On July 7, 1946, his clothes ablaze, Howard Hughes was pulled from the fiery wreckage of his experimental aircraft by a Marine sergeant. In gratitude, the eccentric billionaire gave his rescuer the steering wheel from the downed plane.
The aircraft control yoke, sheared off at the base, is one of eight items from the estate of Sgt. William L. Durkin going on the auction block. They will be sold as one lot at Swann Auction Galleries on Sept. 17 for an estimated $40,000 to $60,000.
The crash, in the backyard of a Beverly Hills mansion, was the centerpiece of Martin Scorsese's acclaimed 2004 film "The Aviator," which starred Leonardo DiCaprio as Hughes.
Hughes was burned on 78 percent of his body. Ever indebted to Durkin for saving his life, he also arranged a lifetime pass for the Marine to Hollywood's Players nightclub and sent a letter promising a "small check" of $200.
These are also part of the sale. Durkin's descendants have decided to sell the items because "They thought it was time for the material to move on and get out into the world," said Swann's Americana expert Rick Stattler.
Hughes died in 1976.
"My company, which feels duly grateful to you, is sending a small check," Hughes said in the letter addressed to Durkin and typed on Hughes Aircraft Company letterhead. "Another will follow each month until you return here for the discussion I have suggested"—a reference to possible work for Durkin in aviation or other enterprises in which Hughes was involved.
Stattler said the appeal of the auction was that the crash was a dramatic moment in history that involved not only a major accident over one of the wealthiest communities in California—in itself a major news story—but also "one of the country's most famous entrepreneurs."
He likened it to a plane crash today involving the likes of Donald Trump or Bill Gates.
Stattler said the aviator and film director "clutched (the yoke) as he skimmed along those houses, and then crashed in someone's backyard."
The sale's additional appeal is that it involves "the other key figure in the crash ... the Marine who saved Hughes' life," Stattler said.
He said the letter of thanks from Hughes is signed. However, Swann was still researching whether the signature is Hughes'.
"His signatures are very difficult to authenticate," he said. "Later in life, many of the signatures that appear from Hughes do not match with each other." He said Hughes sometimes had aides sign for him.
The letter's original mailing envelope is stamped Culver City, CA, Dec. 23, 1946.
Also included in the sale is Durkin's detailed account of the crash and rescue, which he typed up as an official statement to crash investigators.
"I heard a sound inside the cockpit like someone knocking or pounding ... At the same time I heard a scream of agony, and I knew a man was burning to death," Durkin wrote.
Hughes developed the prototype military reconnaissance plane for the U.S. Army Air Force. He was taking it on a test flight when it crashed and struck three homes.
Durkin, who was visiting friends near the site of the crash, pulled Hughes to safety shortly before the plane's fuel tank exploded.
When Durkin died in 2006, his daughter said her father never accepted any big payoff from Hughes because he felt he was only doing what was right.