1948 Los Gatos DC-3 crash

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Los Gatos crash
FourStar N135FS STT 14Aug2009.jpg
A DC-3 similar to the accident aircraft
Date28 January 1948
SummaryFire, originating in the left engine-driven fuel pump
SiteDiablo mountains, west of Coalinga, Fresno County, California, United States
36°14′12″N 120°35′06″W / 36.2366°N 120.5849°W / 36.2366; -120.5849Coordinates: 36°14′12″N 120°35′06″W / 36.2366°N 120.5849°W / 36.2366; -120.5849
Aircraft typeC-47B-40-DK Skytrain
OperatorAirline Transport Carriers
(under INS contract)
Flight originOakland, California[1]
StopoverBurbank, California
DestinationEl Centro, California

On 28 January 1948, a DC-3 plane carrying 32 persons, mostly Mexican farm laborers, including some from the bracero guest worker program, crashed in the Diablo Range, 20 miles west of Coalinga, California. The crash, which killed everyone aboard the plane, inspired the song "Deportee" by Woody Guthrie.[1]

Some of the passengers were being returned to Mexico at the termination of their bracero contracts, while others were illegal immigrants being deported. Initial news reports listed only the pilot, first officer, and stewardess, with the remainder listed only as "deportees."[1] Only 12 of the victims were initially identified. The Hispanic victims of the accident were placed in a mass grave at Holy Cross Cemetery in Fresno, California, with their grave marked only as "Mexican Nationals".[2]


The Douglas DC-3 aircraft, owned by Airline Transport Carriers of Burbank, California, was chartered by the Immigration and Naturalization Service to fly twenty-eight Mexican citizens, who were being deported to the INS Deportation Center in El Centro, California.[3]

For reasons never explained, pilot Frank Atkinson and co-pilot Marion Ewing took a DC-3 that had seats for only twenty-six passengers (seven hours overdue for a routine and required safety inspection) for the flight, instead of an aircraft certified to carry thirty-two passengers.[3] Arriving in Oakland, California, after a routine flight, the crew was joined by INS guard Frank Chaffin. The flight was to refuel at Burbank, California, before continuing to El Centro.[3]

At approximately 10:30am, workers at the Fresno County Industrial Road Camp, located 21 mi (34 km) northwest of Coalinga, California, noticed the DC-3 trailing white smoke from its port engine.[3] The port wing suddenly ripped off, spilling nine passengers out of the gaping hole in the fuselage.[3] The aircraft caught fire and spiralled to the ground near Los Gatos Creek, exploding in a ball of fire.[3] The investigation by the Civil Aeronautics Authority discovered that a fuel leak in the port engine's fuel pump ignited and the slip-stream fanned the flames to a white hot intensity, acting like an oxy-acetylene torch, burning through the main-spar, causing the crash.[3]

Initial news reports listed only the pilot, first officer, stewardess, and the immigration guard, with the remainder listed only as "deportees".[1] Only 12 of the victims were initially identified.[4] The Hispanic victims of the accident were placed in a mass grave at Holy Cross Cemetery in Fresno, California, with their grave marked only as "Mexican Nationals".[2] The grave is 84 by 7 ft (25.6 by 2.1 m) with two rows of caskets and not all of the bodies were buried the first day, but the caskets at the site did have an overnight guard.[4]

Woody Guthrie song, "Deportee"[edit]

Singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie wrote a poem in 1948 lamenting the anonymity of the workers killed in the crash, identified only as "deportees" in media reports. When Guthrie's poem was set to music a decade later by college student Martin Hoffman, it became the folk song "Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)".[1]

The song was popularized by Pete Seeger,[5] and was subsequently performed by Joan Baez,[6] Judy Collins,[7] Julie Felix, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Kelly, Martyn Joseph, The Byrds, Richard Shindell and Ani DiFranco among others.[1]


Cesar Chavez, later to become founder of the United Farm Workers union, learned of the tragic crash while serving in the US Navy, helping convince him that farm workers should be treated "as important human beings and not as agricultural implements".[6]

The names of all the victims were published in local papers in 1948.[8] In 2009, writer Tim Z. Hernandez began to seek out the gravesite and those names.[9] With the help of others, by July 2013 all had been identified (some of the names were misspelled in the records), and the money raised for a more fitting memorial.[1][10] On 2 September 2013 (Labor Day), a Deportee Memorial Headstone was unveiled at a mass in the Holy Cross Cemetery in Fresno attended by more than 600.[11] The memorial includes all twenty-eight names of the migrant workers, which included three women, and one man born in Spain, not Mexico as widely reported.[11][12]

External links[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Marcum, Diana (7 September 2013). "Names emerge from shadows of 1948 crash". LA Times. Retrieved 19 March 2014.
  2. ^ a b Wilkey, Robin (3 September 2013). "'Deportees,' 28 Anonymous Mexican Farmworkers Killed In 1948 Plane Crash, Finally Named At Memorial". Huffington Post. Retrieved 19 March 2014.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Kulczyk, David (2009). Death in California – The Bizarre, Freakish, and Just Curious Ways People Die in the Golden State. Fresno, CA: Craven Street Books. p. 77. ISBN 978-1-884995-57-6.
  4. ^ a b "Victims of Valley's Worst Air Crash", Fresno Bee, Fresno, California, p. 1, 1 February 1948
  5. ^ "60th anniversary of "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee)"". Indybay. Retrieved 16 October 2009.
  6. ^ a b "Join UFW President Arturo Rodriguez at memorial dedication for 28 'deportees' Labor Day, Sept. 2 in Fresno: The 'deportees' finally have their names". Press release. United Farm Workers. 26 August 2013. Archived from the original on 19 March 2014. Retrieved 19 March 2014.
  7. ^ "The UFW: Songs and Stories, Sung and Told by UFW Volunteers" (PDF). Farmworker Movement Documentation Project. Retrieved 19 March 2014.
  8. ^ "'Deportee' Crash". Check-Six.com. Retrieved 9 December 2014.
  9. ^ Marcum, Diana (2 September 2013). "Decades after crash, names of 28 "deportees" are read aloud". LA Times. Retrieved 27 October 2018.
  10. ^ "Deportee Plane - Latino USA". latinousa.org (Podcast). 2018-09-13. Retrieved 2018-02-18.
  11. ^ a b Orozco, Ron. "Fresno memorial unveiled with 'deportee' names from 1948 crash". Archived from the original on 22 December 2013. Retrieved 19 March 2014.
  12. ^ "The People Behind Guthrie's 'Deportee' Verses". National Public Radio.