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Death In The Uintas
Japanese Flier's Dream Shattered In Mountains
Hal Schindler
Published: 10/31/1993 Category: Sunday Features Page: B1

Masashi Goto was thirty-two and bursting with pride as he eased his biplane in for a landing at the Salt Lake Municipal Airport. He was on the early legs of a flight that would carry him across the United States, then across Europe to Asia and finally to the islands of Japan. It was a beautiful morning--July 4, 1929--and as Goto rolled the craft to a stop and switched off the ignition, he could take satisfaction in his achievement thus far.

In his flying-suit pocket he carried letters to family and a small, folded American flag. When this flight was over, Masashi Goto would be the most famous Japanese flier in the world. It was a dream he savored since he and his friend in Los Angeles, Takeo Watanabe, had saved enough money to build the airplane they designed; this same little biplane that served him so well thus far. If Goto had any premonition otherwise, he did not show it as members of the Japanese community in Salt Lake City gathered at the airport to congratulate him and shake his hand.

Before the day was done, Masashi Goto's dream would be shattered--his biplane destroyed and the intrepid aviator dead in the high Uintas. His adventure long forgotten with the passage of time, only a small granite monument on the Wolf Creek summit road (Utah Highway 35) and the junction to Soapstone Basin and Hanna stands as mute testimony to the tragedy. But that is about to change. The U.S. Forest Service is upgrading access to the area, and included in the plan is relocation of the monument closer to the state highway and with an automobile turnout.

The monument has fared well these three-score years considering its location in a heavily wooded, but scarcely convenient spot to be noticed. It reads:

    This monument erected by the Japanese Association of Utah to MASASHI GOTO 1896 - 1929 Japanese Aviator in his flight over America, Europe and Asia Airplane RYOFU-Co Crashed 3,000 feet South East of this spot July 4th, 1929

Goto had flown from Los Angeles to Oakland and on July 3 took off from that point to Reno, Nevada, presumably to refuel. His custom-made biplane was powered by a five-cylinder Pratt & Whitney air-cooled radial engine. The craft was fourteen feet long with a 22-foot wing span. Japanese-language newspapers on the Pacific Coast had for some time been carrying stories on Goto and Watanabe and their intended "round-the-world" journey.

Once the biplane was airborne out of the Salt Lake Municipal Airport in the early afternoon, Goto turned toward the Wasatch range, probably headed for Wyoming. Although his ultimate destination (New York) was widely known, he did not file a detailed flight plan, and it was never determined whether his next stop after Salt Lake City was to have been Denver or Laramie-Cheyenne.

He banked toward Parleys Canyon and set a course east, taking him over Park City. As his plane flew over the Uinta National Forest at Woodland, he ran into trouble; a thunderstorm was crackling in the vicinity of the High Uintas, and it was later theorized by experienced airmail pilots that Goto attempted to fly under the storm and, finding it impossible, tried a pancake landing. Other pilots speculated that the small airplane and its 22-foot wingspan had reached its effective ceiling--that altitude above which its engine could not provide lift--and then behaved as planes do under such circumstances; that is, it had gone into a nosedive or a tailspin and had struck the ground before the pilot could straighten it out. Whatever the reason, the green and silver biplane crashed, the fuselage telescoping over the engine, throwing Masashi Goto with such force into the instrument panel that he suffered a fractured neck. Death came instantly, investigators said.

His round-the-world journey had come to a heartbreaking end a mile into Dry Canyon, 8,500 feet above sea level near the Soapstone Basin. In Salt Lake City, members of the Japanese community were still celebrating the departure of their countryman who, it was hoped, would bring great honor to their native homeland and their adopted country as well. It was not unusual when no word was received of his successful arrival at the next city on his route. But when he failed to make contact Saturday and Sunday as well, fears for his safety began to circulate. There were no regulations requiring cross-country fliers to report their routes in advance.

Where was Masashi? Shortly before 4:00 p.m. on Monday July 8, Nymphus Simmons, a sheepherder, came across the wreckage in Dry Canyon. He hurried to a telephone line camp a few miles away and told those there of his discovery. They tapped a wire into the line and telephoned word to Park City and Heber authorities. Wasatch County Deputy Sheriff Charles E. Bonner made an immediate try at reaching the scene but was forced to turn back on account of darkness. At daybreak, a search party including Sheriff Virgil Fraughton, Deputy Bonner and undertaker J.W. Winterose reached Dry Canyon and was met by a group of sheepherders and two men from Salt Lake, one of who, R. F. Crandall, was camping in the area when the plane was found. The other man probably was R. H. Warner, a Boeing pilot, whose company had U.S. mail contracts, and was known to have been one of the first to arrive on the scene after the sheepherder called in the location.

Crandall told searchers that because the biplane was lying flat on the canyon floor with a damaged landing gear and propellor, it appeared Goto may have piloted the plane to Earth instead of plunging in a straight nosedive. He thought the flier almost made a safe landing under power. Warner, noting that the pilot was still wearing his parachute, which he would have used had the plane failed him. It was his opinion based on experience that the pilot was trying to fly under the storm, and when he realized it wasn't possible, attempted a crash landing, "pancaking" it in.

The search party extricated the aviator's body from the wreckage for removal to Heber. He carried a private pilot's license and identification of Masashi Goto, 1615 West 36th Place, Los Angeles. He was born in Oita, Kyushu, Japan, in 1896. In his flying suit was found a draft for $500 and $300 in cash, a small American flag, and a letter to Takeo Watanabe's father in Japan.

In Salt Lake City, Henry Y. Kasai, director of the Japanese Association of Utah, notified Watanabe in Los Angeles; and the two arranged to meet R. H. Warner in Heber. From the dead pilot's friend and partner, they learned of the dream that cost Goto his life. As superintendent of the Crawford Airplane Company in Venice, California, Watanabe, who was twenty-eight, and Goto had planned for three years to make a trip "around the world," using a plane over land, and crossing the ocean by boat.

When they found it would be too expensive, it was decided Goto, the eldest, should make the flight. With the combined savings of the two men during those years, they spent $4,500 building the biplane, their own design, in Watanabe's garage. Goto worked as a gardener trimming lawns for extra money. It was a dream that kept them going, working for years on a homemade airplane being built during a time of aviation madness.

Charles A. "Lucky Lindy" Lindbergh hadn't crossed the Atlantic when Watanabe and Goto began their project, but his successful flight in 1927 only fired their enthusiasm--the dream of becoming the most famous Japanese fliers in the world. When their plane was completed in summer of 1929, aviation was the international byword. Two Polish pilots were preparing a trans-Atlantic hop from LeBourget, France, to New York. Two "hard-boiled hombres" from California named Loren Mendell and Pete Reinhart were about to begin a pioneer endurance flight that would take them past the 200-hour mark for all classes of aircraft. And another pair of Americans, Roger Q. Williams and Lewis A. Yancey, bound from Old Orchard, Maine, for Rome, were forced with gasoline tanks almost empty to land in Spain. They were 225 miles ahead of schedule and preparing to refuel.

What should have been a joyful celebration of Goto's safe landing--the plan was to proceed to New York, then stow the plane aboard a ship for Europe and continue the flight east across Asia to Kyushu--Watanabe instead was arranging for his friend's body to be shipped to Los Angeles for burial. And the plane? It was disassembled and trucked back to Venice.

Some framework, however, remained in Utah to be used as part of a memorial monument at the crash site to the valiant Goto. But in the ensuing years and the frenzy of World War II, someone toppled the monument into a creek bed. Later, Henry Y. Kasai arranged with then-Utah Governor J. Bracken Lee to move the stone marker to a new site at the Soapstone-Hanna-Francis junction, where it stands to this day, somewhat less for wear and tear. When it is ultimately moved to its new location next year on the "turnout" planned by the Forest Service, Masashi Goto may not be remembered as the most famous Japanese flier in the world but he will be remembered.

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