by Chris Mahin
The fire began over Los Gatos Canyon. It started in the left engine-driven fuel pump. The plane crashed 20 miles west of Coalinga, California, on 28th January, 1948. It came down into hills that, as one commentator noted, at that time of year are “a beautiful green, splendid with wildflowers … a place of breath-taking beauty.”
There were 32 people on board that day but the names of only four were recorded for history. The newspaper articles about the crash written at the time describe an accident involving a Douglas DC-3 carrying immigrant workers from Oakland, California to the El Centro, California Deportation Centre. Those accounts give the name of the plane’s pilot (Frank Atkinson) and co-pilot (Marion Ewing). They mention the name of the stewardess (Bobbi Atkinson) and the guard (Frank E Chapin). The newspaper stories did not, however, include the names of any of the 27 men nor of the one woman who were passengers on that flight, victims who were buried in a mass grave at Holy Cross Cemetery in Fresno, California. Those reports simply dismissed them as “deportees”.
One visitor to the crash site described the scene this way: “I was born and raised in Coalinga and can remember going to the crash site the day after the incident. My father, older sister, and I viewed the crash and even though I was about six years old at the time, I can remember it as if it happened yesterday. It was a cold and damp day and even though the reports were that the site had been cleaned up, this was not the case. The sadness of seeing the meagre possessions of the passengers and the total lack of respect by those who had the task of removing the bodies will be something I will never forget or forgive.”
Three thousand miles away, a man who had himself once been forced to leave his family to look for work took notice. Musician Woody Guthrie left his birthplace in Oklahoma during the Great Depression and then did plenty of “hard travelling” before ultimately ending up in New York. He was outraged by the callous indifference of the news stories that couldn’t be bothered to mention the names of the workers who died in the crash. Out of his anger came a song – Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee), a ballad in which he assigned symbolic names to the dead:
Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita,
Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria;
You won’t have your names when you ride the big airplane,
All they will call you will be “deportees”
Some of us are illegal, and some are not wanted,
Our work contract’s out and we have to move on;
Six hundred miles to that Mexican border,
They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves
The sky plane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon,
A fireball of lightning, and shook all our hills,
Who are these friends, all scattered like dry leaves?
The radio says, “They are just deportees”
Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?
Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit?
To fall like dry leaves to rot on my topsoil
And be called by no name except “deportees”?
The song, as Woody Guthrie wrote it, was without music; Guthrie chanted the words. Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee) was not performed publicly until 10 years after the plane crash, when a school teacher named Martin Hoffman added a haunting melody and Woody’s friend Pete Seeger began performing the song in concerts. The song’s eloquent plea for justice for immigrant workers has stirred the conscience of fair-minded people in the United States ever since.
Often referred to simply as Deportee, the song’s continuing broad appeal can be seen in the fact that it has been recorded by wide variety of artists. Amongst the musicians who have covered the song have been Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton and Bruce Springsteen, as well as the Irish musician Christy Moore and the English singer Billy Bragg. The list also includes the Kingston Trio; Cisco Houston; Judy Collins; The Byrds; Joan Baez; Arlo Guthrie; Sweet Honey in the Rock; Hoyt Axton; Peter, Paul, and Mary; Roy Brown Ramirez, Tito Auger and Tao Rodriguez-Seeger; and Paddy Reilly, amongst others.
The 28th January 2017 marks 69 years since the plane wreck near Los Gatos Canyon. The lyrics of Woody Guthrie’s song about the disaster sound as if they were written just days ago, not more than six decades in the past. (This is especially true of the verse “They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.”)
The great labour leader Mother Jones once said that we should mourn for the dead and fight like hell for the living. On this 69th anniversary of a terrible loss, we should pay special heed to the appeal for the unity of all workers that rings out so beautifully from Woody Guthrie’s song. Today, we can honour the dead of 28th January 1948 best by speaking up in defence of the living immigrant workers of today – regardless of documentation status – and by demanding that the rulers of this country cease their cowardly attempts to use the immigration issue as a wedge to divide the workers of this country.