Plane crash in '48 still fresh for some

Among the keepsakes Bill Engelke of Wadena has of his namesake uncle is a watch, frozen in time for 60 years, stuck on 5:30 p.m., the precise moment of the plane crash.

Among the keepsakes Bill Engelke of Wadena has of his namesake uncle is a watch, frozen in time for 60 years, stuck on 5:30 p.m., the precise moment of the plane crash.

William Joseph Jerome Engelke, the current Wadena resident, knows quite a bit about the plane crash of William Edward Engelke, despite not being born until seven years after the plane went down.

Many people in the Wadena and Bluffton areas remember well the crash on July 3, 1948, which killed William Edward Engelke, a 21-year-old who was recently back from Army duty in Japan.

Much of what the younger Engelke knows of his uncle comes from the contents of his pockets after the crash: a driver's license, a VA card, a letter written (but not mailed) to a friend that chatted about recent ball games and bemoaned a "severe shortage of that green stuff." The items were given to William Joseph Jerome Engelke when he was a kid.

"My dad gave them to me when I was 16 or so," he recalled in an interview last week.


And there's the watch. It's cracked face reads 5:30 p.m., the time the plane went down.

Many people in Bluffton were working in the fields and saw the low-flying plane go down. The Thursday, July 8, 1948 Pioneer Journal reported:

"William Engelke, 21, of Bluffton, was killed at 5:30 p.m. Saturday when a light plane he was flying crashed in a field on the Dale Smith farm six miles west of Wadena in Otter Tail County. The young man, in a plane belonging to Wadena Flying Service, was flying at a low altitude and in making a sharp turn, the ship went out of control and crashed into the field. Several farmers working in adjoining fields saw the crash and rushed to the scene, but the young man was dead upon their arrival.

"Engelke left the local airport a few minutes before the fatal crash, and headed westward towards the Bluffton area. A few minutes before the accident, he was seen flying at an altitude of approximately 200 feet, and making sharp turns over farms in the vicinity where he went down.

"According to eye-witnesses, he had made a sharp turn just north of the buildings on the Smith farm, while the plane was headed in a northwesterly direction. While in the turn, the plane went out of control and crashed into the ground, barely missing high tension wires bordering the field. First persons at the scene were Fred Stinar, Dale Smith and Alex Weniger.

"The engine of the ship was running at the time of the crash, but an investigation of the wreckage showed that the throttle was retarded, indicating that there was not enough power to recover from the steep turn at the extremely low altitude.

"L.L. Schroeder of St. Paul, state commissioner of aeronautics, came to Wadena on Sunday to make an unofficial investigation. After taking statements from several of the eyewitnesses, he said that the crash was undoubtedly due to the low altitude at which the plane was flying.

"William Edward Engelke was born Jan. 27, 1927 in Bluffton, the son of Mr. and Mrs. Henry J. M. Engelke, residents of that community since 1923.


"On April 9, 1945, he entered the Army, taking his training at Camp Livingston, La. He served 11 months overseas in Tokyo, Japan, and was honorably discharged on Nov. 14, 1946. His father was a veteran of World War I."

Engelke said he's heard many stories over the years about his uncle. He was a single man who liked to hunt and trap, who served his country and returned home to find jobs hard to come by. He decided to get his pilot's license, and had just finished up his required hours of training to gain his certificate.

He was the 51st member to join the Wadena VFW Post. He had worked with explosives in the military. As a hobby, the elder Engelke liked to create things with his hands.

"He used to make things like ashtrays made out of shell casings," Bill said.

His uncle also had a chauffeur's license, though it's not clear if he ever used it. And he was fairly popular.

"He had a few girlfriends, I think," Bill said.

And that's what may have been on his mind that final day of his life.

Lawrence Denny of Bluffton was working in his uncle Dale Smith's farm when the plane came over at low altitude.


"We knew it was Billy," Denny said. "He had been out there before."

Denny said he believes Engelke was hot-dogging with the plane to impress a beautiful woman, Audrey Stinar, who has since passed away.

When the plane crashed, Denny and his uncle went into town to tell Engelke's parents, who requested the two also pass word to the priest to deliver last rites.

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