A piece of history found by chance while two employees were out working in a remote area of Wisconsin recently made its way to the Stone Lake Area Historical Society.
“We don’t usually have this much excitement in the field, but this was interesting,” said Stuart “Stu” Nesbit, electrician in charge, Substation Operations and Maintenance.
It all started Oct. 12 when Nesbit and Dennis “Smurf” Schuh, also a substation electrician, headed out in an off-road tracked vehicle to test battery equipment in the transmission right-of-way in Sawyer County. “It’s a hike out there,” Schuh said, “And, it was a pretty good day – that is, before we got stuck in a large hole.”
While Nesbit and Schuh were attempting to get the vehicle out, some metal pieces started to emerge from the muddy water. “Something in that mud caught my eye,” Nesbit said. “I noticed the pieces had rivets and didn’t seem like something off a modern-day ATV, so we brought them back to the shop for a closer look.”
Rob Basten, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force and electrician, quickly realized the parts came from an air craft. “Curious, I did some research and found that a B-52 had crashed in the area back in 1966.”
Online records show that nine crew members and trainees aboard a 130-ton B-52 bomber from Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana had begun a low-level mission over Ladysmith to the southeast. They were calibrating their terrain-avoidance radar near unincorporated Hauer in Sawyer County when they clipped treetops and tragically crashed.
The explosion was seen, heard and felt miles away, according to news reports. The enormous plane left a scar hundreds of yards long in timber thick and remote enough that bulldozers were required to clear a path to the wreckage.
That was Nov. 18, 1966. After the Air Force recovered remains and much of the wreckage, the maple, oak and poplar trees grew up over the area, quickly camouflaging the crash site.
The next day Wade Williams, contract supervisor, joined Nesbit and Schuh at the site. They still needed to get the track vehicle out, and while doing that a few more pieces of wreckage surfaced, including one that had a date of “08 12 60” stamped on it. “That told us the year the bomber was built and that it was relatively new,” Basten said.
The group involved in this interesting discovery all agreed that this was something that should find a new home. “It may just be remnants of an old plane, but nine service men perished in that plane,” said Dave Ott, senior operations manager. “It was a terrible tragedy and something that the guys thought should be remembered.”
Another employee in the shop familiar with the Stone Lake Area Historical Society suggested that Basten reach out to Director Carol McDonnell. A few days later the remnants were delivered.
“We were very grateful to get the items to add to our growing collection of B-52 memorabilia,” McDonnell said.
In 2016, 50 years after the crash, Tom Sybert, the great nephew of Roger Langham, a Hauer-area resident who had been one of the first to see the tragic crash, researched and eventually was able to pinpoint the location of the crash. He and his son placed a small plaque nearby and that summer the Historical Society held an event to recognize and remember the B-52 crash.
“We were completely amazed when more than 170 people turned out,” McDonnell said. “It seems that many of our local residents living today were young folks in Stone Lake and all had vivid memories of that night.” The Historical Society is planning another event in July and expects several members of the families of the nine airmen who perished to attend.
And, now thanks to the efforts of some inquisitive Xcel Energy employees, the Stone Lake Area Historical Society has a few more items on public display to help history of the 1966 B-52 bomber crash live on.