An Engineering Marvel Takes its First Hit
Over San Francisco Bay, California
12 September 1943
The James “Sonny Jim” Rolph Bridge...
When the San Francisco-Oakland Bridge opened to traffic on November 12th, 1936, the five-mile-long span seemed to be unmissable by anyone. But nearly seven years later, its strength would be tested in an unlikely matter.
On September 12th, 1943, a U.S. Navy Reserve pilot, Lieutenant John Lewis Morelle, 24 years-old and resident of Georgetown, Texas, took off on a training mission from the Naval Air Station at Alameda. Flying solo in a Grumman Wildcat, he was simply practicing landings and takeoffs.
The single-engine plane hit four of the hundreds of suspension cables, which are spaced at thirty-foot intervals, that hold the western portion of the bridge's road deck, snapping one of them in half. The strike propelled bits of wreckage and debris onward the driving surface, and flung the plane, which burst instantly into flames, down into the waters of San Francisco Bay.
An eyewitness to the mishap, Marine Captain Carroll Single, was driving across the bridge at the time, and said, "some of the debris—bits of the fuselage and wings, the largest of which was two feet square—struck my car." Amazingly, no one on the bridge was hurt in the accident.
But the plane's wreckage quickly sank, carrying Morelle with it to the bottom. A tug passing under the span cruised about the spot where the plane entered the water after its nearly 300-foot drop, but found only an oil slick. After a time a rubber tired airplane wheel bobbed to the surface, but it too eventually sank. Morelle's body was never found, nor any wreckage of the Wildcat recovered.
According to Naval officials, Morelle apparently had misjudged the distance to the bridge as he practiced landings at Alameda on a strip marked off to simulate an aircraft carrier's deck.
Bridge Engineer Howard C. Wood said the bridge was not endangered. After inspecting the damage to the cables and road base, he allowed the train traffic on the lower deck, and the automobile traffic on the upper deck, to continue.
It would be nearly 25 years before the bridge was struck again by a plane.