Grave Spotlight

In a way, cemeteries are like libraries. They contain the final resting places of thousands of people, each with their own separate and unique story. Some of these people are famous, and their stories are well known. Most are not, but that doesn't make their life any less interesting or their stories any less worthy of being told and remembered.

Periodically, we'll spotlight a different Los Angeles-area grave. Every person has a story, and we will use this space to tell their story, through their final resting place.

After your tour of the virtual cemetery, don't forget to visit the official store (or the brand new downtown location) on your way out and pick up a souvenir or two. Thanks!

Reba E. Monk

(Dec. 14, 1924 - Dec. 1, 1947)

Dec. 12, 2010 -- Alaska Airlines Flight 009 was troubled from the start. After taking off from Anchorage, Alaska, on Thursday, Nov. 27, 1947, bound for Seattle, the plane was delayed for two days at Yakutat, Alaska, and for one day at Annette Island, Alaska, due to a combination of bad weather and mechanical problems.

The plane was a four-engine DC-4, and carried 25 passengers and a crew of three -- the pilot, Capt. James Evan Farris, 36, of Seattle; the co-pilot, Richard E. Whitting, 29, of Anchorage; and flight attendant Reba Monk, 22, of Santa Monica, Calif., who had been working for Alaska Airlines for only four months.

After the necessary mechanical repairs, and after the weather cleared, the flight left Annette Island, near Ketchikan, at about 10:40 a.m. on Sunday, Nov. 30, for the final 750-mile trip to Seattle. After being turned away at both Paine Field in Everett, Wash., and Seattle’s Boeing Field due to heavy fog, the plane headed a few miles south to Seattle-Tacoma Airport, which had just opened earlier in the year, after the military took control of Boeing Field during World War II. The weather was overcast, rainy and foggy, with a 600-foot ceiling and visibility of only a quarter of a mile.

Flight 009 approached the Seattle-Tacoma Airport from the northeast, landing on Runway 20 at about 2:25 p.m. “When we finally landed, we all breathed a sigh of relief and several of us applauded,” said passenger Thelma Olson of Olympia, Wash.

What the passengers didn’t realize was that the DC-4 had touched down more than a half-mile beyond the approach area to Runway 20, and didn’t have enough room to stop, particularly on a wet runway.

Farris told investigators that he attempted to apply the brakes after landing, but they didn’t hold. Farris said the plane landed at a speed of about 100 mph, and “rolled like it was on a bed of ball bearings.” Farris attempted to turn the plane before reaching the end of the runway, but without success.

The plane skidded off the end of the runway, crossed 230 feet of wet ground, and slid down a steep 60-foot embankment. At the bottom of the embankment, the plane hit a ditch which sheared off the left wing and left landing gear, then skidded into the intersection of Des Moines Road and South 188th Street, where it slammed into a passing car and burst into flames.

The driver of the car, Ira Von Valkenberg, said he looked up and saw the plane’s propellers directly over his head, then the plane hit the car, pushed it across the road, and rolled it over. Stella Pearl Jones, 44, of Seattle, Von Valkenberg’s neighbor, and a blind widow with a 9-year-old son, Billie Lee, was a passenger in the car. After the crash, Von Valkenberg kicked out a window to get out of the car. He attempted to climb back in to rescue Jones, but the plane erupted in flames and he was driven back. Jones died at the scene.

Farris, the pilot, also attempted to rescue Jones. "I saw the blind woman trying to open the right front door," Farris said. "I dived into the auto through a rear door and reached for her. I yelled at her, but she kept crawling under the wing and straight into the flames. Then the whole car blossomed into a blaze and I had to give up."

Inside the plane, the 25 passengers attempted to rush to the exits, assisted by Monk. According to all reports, even though the plane was on fire, the 22-year-old flight attendant remained onboard, heroically assisting the passengers as the plane's gas tanks exploded and flames spread throughout the plane, and was credited by the survivors with leading most of the passengers to safety.

The youngest victim of the crash, Gordon Johnson, 21 months old, was traveling with his parents, Jonas E. and Josephine Johnson of Palmer, Alaska, to visit his grandparents in Iowa and Minnesota. After the crash, Jonas Johnson picked up his baby and was attempting to carry him out of the wreckage when he dropped him, and lost him among the luggage that had spilled out into the aisle of the plane. The baby’s body was later found in the wreckage.

Jonas Johnson suffered severe burns, and died later at the hospital. Josephine Johnson was treated for burns and released.

The body of Virginia Stitsworth, 33, of Tacoma, Wash., a nightclub singer known professionally as Virginia Grafton, was also found in the burned wreckage. Stitsworth’s husband, Robert, a Tacoma police detective, reached the airport just as the plane was coming in for its landing. He said his wife was returning from a singing engagement in Alaska, and that she frequently performed at nightclubs in the San Francisco area. Virginia Stitsworth’s body was so badly burned that her husband identified her by a ring she was wearing.

The bodies of Gordon Johnson and Virginia Stitsworth were not recovered until nearly four hours after the crash because of the intense heat from the wreckage.

The survivors of the crash, including Monk, who suffered severe burns while leading the passengers to safety, were taken to the hospital in Renton, Wash. Three passengers died the next day at the hospital -- Leslie Howe, 33, a carpenter from Spokane; Ole Ring, 53, of Anchorage; and Fred Smith, 20, of Tacoma. Monk also died from her injuries, less than two weeks before her 23rd birthday.

John Lathanan Jr., 47, of Fairbanks, died on Dec. 25, 1947, of injuries he received in the crash, bringing the final death toll to nine. But, without question, the death toll would have been much higher if not for the selfless efforts of Reba Monk.

An investigation by the Civil Aeronautics Board found that "the probable cause of this accident was the landing of the airplane too far from the approach end of a wet runway and at a speed too great to accomplish a full stop on the runway." During the CAB investigation, Farris said he had left the cockpit for about 30 minutes during the flight, during which time Whitting handled the controls from the pilot's seat and a passenger sat in the co-pilot's seat, in violation of Civil Air Regulations which require both pilots to remain at the controls at all times, and prohibits unofficial visits to the cockpit. Farris was fined $1,000 for violations of Civil Air Regulations.

(It's worth noting that this has been the only crash with fatalities in the history of Sea-Tac Airport.)

Reba Elizabeth Monk was born in 1924 in Etowah, in southeastern Tennessee, one of 11 children of John Wesley and Josie Stamper Monk -- Barbara, John, Hazel, Maynard, Lula, Isabelle, Reba, Betty, Lucille, Eugene and Felix. Her father was a farmer and a railroad inspector who died in 1938, at the age of 48. After his death, Josie Monk and most of the children moved west, settling in Santa Monica, Calif. Reba graduated from Santa Monica City College and Woodbury Business College, and attended UCLA for one semester. She went to work for Alaska Airlines in July 1947, after working for Delta Air Lines for 16 months.

Funeral services for Reba Monk were held at Trinity Baptist Church in Santa Monica. She is buried at Woodlawn Memorial Cemetery in Santa Monica, less than a mile from her home on 11th Street, and across the street from Santa Monica City College. Her large, upright grave marker identifies her as the "Heroine Air Hostess," and notes that "She gave her life to save others."

Buried next to Reba Monk is her sister-in-law, Phyllis Joan Tallman Monk, who was born in New York on Sept. 1, 1931, and was married to Reba's younger brother, Felix. Phyllis died in childbirth on Oct. 27, 1957, at the age of 26. Phyllis Monk's grave marker also identifies her son, John Walter Monk. Interestingly, Phyllis Monk's obituary in the Los Angeles Times on Oct. 29, 1957, identifies her child as a girl named Terry.

Previous Grave Spotlights

Back to main page