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60th anniversary of "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee)"

by Unite HERE repost
January 1948:
Tragic death of immigrant workers
inspires a song of solidarity
60th anniversary of "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee)"

written by Chris Mahin of UNITE HERE (Midwest Region)

This Month in Labor History

January 1948:
Tragic death of immigrant workers
inspires a song of solidarity

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 January 29, 1948. It came down into hills which, as one commentator noted, at that time of year are "a beautiful green, splendid with wildflowers … a place of breathtaking beauty."

There were 32 people on board that day, but the names of only four are recorded for history. The newspaper articles about the crash describe an accident involving a Douglas DC-3 carrying immigrant workers from Oakland, California to the El Centro, California Deportation Center. 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). However, the newspaper stories do not include the names of any of the 27 men or 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. The newspaper reports simply dismiss 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 meager 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 traveling" before ultimately ending up in New York. He was outraged by the callous indifference of the news stories which 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. Among 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, among others.

January 2008 marks 60 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 six decades in the past. (This is especially true of the verse "They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.") The 60th anniversary of the tragedy falls during a hotly contested presidential campaign in which most major candidates are either slandering immigrants or equivocating on whether to stand up to such slanders.

The great labor leader Mother Jones once said that we should mourn for the dead and fight like hell for the living. On this 60th anniversary of a terrible loss, we should pay special heed to the appeal for the unity of all workers which rings out so beautifully from Woody Guthrie's song. Today the labor movement can honor the dead of January 29, 1948 best by speaking up in defense 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.


This article was written for "This Month in Labor History," a regular column on the website of the Chicago & Midwest Regional Joint Board of UNITE HERE. For more information about the website, go to
Add Your Comments

Comments (Hide Comments)
by Ray
I first heard this song on a Julie Felix album in the UK in the mid-60s. It has haunted me ever since and along with my subsequent reading of many of John Steinbeck's books was an important part of my education. One should always look for the real person, never just a label. One of Woody's most affecting songs.
by steve
First heard it by dylan and baez from his 1975 tour. I still sing it today around the pubs of glasgow, because it is still about today.
Look in the papers, listen to the TV, and the victims of war, accident and disaster are still branded in the same way. The westerners have names, the locals are a number. Do you know the names of anybody who died in Iraq that wasn't a soldier or a politician?
Woody knew a lot about the human race.
by gian paolo ragnoli
In the seventies I was in a political and musical collective called Collettivo Franceschi. Roberto Franceschi was an italian student murdered by the police in a demonstration, january 23, 1973.
We covered many Guthrie's songs, among them Deportee.
We thought then, and still think now, that nobody wrote such important and militant songs.
by Bob Kurtz (bobsguys [at]
The only way to correct the issues regarding immigrant workers and their circumstances, rasied in Woody Guthries 1948 song 'Deportees' and vitually unimproved in 2010, is to take that song, especially the way Arlo Guthrie performs it, and make it into a detailed major motion picture.

I have plenty of ideas for a project like this
by Jose Jimenaz
You know, this webpage has the names of the migrants who perished:
by Lydia Z Hernandez
What I would like to know is if the Mass Grave has their names or is it an "unmarked" grave.
by Carlos Rascon (crascon [at]
We are in the process of raising enough funds to erect a large granite memorial to inscribe the names of the 28 migrant workers that were buried at Holy Cross cemetery in Fresno, Ca. Please visit KNXT.TV and click on Coalinga "Deportee memorial update " We will conduct a memorial Mass honoring all 32 victims and unveil the granite ledger on Labor Day, September 2nd, 2013 at 10:00 a.m. Thank you. Carlos R.
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