Photo of the Day

David A. Steeves, circa June 1957.

Pilot’s Story of Survival?Doubted

On an early weekday in July of 1954, starved to the bone, ankles swollen and clothing tattered, a disheveled 23-year-old man, stumbling through Kings National Park, a nearly 500,000-acre spread of rugged mountain country east of California?s San Joaquin Valley, stepped into a campground with an incredible tale. So incredible, many would ultimately doubt its veracity.

This is the story of a 1950’s Cold War scandal that ruined an Air Force pilot’s career and rocked his marriage – all when the news media stirred up false suspicions about his heroic 54-day survival ordeal in the Sierra Nevada wilderness.

In the 1950s the cold war was escalating; the KGB had just been established and the Russians were gearing up to launch the Sputnik into orbit. Vietnam was split at the 17th parallel and McCarthy’s witch hunt had raised the ardor to a fevered pitch.

America was engaged in a race of military mite and super power status came with a focus on state of the art aircraft with superior handling and missile firing accuracy. Readiness was paramount and Lockheed’s T-33 was a front line training jet for advanced level Air Force pilots.

Only a few trusted high level men were engaged in the secrecy of aircraft training, testing and development.

May 9th, 1957, one of those young top guns, 23 year old David Arthur Steeves, took off on a solo flight from Hamilton Air Force Base?to Craig Air Force Base near Selma, California. The flight route took the young pilot over the Sierra Nevada near the rugged backcountry of Kings Canyon National Park. A routine flight plan was filed, nothing out of the ordinary except, the young pilot and his top level aircraft disappeared from radar and never landed at the central valley Air Force base. A search and rescue mission was launched but failed to find any trace of the pilot or his airplane. First Lieutenant Steeves was declared dead and a death certificate was mailed to his family.

Steeves by any definition was a hero, and that’s initially how the media portrayed him. Six weeks later, however, the media did an about face, putting Steeves under a cloud of suspicion and innuendo. Yet all of the media’s assumptions were false. The Air Force, for its part, also contributed to Steeves’ guilt by innuendo. But ultimately, it was America’s increasingly powerful news media that put the pilot’s head in a noose in the court of public opinion.

Suffering a public humiliation he did not deserve, Steeves was a victim of media abuse decades before it would become a hotly debated subject. An examination of hundreds of newspaper articles from 1957 and 1958 makes this crystal clear. So do Air Force documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. They shed new light on one of the 1950’s enduring aviation mysteries.
Steeves’ downfall was not necessarily the result of unethical and cynical journalists exploiting a great story. Sometimes, things spun out of control even when well-intentioned people staffed the newsroom — a result of competitive pressures, public demand, and because of how the news-gathering and reporting process has always worked.
None of these things can be neatly divorced from America’s culture in the 1950s — and nor from its culture today. ?We need not be theologians to see that we have shifted responsibility for making the world interesting from God to the newspaperman,? social historian Daniel J. Boorstin wrote in his 1961 book ?The Image.? It offered much trenchant commentary on America’s culture and its emerging mass media ? its newspapers, magazines, television and radio stations.

Earlier in the decade, members of America’s high-minded Fourth Estate congratulated themselves for having saved the country from Wisconsin’s irresponsible senator, Joe McCarthy. Yet during the 1957, just weeks after the senator’s death, the media engaged in what amounted to McCarthy-style reporting on Lt. Steeves and his wife Rita. The strains of being in the media’s distorting spotlight may have hastened the end of the young couple’s already troubled marriage. As for Steeves, his Air Force career was ruined, his reputation permanently tarnished. He remained a hero nevertheless — even if Americans were led to believe otherwise.

In its watchdog role, the media should have endeavoured to get to the bottom of the case of Lt. Steeves and his missing T-33 jet trainer. Instead, it played up the sensational aspects of the case, thereby helping to destroy an Air Force officer’s reputation.

What happened to the Air Force couple in 1957 is today largely forgotten. Yet their story is more relevant than ever in an era in which bloggers and others in the ?new media? regularly highlight the mainstream media’s biases and inaccuracies — find the missing story beyond the headlines.

The Last Flight of Lt. David Steeves.

After graduating from high school, Steeves entered Norwich Military University in Northfield, Vermont. But he still had the flying bug during the fall of 1953. So when he heard about the Air Force’s Aviation Cadet Program, he was intrigued. No four-year degree was required. He’d go right into pilot and officer training ? and that sure beat college. He wanted to be a pilot, after all. And who knew: Maybe he’d end up flying jets! Jets were where it was at; they were so cooool (as 1950s-era kids used to say, drawing out the word rather than spitting it out abruptly like kids do today.) Jets were the future, Steeves knew.
He’d read about those heart-stopping dogfights in the Korean War, those calm and dashing American pilots flying silver F-86 Saber jets, taking on North Korean, Chinese and Russian pilots in ?MiG Alley.? A ceasefire had ended the Korean War in July.

Steeves applied for the cadet program after Christmas, went through physical exams and psychological testing and personal interviews. He passed. Soon he was at Lackland Field in San Antonio, Texas, undergoing 15 months of officer and pilot training. He was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant in the Air Force Reserve on June 15, 1955. Now 21, he wore the coveted silver wings of an Air Force pilot on his uniform. And five days later, he got married: It’s what serious men his age did at the time. People who expected to be taken seriously were married. And of course, Steeves married his high school sweetheart: Rita Lundstrom. She was 19-years-old, blond and remarkably beautiful — and smart.

She was getting married at just the right time, too: Most women back then, those who wanted to avoid becoming old maids, got married when they were between 18 and 20.

The couple had gone to different high schools in the area and had met at a church-organized outing for young people; and even though they were both juniors, she was two years younger than him and others in her class. Recently, Rita had graduated from the University of Bridgeport as a dental hygienist. At the time, it was a traditional ?woman’s job? along with working as a secretary, librarian, teacher, or nurse.
The day after the couple’s wedding, the Bridgeport Post ran a large photo of the bride on its wedding page. The photo’s caption read: ?Mrs. David Arthur Steeves.? Along with its obituary listings, a paper’s wedding page was a popular must-read section for community-minded Americans — though perhaps not quite as popular as another section many papers ran back then: It listed the names of men and women petitioning for divorce. Divorce carried a stigma of scandal and failure, so it was shocking and fun to see who’d made the list.

Rita knew that flying could be dangerous, to be sure. But she loved David: Flying was what he wanted. In the prosperous part of southwestern Connecticut where she’d grown up, other pretty and marriage-minded girls played it smart. They married accountants, corporate lawyers, or advertising men. Guys like that tended to be stable breadwinners, and many had well-paying jobs in New York City. They took the train to work from any of the towns in Fairfield County dotting the rail line. And in the early evening, their wives could always count on seeing them again, tired and hungry after a long day, and usually a very routine one. It was nothing like the life of an Air Force wife — especially one married to a pilot.

Steeves plane.

The story of Lt. David Steeves started on a clear and sunny day on May 9, 1957 as he soared over the High Sierras at 33,500 feet. As he later related, an explosion ripped through his T-33 jet. He blacked out, regained consciousness and then ejected over some of America’s roughest terrain. After a few weeks, the Air Force sent his wife a death certificate, believing nobody could have survived in the icy and snowy mountains.
“I was officially a widow,” she related. “I had to start a new life.” Determined to be strong and positive, she enrolled in a local university near her husband’s hometown of Trumbull, Connecticut to become a school teacher. “I knew I must now be the head of my family — families, I know, can fall apart when there’s a death. I resolved this would not happen to us.”

Two of Lt. Steeves’ parachute panels were burned out, so he landed hard at the 11,000-foot level, badly twisting his ankles as he hit snow and ice. He had no survival kit or warm clothes to protect himself against temperatures that, according to an accident report, ranged between 25 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Bundling himself in his parachute, he huddled against giant boulders to stay out of the wind for the first four days. Then he gave up that a rescue party would be coming.

Setting off down the mountain, he told of crawling, sliding, and hobbling for 15 days, consuming only melted snow, until coming upon an empty ranger’s cabin 15 miles away. There he found enough food to regain his strength. He told of then living on dandelions, grass snakes, and fish caught with some rusty hooks he found. Utilizing a snare rigged to his revolver, he even killed a deer.
Park rangers estimated he wandered 20 to 40 miles in attempting to hike out of the wildest part of the Sierra Nevada, where imposing peaks, canyons, and raging streams would challenge even an experienced mountaineer. He shed about 40 pounds from his fit 6-foot 195-pound frame, and his wife later commented that he felt “skinny.”

There were times when he told himself he had gone mad, that he was dead and this was some form of icy hell. In waves of panic he felt he was being punished for his sins; he prayed for forgiveness, despaired, then prayed some again.”
Although raised in a church-going family, Steeves said he didn’t consider himself deeply religious, though he said he enjoyed Billy Graham’s sermons. Later, he admitted to shortcomings as a father and husband. Yet in the wilderness, it was thoughts of “God, my wife, and my baby daughter” that pulled him through, he always maintained.

Steeves came upon two campers in Kings Canyon National Park on July 1, 1957, and one took him to a ranger’s station on horseback. He promptly phoned home.

It was the answer to her prayers ? a collect phone call. It was wondrous and shocking. A miracle, really.

Elsie Steeves, alone at home that day, thought of her son David — and she prayed. Fifty-four days earlier on May 9, 1957, the 23-year-old Air Force pilot had disappeared over California’s rugged Sierra Nevada mountains, while making a solo flight in his two-seat training jet, a T-33 Shooting Star. According to the Air Force, he was dead. Little was known about her son’s final minutes: He was level at 33,500 feet and had made a routine radio call, just 35 minutes after taking off from Oakland, California’s airport. After that, nothing was ever heard from him. It was supposed to have been a routine cross-country flight.
The disappearance attracted only minor attention in the next day’s newspapers. The?Oakland Tribune?ran a short article on an inside page, its headline reading: ?Wide Search for Vanished Jet Trainer.?
Over the next few days, Air Force search-and-rescue planes overflew the mountainous terrain where the jet was thought to have crashed. But no trace of Steeves or his jet could be found in some of America’s roughest terrain. After three weeks, the Air Force issued a death certificate for 1st Lt. David Arthur Steeves. But Elsie Steeves and her husband Harold refused to believe it.?Someday their phone would ring — and their prayers would be answered, they believed.
The military at the time had traditionally waited a year and a day before issuing a death certificate. But given the realities of Steeves’ last flight, Air Force officials suspended that policy: Even if he’d ejected and landed in one piece, they reasoned, he never could have survived in the ice and snow-covered mountains, which had gotten a heavy snow soon after his jet went down.
But Elsie and Harold Steeves found room for hope. Search planes, after all, found no body — not a trace of wreckage. Their son could be somewhere in the Sierra Nevada — alive, injured, struggling to find his way home.

On rare occasions when a flier went missing, however, his family and loved ones had their prayers answered. The answer for Elsie Steeves arrived at 4 p.m. on July 1, 1957. When she picked up the phone in her Trumbull home, what happened next could have been out of a plot from the ?The Twilight Zone.? But at the time, nobody would have made such a comparison. The hit television series would not debut for another two years, captivating Americans with its spooky and quirky plots that often highlighted the angst of the era. Watching the ?Twilight Zone? after it aired, David Steeves could have easily imagined he’d lived out one of its strange plots during the second half of 1957.

?Hello?? Elsie Steeves said. It was the operator, and in a matter-of-fact voice, she said: ?Collect call from Lt. David Steeves.?

Elsie Steeves gasped. Then she heard the voice, David’s voice, and she knew it was true. Yes, thank God, her once-dead son was alive and speaking to her.

?I don’t want this to be too much of a shock for you,? he told her, as gently as he could. ?I just walked in from the woods of the High Sierras.?

?Oh David, thank God!? she cried.

David Steeves was a U.S. Air Force lieutenant and experimental aircraft test pilot. He is best known for an incident in 1957, when he was unjustly accused of giving a Lockheed T-33A trainer jet to the USSR during the Cold War.

Lt. Steeves captivated the nation that previous July 1, 1957 when he wandered out of California’s Sierra Nevada. Weeks earlier, the Air Force had declared him dead after he disappeared on a cross-country flight. Yet 54 days after ejecting from his disabled jet over ice and snow-covered mountains, he hobbled out of the wilderness with a heavy beard and tattered flight suit. In a hastily arranged news conference at Castle Air Force Base in Merced, California, he told a harrowing story of survival that captivated the nation.

All in all, Lt. Steeves and his heroic story of survival — one man with courage against the elements — was surely an uplifting antidote for the unease of the times, when nuclear bombs rendered battlefield heroics and self-sacrifice meaningless, and perhaps unnecessary.

Days after returning to Trumbull, Lt. Steeves made radio and TV appearances, including on the popular Art Linkletter, Dave Garaway, and Arthur Godfrey shows. Writing about a news conference in New York, a reporter observed that Lt. Steeves responded to every question “patiently, earnestly, and with good humor, giving every indication that he understood his incredible experience was something to be shared.”
Parade?magazine called the story of Lt. Steeves one of the year’s “most inspiring.” And in its story on Mrs. Steeves in early August, editors said she had a “message for the woman of America.”

As for Lt. Steeves’ future plans, his mother had summed them up when she described that wonderful phone call she go from her once-dead son. She asked if he was “going back to flying,” according to a newspaper account.

“I sure am,” he said.

“Oh, he loves it,” she explained. “All the Air Force boys love it. He wanted to be a pilot since he was a child.”

Steeves? heroic story of survival was just what many American wanted to hear during the summer of 1957; for along with America’s post-war prosperity and cold-war tensions, there was a certain angst in the air — at least according to many of the 1950’s most esteemed writers and intellectuals.

To millions of people it struck a chord, and for them Steeves’ heroic story of wilderness survival was surely inspiring, providing an antidote to their unsatisfying lives. Not only that, David and Rita Steeves were the perfect couple to grace newspaper headlines and magazine covers.
Steeves had dark and wavy hair, a strong jaw, and rugged good looks. Had he ever become an actor, he could have played a leading man. Rita, the daughter of Swedish immigrant parents, was a perfect counterpart. Attractive and photogenic, she was blessed with the feminine beauty that was popular in the 1950s, when actresses like Marilyn Monroe, Kim Novak, and Debbie Reynolds were in their prime.
Rita was often described in newspaper stories as an ?attractive blond? or ?Steeves’ blond wife?; it was the journalistic fashion of the day. One reporter even wrote of the ?blond and beautiful? Rita Steeves when describing her and the lively scene at New York’s La Guardia Field, as her husband disembarked a commercial flight and walked into her arms. ?Kiss him!? shouted reporters and photographers, according to the reporter’s account. ?Don’t know where!? she shouted, referring to the bushy beard.
She kissed him anyway.
For Steeves, all the publicity and attention was heady stuff. But he quickly realized he could sell his story, too; and sure enough, he soon signed a deal with the Saturday Evening Post to publish his story for $10,000. Besides the big magazine piece, there was talk of a book deal.
Amid the media hoopla and magazine deal, Steeves had every reason to believe that he’d soon have his piece of the American dream, just like the guys with big houses and nice cars in Fairfield County.

Steeves was front-page news for days, a media darling. And his photogenic 21-year-old wife Rita quickly became part of the story. But six weeks later, the story of Lt. Steeves, the hero, fell apart after the?Saturday Evening Post?claimed to have found “discrepancies” in his survival story. The weekly magazine’s claims were not fully explained at first, and when they were explained months later, they proved baseless.

But no matter. Thereafter, there was a media pile on.
The Steeves-as-hero narrative was quickly scrapped, and recast. Now he was a man telling tall tales — perhaps even perpetrating a hoax (though for what purpose was never explained).

And though not apart of their official narrative, some reporters may have heard wild rumors said to be floating about, or that were slipped to them by conspiracy-minded Cold Warriors in the Air Force or Pentagon: Steeves flew his jet to Mexico, then sold it to the Russians or some other malevolent nation.

None of this ever proved true. And in 1957 there was no evidence that it?might?be true. Yet this was of no consequence to the vast majority of media outlets. Putting on their brass knuckles, they went on a journalistic gang bang, trampling facts and decency as they infused story after story about Lt. Steeves with suspicion and reckless innuendo.

And no matter that top officials in the U.S. Park Service and U.S. Air Force (those speaking on the record) supported Steeves’ story. A close reading of newspaper archives, primarily from 1957 and 1958, makes this crystal clear.

After getting a whiff of conflict and scandal, the media piled on. Never again was anything said by Steeves and his supporters taken at face value. Now, every story about him was injected with skepticism and innuendo, as the Air Force watched him twist in the wind.

By this time, the story of Lt. Steeves was a wire service story — one being told by the Associated Press and several other wire services, which no longer exist. Most big metropolitan papers had written all they would about Lt. Steeves after a week.

Wire service reporting is highly competitive. Reporters must crank out a steady stream of copy for their clients — news-hungry newspapers and broadcast stations. And when perceiving a legitimate controversy or difference of opinion, they became impartial truth-seekers and referees, writing “balanced” stories that give equal weight to all viewpoints — all so that the public can make up its?own mind. Such a journalistic formula, together with a certain mindset, produces news that today’s political conservatives criticize as reflecting a philosophy of “moral equivalence.”

By late summer, marital troubles were known to exist between Lt. Steeves and his wife, with papers reporting about Rita Steeves’ plans to seek a divorce. No explanation was given, only that it had to do with problem’s preceding Steeves’ wilderness ordeal. But no matter. Connecting the dots, the headline of one wire service story declared: “Magazine Cancels Story, Wife Plans Divorce of Pilot.” The innuendo had been created: Steeves was lying about his Sierra story — and now his wife was walking out on him.

Yet another angle involved raising false suspicions about what the Air Force was calling a routine investigation. “Post Kills Story of Lost Airman/AF PROBE ‘ROUTINE,'” declared one headline. Of course, words like “probe” along with those tiny but incriminating scare quotes ?around “routine” left little doubt that Lt. Steeves had some explaining to do. Referring to Blair’s allegations of “discrepancies,” the headline of an article by United Press, a wire service, asked: “True or False: Air Force Searches to Find Answers.”

And so it went.

Soon enough, two of America’s most influential magazines,?Time?and?Life, joined the pile-on. “Certain Discrepancies” was the title of a condescending piece?Timeran on August 26, 1957, written in the breezy pseudo-literary style invented byTime‘s Ivy League editors.

Suggesting Steeves was hiding something, it mentioned his marital troubles, subtly derided his survival story, and implied he was improperly cashing in on his fame. Portraying him as something of a cad.

Life?gave new meaning to the words “hatchet job” with a two-page spread published September 2, 1957: “The Strange Case of the Sierra Survivor; Pilot’s tale of mountain ordeal arouses some strong suspicions.”
Amply illustrated with eleven photos and a map, its brief main story summed up previously published suspicions and innuendos — and created some of its own. It noted that not “a trace” of Steeves’ jet had been found. In addition,?Life?claimed Steeves’ wife, “who is planning to divorce him for reasons that antedate this adventure, does not know what to believe.”

A year and a half later, Rita Steeves was granted a divorce — though not before suffering the indignity of having private details of her marriage detailed in local papers. She later married an accountant.

Steeves eventually remarried, but the scandal that enveloped him haunted him until his death. Indeed, a former airman in the squadron that searched for Steeves said in a 1997 interview: “We heard that he faked the whole thing. If he’d have walked into our squad, we’d have killed him.”?Redbook, with its limited circulation, could not restore Steeves’ reputation.

In defending himself against skeptics in 1957, Steeves always faced a major hurdle. No trace of his jet was found — not until 20 years later in 1977. Boy Scouts hiking in Kings Canyon National Park came across an airplane’s bubble canopy: Its serial number showed it had come off Steeves’ T-33. AP put out a story, but not many papers ran it. A bittersweet headline ran in?Pacific Stars & Strips: “Discovery Backs Story of Disgraced Pilot of ’50s.”
The discovery was of no help to Steeves. Twelve years earlier, he and a passenger were killed in Idaho during a take-off mishap involving a light plane, reportedly a Stinson Mule. Then 31, Steeves reportedly had modified the single-engine plane and was demonstrating it to his passenger. At the time, he owned an aviation firm in Fresno, California. He had remarried, and with his new wife had two children, a daughter and son born ten days earlier. According to some sources, Steeves had rented planes over the years and gone out to look for his lost jet.

In their reporting, the wire services fancied themselves to be producing balanced stories on Lt. Steeves. It was their job to tell the truth, and let the public decide, based on an even-handed presentation of all viewpoints. But in the case of Lt. David Steeves, the court of public opinion was Kangaroo Court, a court so named because of the “leaps and bounds” it takes in coming to a guilty verdict.

For self-congratulatory journalists, the defense of Lt. Milo Radulovich was considered one of journalism’s finest hours. An innocent man was saved — and the country was saved from McCarthyism. Yet curiously, no such journalistic crusade came to the support of Lt. Steeves. Neither Murrow nor anybody of his stature came forward to evoke the most famous line attacking Wisconsin’s irresponsible senator: “Have you no decency, sir?”

Perhaps Lt. Steeves would have been a more interesting and sympathetic figure if he’d been accused of harbouring communist sympathies and had some complicated ethnic background. But, alas, he was merely a 23-year-old Air Force pilot eager to grab his piece of the American dream — earn a good living and move his family out of the trailer homes and garage apartments they’d been living on his Air Force salary. And he wanted as well to enjoy his prized Jaguar sports car that, to the outrage of?Life‘s editors, he apparently could not afford.

While suggesting that Lt. Steeves absconded with his jet, Air Force brass overlooked an interesting detail: It appears that only a half-hearted effort was made to find Lt. Steeves and his downed jet. In its “mission statement,” the 41st Air Rescue Squadron admits that rescue units failed to search promising areas — where the jet might have crashed — due to low clouds, fog, and treacherous terrain. There’s no indication rescue units later visited these areas, once the weather cleared up.

One excuse after another is mentioned in the mission report of June 6, 1957. “Extended area search commended at daylight on 10 May by all participants in the mission. Weather left much to be desired,” it stated. Elsewhere, it noted:

“On several days during this mission, it was impossible to dispatch any aircraft because of weather. Ground parties were sent to at these times, but their efforts were often nullified to inability to negotiate the mountainous terrain under the weather conditions which prevailed.”

Most incredibly, the statement admitted no visits were made to two sites where aircraft wreckage was spotted — wreckage that was “not in the Air Rescue Squadron Crash Locater Index. Ground parties were dispatched to check both of this leads, but they were unsuccessful due whether which at times limited visibility to 25 feet in fog, rain and snow.”

Eventually, Lt. Steeves was declared dead.

The Air Force briefly faced some pointed questions about the hasty issuance of a death certificate, after Lt. Steeves turned out to be very much alive. Responding to a reporter, a Pentagon spokesman said a death certificate was issued only after “a thorough search was made and no trace was found of the pilot.”

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