In 1944, a Kingcobra crashed in Garden Home while its pilot parachuted to safety

Soaring 3,000 feet above ground, they found a break in the overcast sky. Headed back to Portland’s Army Air Base, the six-plane formation continued its routine training. Meanwhile, 2nd Lt. Robert Strong’s engine was failing.

Strong surveyed the land — no fields were vast enough to attempt a landing. All the while, his plane continued to drop.

At 2,000 feet above ground, Strong glided over a small forest. He pulled the emergency release on the P-63A Kingcobra’s right door, removed his helmet and throat mic, and unfastened his seatbelt. After rolling the plane to the right, Strong leapt out.

“As I saw the plane below me, I pulled the rip cord,” Strong reported. “The chute opened, and at the same time, I saw my plane hit the ground.”by: SUBMITTED PHOTO -  2nd Lt. Robert Strong

Unharmed, Strong landed in the woods near his plane and confirmed his safety to the flight leader, 1st Lt. Theodore Shatto, that all was well.

“When he waved to me that he was OK, I returned to the field and landed,” Shatto reported.

About 300 yards from the crash site, 14-year-old Eugene Shirley felt his house shake. It was 7 a.m. on Tuesday, June 14, 1944.

“We were in bed, my brother and I,”said Shirley, now 83. “It bounced our house, like an earthquake. We got up and wondered what was going on. My dad had heard it, I think my mom had heard it, too, maybe. They wouldn’t let us go over there.”

The worry, of course, was that they’d been bombed, or that a Japanese invader had gone down. Six months after D-Day, that was the biggest concern on everyone’s mind. Cereal box toys equalled cardboard cutouts of planes; children could identify countless aircraft models flying high in the sky.

By the time Shirley’s parents let him go to the site, everything was roped off, and he couldn’t get close. Several days would pass before he could get near the crash on 82nd Avenue and Taylor’s Ferry Road.

“When we finally did get in, there was nothing there except a hole in the ground,” said Shirley.

And by that time, the rest of the noise from the crash had died down, too. Enough was going on around the world that a P-63 Kingcobra crashing in a neighborhood could simply only be interesting for so long, especially when it wasn’t the only crash to happen.

Elaine Shreve is chairwoman of the Garden Home History Project, which works to share information about events such as this. With her leadership, an event to honor Strong is taking place on Saturday. Since she and Bob Cram, a local researcher, started their research about a year ago, they determined that four crashes happened during training exercises in the area around the same time. One was near what’s now Landmark Ford in Tigard. The pilot, 1st Lt. John Heaney, did not survive the crash.

“He said he was going to bail out, but evidently stayed with the plane in an attempt to steer it clear of houses below before attempting to jump,” reported the Oregonian on Feb. 16, 1946.

At an altitude of about 100 feet, Heaney’s parachute didn’t have time to fully deploy before he hit his head on a parked car, which killed him on impact. So little information was readily available about the crashes that when Shreve and Cram first started researching, they confused the Heaney incident with the Strong incident. It wasn’t until eye witnesses began following along that they realized the pilot actually survived the crash they’d been trying to learn about.

“We couldn’t believe there were so many crashes. I mean, you find one, you think that ought to be it,” Cram said.

Considering it was fairly early in the days of aviation, part of the trouble was the planes were essentially being tested along with the pilots’ training.

For the P-63 Kingcobra, its only chance to fly for the U.S. was during training. They were unreliable and had too many kinks to be used in combat, said Shirley, who was in the Marine Corps during the Korean War. Thus, the line was sold to the then Soviet Union.

Though Strong’s crash into Garden Home didn’t make big waves on its own, it perhaps was another plane casualty added on to the list of reasons not to use Kingcobras for the U.S. during wartime. While Strong expertly survived this incident, he was shot down in Germany less than a year later on March 2, 1945 — two months before the end of the war. He is buried at a military cemetery in the Netherlands.

Celebrate Armed Forces Day

On Saturday, May 17, Armed Forces Day is being celebrated in Garden Home.

Information about Robert Strong and his crash will be on display, and compilers will be present to record the histories and stories of other veterans.

An event to celebrate Garden Home veterans, all are welcome to participate.

The event will be held from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Garden Home Recreation Center, 7475 S.W. Oleson Road. For more information, visit

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