco (CAM 8) and on to Salt Lake City on CAM 18 (see map in Figure 4). The former is the more direct route, and thus is the more likely of the two.
Norman Potter departed Salt Lake City for Cheyenne with this cover and several hundred more pounds of mail sometime on January 5. 1929. After arriving in Cheyenne and being told he had to continue on to Omaha, he must have taken off from Cheyenne late in the afternoon or early evening of January 5. He had made a number of flights to Omaha but never during the nighttime. Following stops in North Platte and Lincoln, Nebraska, he approached the Fort Crook landing field (which is now Offutt Air Force Base) in Omaha shortly after midnight on January 6. That is when disaster struck.
At 12:48 a.m. on January 6, Potter's Boeing Model 40 struck a tall cottonwood tree near Fort Crook. After being hit by a gust of wind, the plane clipped 15 feet off the top of the tree before crashing into the home of Lee Watson, Jr., a farmer and former mechanic at the airfield. In no time at all, the gasoline tank exploded, enveloping the plane in flames.
According to the Monday, January 7, 1929, edition of the Omaha World-Herald, "Potter, stunned by the crash, instinctively jerked the lever of his safety belt and tumbled from the cockpit. Only partly conscious, he remembered the eight hundred-pound cargo of mail in the mail pit of the plane and ran into the blazing machine to save the mail. Watson ran out of the house in his night clothing and barefooted, and draged [sic] the pilot out of the fire." Watson was quoted as saying, "I had to fight with him to get him away from the plane. If I had waited to put on shoes and to dress he would have been burned to death because he was too stunned to realize the danger."
Amazingly, Potter escaped the crash with a cut on his forehead. The heavy winter flying clothes he was wearing - temperatures throughout Nebraska were in the single digits - probably saved him from suffering severe if not fatal burns.
The plane was completely destroyed (a loss of $15,000 for BAT), and of the 800 pounds of mail on board, only about 200 pounds were salvaged (iv). Those items were stamped "Damaged By Fire Jan 6/Fort Crook Neb" and continued on to their destinations. There is no receiving circular date stamp on this cover, but it likely arrived at Thomas Purdy's house later that week.
Watson's house was not badly damaged. The roof suffered damage, but the building itself was made of concrete. However, Watson's father, Lee Watson, Sr., was not so lucky. He had just returned home from the hospital where he was recuperating from a broken leg. When he saw the lights of Potter's plane approaching the house, he thought it would crash directly into his bedroom. He proceeded to roll out of his bed only to break his leg again!
There is one picture of the aftermath of this crash (Figure 8). It was published in The Omaha Evening Bee-News of January 7, 1929, and shows the burned-out plane, the rescuer, Lee Watson, Jr. and the unfortunate Lee Watson, Sr.
After the crash, Norman Potter continued to fly mail, but like so many before him, he perished in an accident. In the early morning of November 23, 1931, his airmail plane crashed 14 miles southwest of Salt Lake City airport while he was en route from Oakland, California. As reported in the November 24, 1931, edition of The Daily Herald of Salt Lake City, "The plane struck the ground with terrific force and was virtually demolished. Apparently Potter was instantly killed." He had radioed in that all was well but that he was experiencing heavy snow. The conclusion was that he was likely caught in a severe snow squall and lost control of the plane.
Potter's passing was deeply lamented. The Daily Herald wrote:
Potter was regarded as one of the "ace" Boeing pilots. He had never been in a serious accident [writer's note: apparently, they did not consider his 1929 crash serious or had forgotten about it] and has been in the Boeing Transport company ever since it was organized.
Due to his experience, skill and dependability, Potter was assigned to the hazardous runs between Salt Lake and Cheyenne, Wyo., and Salt Lake and Oakland. These two routes are particularly dangerous during the winter.
Potter had been identified with aeronautical work since 1917. Besides airmail flying, his experience included aerial photography, aerial gunnery, barnstorming, scenic airway flying and "ferrying" ships. In 1927, Potter was in charge of the California base forest service air patrol.
The veteran's total flying time was approximately 3000 hours.
Born in 1895 in San Francisco, Norman was 36 at the time of his death. He is buried at the San Francisco National Cemetery (Figure 9). He was survived by his wife, Hazel Jones, to whom he had been married just two years.
And what became of the mail on that fatal crash? The Daily Herald was matter-of-fact on that: "The load of airmail was saved and was promptly forwarded today."
"Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night" - nor death of an airmail pilot, I guess - "stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds."
(i) American Air Mail Catalogue, Volume One, Seventh Edition, 2014, p 102.
(ii) The National Postal Museum has a number of great articles on the early days of airmail in the US. See https://postalmuseum.si.edu/airmail/index.html.
(iii) Based on the Glendale city directory for 1930 and the US Census for 1930.
(iv) January 7, 1929, The South Omaha Sun, p. 1.
Figure 1 - Norman Potter (left) on the day of his marriage to Hazel McDonald, October 19, 1929. Source: Ancestry.com.
Figure 2 - The beacon light atop Sherman Hill, Wyoming (between Laramie and Cheyenne) in the mid 1920s. Source: Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.
Figure 3 - Scott C11 issued on August 1, 1928, to meet the new airmail rate of 5-cents for a letter weighing one ounce of less. Stamp depicts the beacon light atop Sherman Hill as pictured in Figure 2. Source: National Postal Museum.
Figure 4 - The US Air Mail Route System as of June 1, 1929. Highlighted in red are the two possible airmail routes for a letter from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City, and highlighted in green is the portion of CAM 18 over which Pilot Normal Potter flew. Source: USPS.
Figure 5 - Boeing Model 40B with "U.S. Mail C.A.M. 18" insignia on the fuselage. "C.A.M." stands for "Contract Air Mail." Source: Boeing.
Figure 6 - Cover postmarked in Glendale, California on January 4, 1929, franked with a single copy of US Scott C11. Auxiliary marking reads "Damaged By Fire Jan 6/Fort Crook Neb". Cover is listed as number 290106 in Air Crash Mail of the World, Part 1.
Figure 7 - Back of cover with return address of 202 N. Cedar, Glendale, CA. The Glendale directory of 1930 shows that Charles and Laura Newhouse lived at that address. The 1930 Census shows that five other individuals also lived there.
Figure 8 - Picture from the January 7, 1929, The Omaha Evening Bee-News, p. 3.
Figure 9 - Norman Potter, 1895-1931, San Francisco National Cemetery.