Mount Tamalpais is renowned for its lush nature and gorgeous vistas, but hidden among the redwoods are the remnants of a tragedy that occurred 74 years ago this month. On November 30, 1944, a PBM-5 Mariner seaplane took off from an air station in Alameda, bound for Hawaii. The pilot quickly realized that something was wrong and radioed the station’s tower to report an emergency. According to Matt Cerkel — a seasoned Marin Municipal Water District park ranger — the pilot was told to stand by as there were two other aircraft currently experiencing issues as well.
“This was probably around 11:30 p.m.,” Cerkel says. “That was the last thing anyone heard from the crew of the plane. People heard it flying low, heard a crash, saw a flash, and then afterward saw a fire up on Mount Tam.” Fortunately for the mountain, rainy weather helped prevent the fire from spreading. Tragically, all eight people aboard the PBM-5 were killed on impact. At first, local law enforcement told concerned citizens calling to report what they’d heard and seen that they were mistaken, as no planes were missing from nearby Hamilton Air Field. It wasn’t until the next day, when five middle-school-age boys decided to find the source of the fire, that the horrific truth was uncovered. Interested parties can still visit what remains of the aircraft, which is but one of several planes to crash into Mount Tam in the years before and during World War II. Those who decide to seek out the wreckage should be advised that the area is considered a gravesite. Recently, Cerkel oversaw the implementation of a sign there to commemorate the event — and to remind visitors not to take any souvenirs home. Overall, Cerkel estimates that there have been over 60 airplane crashes in Marin County. It’s hard to imagine any of them can offer the lingering intrigue of the twisted metal that lies nestled in the splendor of Marin’s favorite mountain.