SURVIVOR: Illinois man who parachuted out of plane visits 1946 crash site
Frank Avry, 89, revisits an area close to the head of the Shields River near Bennett Creek in the backcountry of the Crazy Mountain Range near Wilsall recently. AP photo

WILSALL (AP) — Frank Avry is a legend in Wilsall.

About 30 miles east of the small town, up the Shields River and a steep shale hike up Lobo Peak still lies the remnants of a mysterious old plane wreck.

His story is foggy in Wilsall, as most folklore becomes after years of being retold.

Some current residents thought there were no survivors of the 1946 crash, some thought there were two.

Recently, the only survivor of the plane wreck, Frank Avry, set the record straight while visiting the place he parachuted out to safety moments before the plane crashed into Lobo Peak, killing the six other airmen on board.

As Avry tells it, on May 5, 1946, Avry and the other military men were flying in a C-45 over the Crazy Mountains from Billings to Spokane, Wash., when they encountered a severe snowstorm around 1 p.m.

‘‘The aircraft was sideways, upside down and dropping 2,000 to 3,000 feet in seconds,’’ Avry wrote in a memoir. ‘‘Most of the time I was on the floor or on the ceiling while assisting the crew,’’ to put on parachutes.

Moments before the crash, Avry bailed out, pulled his rip cord and landed within seconds at the headwaters of the Shields River in about a foot of soft mud, which he believes saved him from having any serious injuries.

He was dressed only in a military shirt, pants and a pair of socks and shoes and was also lucky enough to keep a pack of cigarettes and a book of matches through the fall.

Avry found a small shack without any windows or a door, lit a fire and assessed his situation.

‘‘What am I going to do now?’’ he thought.

‘‘Mr. Frank, follow the river,’’ Avry said he told himself.

Avry followed the Shields River for 27 miles, waded back and forth through the water when the banks closed in and when necessary, swimming in the ice-cold May runoff.

‘‘I can recollect cold feet, absolutely freezing, then I’d run and then I’d stop and warm up,’’ he said Wednesday, Sept. 6, while revisiting the area where he parachuted out.

About five hours later, around 6 p.m., he saw a light coming from a window of a house on the Walter J. Hill ranch near Wilsall.

‘‘As I continued further, the spot of light got brighter, and soon I was able to make out the shadow of a building,’’ he wrote in his memoir.

He knocked on the door and was greeted by a man, now thought to be Putt Keough, aiming a rifle at him.

Avry told him he had just bailed out of an airplane, and Keough invited him into his home.

Keough’s wife helped Avry take off his wet clothes and gave him a blanket, warm water to soak his feet, and hot food and hot coffee.

Keough then took Avry to Wilsall, where Avry used a phone to contact Army officials in Great Falls, and the bartender gave him a free whiskey. He was told to go to the Livingston hospital, and two men at the bar, Ben Swallows and Tony Fredericks, took him.

He was quickly checked out of the hospital and stayed in the Park Hotel.

Avry was later flown to the Great Falls airbase.

When he arrived in Great Falls, he was feeling sick and feverish and was taken to the base hospital. There, he was diagnosed with pneumonia.

Shortly after his recovery, Avry was asked to try to identify the six bodies recovered from the crash. The bodies were burned beyond recognition, and he could identify only some bits of clothing.

Fulfilling a dream He thought of the wreck daily for the last 60 years, Avry said, and always wanted to return to the place he landed after bailing out of the C-45.

On Wednesday, Sept. 6, Avry fulfilled his dream of going back to the site of the ‘‘biggest event’’ of his life.

He returned to the headwaters of the Shields River from his home in Lebanon, Ill., with his daughter Paula Ruth Ketcher, who was 2 months old at the time Avry bailed out of the airplane, and with his son-in-law John D. Ketcher Jr.

The Ketchers live in Anaconda and helped Avry return to Park County.

Before journeying to his landing site, Avry stopped in Wilsall, where he met Bonnie Pinkerton who lived in Wilsall at the time of the crash and remembered Avry’s survival story.

‘‘I never thought I would have run into anyone that remembered me,’’ Avry said. ‘‘It’s just exhilarating.’’

Ketcher drove him along a gravel road that crisscrossed the path Avry took along the Shields River after he bailed out.

‘‘How the hell did I ever get down there?’’ Avry said as he looked at the heavily forested Shields River. ‘‘I never thought I’d be back here again. I can’t imagine me coming out of this stuff.’’

While retracing part of his steps of 60 years ago, Avry paused and said, ‘‘This makes me feel sad; I almost want to cry.’’

He thought about the other six who didn’t make it. He remembered the nightmares that came after the accident and waking up yelling the pilot’s name.

‘‘I’m sad, but I feel good,’’ he said.

Locals remember Paula Ruth Ketcher said when she was growing up she heard her father tell his survival story, but she didn’t appreciate it until she saw the wilderness as an adult.

Her father ‘‘doesn’t show that emotion very often,’’ she said. ‘‘I could see on the ride he was really thinking about it.’’

Avry said he does not place heavy meaning on why he made it out alive May 5, 1946. He sums it up simply as, ‘‘the will to survive,’’ and ‘‘to live my life, enjoy my children, my wife Ruthy and enjoy my military career,’’ from which he retired in 1972 as a chief master sergeant.

On the way back from the visit to the site, Ketcher drove into what used to be the Hill Ranch, where Avry was welcomed 60 years ago. It is now called the Spear Lazy U Ranch.

Mike and Cindy Block live in the house now, which was moved across the river from where it was when Avry first visited.

‘‘Since the ’40s, you’ve been famous around here,’’ Mike Block said to Avry. ‘‘I’ve been dying to meet you for years.’’

Although steep terrain prevented Avry from seeing the crash site itself, the plane is there.

Block estimated he has visited the site 30 to 40 times. He said the trees around the aircraft are still burned, and the engines are there, along with tool boxes, melted aluminum and other debris.

‘‘(Putt Keough) … was the guy who was here (at the house) when he walked out,’’ Block said.

People exploring the crash site have found a 1945 penny, a set of car keys, buttons and even part of a skull at the plane wreck site, he said.

‘‘It’s just so awesome to see that plane crashed and burned,’’ Block said.

Wilsall welcomed Avry like a celebrity.

In the bar, now The Wilsall Bar and Cafe, from which he made the call to the military to report his situation and was given a free whiskey 60 years ago, he drank a beer on the house Wednesday.

Survivor Ironically, bailing out of the plane over the Crazies wasn’t the first time Avry parachuted to save his life. While flying as a gunner in a B-17 during World War II over Germany, he jumped out when his aircraft was shot down and was a prisoner of war for nearly a year.

He was later awarded the Purple Heart.

Then, two years after walking out of the wilderness in Montana, he was in a car accident that broke his neck. He also survived open-heart surgery in 1982.

Avry doesn’t know how he’s lived through so many adversities, although he has a theory.

‘‘When I was young, I drank a little beer, chased a hell of a lot of women and I’ve got good genes,’’ he joked.

‘‘This was beyond my best expectations,’’ Avry said of his revisit. ‘‘I won’t come back no more. This will do it.’’

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