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Bullets from Army plane kill Carrisa ranch worker, World War II week by week

The invasion of Okinawa and collapse of Germany were major headlines but the biggest local story was the accidental strafing death of a man in the Carrizo Plain. Telegram-Tribune from April 19, 1945.
The invasion of Okinawa and collapse of Germany were major headlines but the biggest local story was the accidental strafing death of a man in the Carrizo Plain. Telegram-Tribune from April 19, 1945.

The Carrizo Plain has several claims to fame.

The lightly populated area on the southeastern border of San Luis Obispo County is a national monument, a location for solar power generation, where the San Andreas Fault is studied and the site of a sacred Native American site — Painted Rock.

It was also a gunnery range. One man was accidentally strafed and killed in a 1945 training accident.

An Internet search reveals a Department of Defense memo from MERIT, Materials of Evolving Regulatory Interest Team. The memo locates the site 64 miles east of San Luis Obispo, used as a gunnery range from 1944 to 1947 using practice bombs (with spotting charge) and 20 mm small arms fire.

The memo says that no bomb disposal or toxic remediation was required. A 2008 Bureau of Land Management draft resource management plan and environmental impact report states 15 sections of the northern part of the monument were withdrawn from BLM inventory and used as the Soda Lake Air to Ground Gunnery Range (the BLM places the start a year earlier) from 1943 to 1947.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers made two on-site surveys: In 1996 they looked for explosives, and in September 2007 sampled for chemical contamination.

No hazard was found to require additional action.

The Telegram-Tribune wrote about the training accident on April 19, 1945.

Bullets From Army Plane Kill Carrisa Ranch Worker

Target Range is Scene of Tragedy

Aircraft fire from a Hammer Army air field plane fatally wounded Frank L. Smith, 45, Carrisa Plains ranch worker, Tuesday afternoon. Robert Deckert, 39, who was working with Smith on road grading, was slightly wounded in the same burst of fire.

The tragedy took place on a San Luis Obispo County road at Soda Lake, adjacent to an army gunnery range, about 3:30 p.m. Tuesday. Smith, critically wounded in the abdomen, was rushed to Taft Community hospital by army ambulance, and died there at 7 p.m.

Mistaken for Target

Col. John O. Neal, commanding officer at Hammer Field, near Fresno, today issued an official statement deploring the accident, and expressing the belief that the gunner had mistaken the Caterpillar tractor on which the men were working for one of the target vehicles, about a mile away, on the gunnery range. The road crosses the range, and at the time of the accident Deckert was standing on the Caterpillar while smith was getting oil from a pickup truck alongside. In his statement, Col. Neal said a full investigation by the Army is now in progress.

Sheriff Murray Hathway and Delbert Call investigated the accident Wednesday, accompanied by Sgt. Cleye Halsey of the military police, from the office of the provost marshal at Camp San Luis Obispo. They met Col. E. Willoughby and Lt. Paul R. Reisenberg of Hammer field at the scene some 40 miles east of San Luis Obispo.

Shot Four Times

Smith was shot four times, twice in the abdomen and superficially in the arm and leg, Deckert received a minor leg wound from a glancing fragment. There were seven hits on the tractor and marks all around where bullets had cut the ground Hathway said. Smith had worked on the Dennis Ryan ranch for about two years. He leaves a wife, who lives near Visalia. The body was taken to Brown Mortuary in Taft, pending funeral arrangements.

The Hammer Field statement follows: “Hammer Field authorities announced today that the accident which resulted in the fatal wounding of Frank L. Smith involved one of their aircraft. The plane was one of four on a flight from Hayward Army air field, a sub-base of Hammer Field, to the Soda Lake gunnery range for a practice mission. Smith was an employee of the Dennis Ryan ranch which borders the gunnery range and was working on the maintenance of a county road which crosses the range, and was on the range at the time the accident occurred.

The four planes were strafing ground targets, consisting of dummy models of heavy Army vehicles such as tanks, and it is believed that the pilot mistook the tractor with which Smith was working for one of the targets. Hammer Field spokesmen stated that the tractor was within a mile of the ground targets and the pilot traveling at a speed of 250 to 300 miles per hour, obviously failed to distinguish between the objects.

“The road, which crosses the range is posted with worning and danger notices but nearby ranchers have been using the road on certain occasions and have been doing maintenance work necessary in its upkeep.

‘Col. John O. Neal, commanding officer of Hammer Field, stated, ‘We are deeply disturbed by this unhappy occurrence and are making every effort to obtain full facts and responsibilities on the matter.’”