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Local History Lesson: 06/15/2015

Clinton Petrie, more than just a plane crash victim

By E. Breck Parkman, senior archaeologist for California State Parks

The foggy late morning stillness of the Mayacamas mountains was shattered by the sound of a plane passing directly overhead. A workman taking a break from bulldozing a firebreak told authorities later that the mountains were completely socked in and it was very quiet where he was working, high up along the county line. A small plane seemed to appear from nowhere, headed northwest, at a high rate of speed. The workman could barely make out the plane in the thick fog and then it was gone. He knew something was wrong, though. It was flying much too low for the area. The sound of the plane faded away. Not long afterward, the workman heard what sounded like an explosion, several miles away. It was Dec. 10, 1964, and Clinton Petrie had just flown his twin-engine Cessna 310 aircraft into a hillside at over 200 mph.

The wreckage from Clinton Petrie’s plane

The wreckage from Clinton Petrie’s plane can still be seen in present-day Sugarloaf Ridge State Park. Petrie flew his plane into the mountainside on a foggy Dec. 10, 1964. Photo courtesy of Team Sugarloaf.
That morning, Petrie, a 48-year-old oilman from Long Beach, landed at the Nut Tree Airport in Vacaville to refuel. He had departed Long Beach a few hours earlier, bound for Santa Rosa, where he planned to pick up a couple of potential investors and then fly them back to Long Beach. It was time to make his company’s monthly payroll and Petrie was having a hard time making ends meet. If he was successful in getting money from these prospective investors, the payroll could be made. So his was a mission of desperation, an attempt to keep everything together. It certainly wasn’t the first time he had found himself in such a situation.

When Petrie departed Vacaville around 10:30 a.m., he radioed the airport in Santa Rosa. The controller advised him that the weather was deteriorating, due to a winter storm moving in. Although Petrie was an experienced pilot, he was not certified to fly on instruments. In spite of the bad weather, he continued toward Santa Rosa, following a route that would take him over the Mayacamas Mountains. Petrie hungered for the money that was necessary to keep his operations afloat. He must have felt that he had little choice but to continue on to Santa Rosa, even when common sense dictated that he turn back. A half hour after leaving Vacaville, Petrie slammed his aircraft into the top of a ridge just south of Bald Mountain, within Sugarloaf Ridge State Park. At the time of the crash, visibility had dropped to almost zero. Although dozens of planes from the Civil Air Patrol were sent out to search for the crash site, it wasn’t until after the weather had improved two days later that the remains of the plane were found.

Clinton Petrie was born on Feb. 24, 1916, in Monument, Colorado. By the time of the 1930 census, he and his father had moved to Long Beach, where Clinton grew up and lived for most of his life. As a young man, he rode the rails after dropping out of school, and made money as a boxer. He eventually went to work in the oil fields of southern California, and later, into business for himself in the oil well drilling industry.

At the time of his death, Petrie was survived by his girlfriend, Judith, his ex-wife, Virginia, and his 22-year old son, Clinton Roy Petrie. Roy was in flight school at the time of the accident and occasionally worked for his father. Roy visited the crash site the day after it was found and helped make a positive identification of the aircraft. He still has vivid memories of what he saw when he arrived there. He told me that the brush was still smoldering and that the plane was broken apart and scattered across the steep slope. There was nothing left of his dad, other than a few personal effects, including a unique ring that he was known to have been wearing.

The war years

On a spring day in April, 1940, 30-year old Virginia Petrie boarded the S.S. Klipfontein in San Francisco, bound for Rangoon, Burma. She was accompanied by her 10-year old daughter, “Pinky,” Virginia’s child from an earlier marriage. The previous summer Virginia had married Clinton Petrie, a man seven years her junior, in a quickie wedding in Tijuana, the day before he was to set sail for Asia. Clinton had taken a job with the Burmah Oil Company and was required to work a six-month long probationary period in Burma before he could send for Virginia. Clinton sailed alone from San Francisco to Hong Kong, via Honolulu, on the S.S. President Cleveland, departing San Francisco on April 7, 1939. From Hong Kong, he made his way to Rangoon.

Virginia was born on Aug. 14, 1909 in Akron, Ohio. When she was 18, she married the owner of the local drugstore. They had a child together, a girl they named Loa Ruth, but known to her friends and family as Pinky. A few years later, Virginia, now divorced, took Pinky to live in California. Once there, she became an accomplished musician and singer on the radio and with the big bands in Hollywood. She also played the supper clubs throughout southern California. In 1938, Virginia was introduced to Clinton by a cook at one of the clubs.

Clinton was enamored with Virginia from the start and he pursued her around the state. Virginia finally agreed to marry him after learning that he was bound for Asia. She had long dreamed of seeing that part of the world and thus it was with great excitement that she boarded the S.S. Klipfontein and sailed out of San Francisco Bay, with little Pinky in tow.

Two years later, with the Japanese Imperial Army overrunning Burma, Virginia and Clinton fled to Bombay and awaited evacuation to the U.S.

When the USAT Brazil departed Bombay with Clinton and Virginia, it had on board a crew of 266, and 864 passengers comprised of three Filipino musicians, 177 Chinese Army Cadets and officers (including pilots), and 684 civilians, primarily families leaving the war zone. Interestingly, Gregory “Pappy” Boyington of the “Flying Tigers” and U.S. Marine Corps “Black Sheep” Squadron (VMF-214) fame was one of those passengers. Boyington, who would later win the Congressional Medal of Honor for his wartime exploits in the Pacific theater, was returning to the U.S. to join the active military service.

As she steamed out of Bombay, the Brazil set a dangerous course. Clinton and Virginia and the 800-plus other passengers on the ship were confined to their quarters below deck. Virginia and Pinky shared a stateroom with 22 other women, packed in like sardines. Virginia began to go stir crazy and decided that she needed a diversion. There were several pianos on board the ship, but Virginia soon discovered that they had all been virtually destroyed by the American soldiers transported to India prior to her evacuation. Not to be undone, Virginia found a fellow passenger with a harmonium. Virginia was in business! She went to the ship’s enormous empty ballroom, and began playing. Clinton stood at her side, pumping the bellows. Virginia’s soprano voice resonated like a bell in the cavernous room. By the time she had finished her first number, “Over the Rainbow,” more than 100 people had joined her in the ballroom. Word swept the ship and within half an hour, the ballroom was filled with hundreds of men, women, and children. Virginia would go on to play and sing every night for the next six weeks, and she would later say that these were the most satisfying concerts of her career.

One night, Clinton needed a break from pumping the harmonium’s bellows. He saw a fellow in the audience whom he had befriended at the card table earlier in the voyage. The man was wearing an AVG (American Volunteer Group) pilot’s uniform. Clinton asked the man if he’d stand in for him at the bellows. He agreed and spent the next hour pumping the bellows as Virginia played and sang. The man became a lifelong friend of Clinton and Virginia Petrie. He was from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and his name was Greg Boyington.

There are old pilots and bold pilots, but there are no old bold pilots

Following the war, Clinton became a pilot. He often flew potential investors back and forth between California and Las Vegas, where he would wine and dine them at the Sands Hotel, his unofficial “office.” Petrie enjoyed Las Vegas and the gambling and other excitement it offered him. In fact, according to his son, Clinton can be seen sitting at a card table in the background of a scene in the 1956 MGM musical comedy Meet Me in Las Vegas.

According to the NTSB accident brief, Clinton had 342 hours of flight time in the Cessna 310, indicating that he was a fairly experienced pilot. However, he was not instrument rated. If he had been, he might have avoided his fatal accident. Instead, he flew his Cessna 310 into bad weather and crashed hard against the ridge that separates the Napa Valley from the Valley of the Moon. When I surveyed the crash site, I determined that Clinton missed clearing the ridge by about 40 feet. Just a little higher and he would likely have survived. So often life hangs in the balance like that.

By the time of the accident, Clinton and Virginia had long since separated. Virginia died on Nov. 20, 1987, in Farmington, New Mexico, and is buried in Taft, California. Clinton is buried in Monument.

Clinton’s son, Roy, also known as “Captain Bob,” writes under the pen name Roy McShane. He’s published several aviation novels. Roy worked as a commercial airline pilot for Singapore Airlines and is now retired and living in Thailand. I obtained some of the information found in this account from him. Roy helped me complete the picture of his dad that is only hinted at by the various bits and pieces of the wrecked aircraft, still perched on the side of the ridge. You can see the area from Kenwood. I often think about Clinton when I look that direction. Now, perhaps others will, too. His story is part of the history of our valley.

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