He wasn’t a Nazi conspirator. There’s no evidence he was going to offer his airstrip to Japanese bombers. But Frank Critzer was just ornery enough to blow himself up rather than risk going to jail over a matter of 200 pounds of stolen dynamite.
It was a suicide bombing before such things were well known. “Those two words didn’t really go together in 1942 — suicide and bomb,” said Michael Digby, a bomb expert who lectured at the Hi-Desert Nature Museum Thursday.
Critzer’s explosive death at Landers’ Giant Rock has been a desert legend since the minute it happened, on July 24, 1942. Rumors and theories have stacked up like sticks of dynamite.
Digby, a retired bomb technician for the U.S. Army and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, has been taking a new look at the old stories and exploring the blast site with the eye of an expert.
He was drawn to the tale by Karyl Newman, who is documenting Giant Rock’s history for an exhibit at the Hi-Desert Nature Museum.
Here’s what they feel confident saying: Critzer was born in Virginia and came to California in the 1920s.
Critzer used dynamite to blast himself a home under Giant Rock in Landers. A plane engineer, he dragged a landing strip for aircraft and entertained visitors who flew in from Santa Monica, where he used to fix aircraft.
Reporters visited him, too, writing stories about the man who lived in a rock — and stashed dynamite sticks in his home.
“The LA Times watched him recover dynamite sticks from crates beneath his table,” Digby said.
“That’s not strange, that’s how people stored dynamite then.” He paused. “It’s actually how people store dynamite now.”
Then, in 1942, a series of thefts were reported in Riverside County desert communities: tools, gasoline and 200 pounds of dynamite. Suspicion fell on Critzer.
Critzer was known as a curmudgeon. His nearest neighbors, the Reches, didn’t like his habit of inviting himself into their house for dinner. And in that era, a German surname alone was enough to paint a person as a traitor.
Perhaps for those reasons, Critzer fell under suspicion for the thefts.
“He’s an odd guy living under a rock. It’s easy to pin something on someone like that,” reasoned Newman.
On July 24, 1942, two Riverside County sheriff’s investigators and a CHP officer drove up to Giant Rock and confronted Critzer.
Critzer disappeared into his home, followed by one of the lawmen, a Sgt. McCracken.
The prospector’s last words, as reported by McCracken, were, “You’re not taking me out of here alive. I’m going, but another way and you’re going with me.”
“Sgt. McCracken sees him take two exposed wires, attach them to a plunger and he plunges it,” Digby said.
The explosion killed Critzer immediately. “It consumed him from head to toe,” Digby said.
The combustion zone blasted through McCracken, burning his clothes off.
His fellow deputy and the CHP officer suffered concussions but managed to pull him out of the home beneath the rock. All three survived. And a legend was born.
Digby ticked through some of the persistent myths that grew out of the blast.
The Nazi myth
The association of Critzer with Germany was strong enough that to this day, it’s become generally accepted knowledge that he was born in Germany.
Through the years, some have said he was suspected of Nazi collaboration, and it was the FBI that drove up to Giant Rock that faithful day.
There is no evidence, according to Digby, that Critzer had anything to do with Nazis.
“Los Angeles was a real hotbed of Nazi activity,” Digby said.
“I looked at the FBI records and believe me, if you had a German surname in 1942, there was something written about you.”
He foraged through federal records. “Critzer’s name never appears anywhere. There’s a jillion names in there. Critzer’s, not once.”
The bombers myth
A persistent rumor in newspapers of the time was that Japanese bombers planned to refuel at an isolated desert airstrip for attacks on the Hoover Dam and Southern California industries. But Digby found no documentation if that was ever true, and the Giant Rock airstrip was never named.
“There is zero evidence that he was under investigation by the FBI or the military for anything,” Digby said.
o why did a miner without treasonous plans, who probably didn’t even steal the dynamite the lawmen were looking for, blow himself up?
Digby pointed out it’s not unusual for people to panic or grow angry when the government shows up on their land, making accusations.
The bomb tech’s simple guess is this: “He apparently didn’t want to go to jail.”