ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Investigators say aircraft wreckage discovered this summer on a glacier in the mountains east of Anchorage came from an Air Force plane that crashed in 1952, killing everyone on board.
The C-124 Globemaster carried 52 people, according to the Joint Prisoners of War, Missing in Action Accounting Command, which has military casualty experts looking at the debris.
The crew of an Army National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter spotted the pieces at the tip of Colony Glacier, where it meets Inner Lake George deep in the Chugach Mountains 45 miles east of Anchorage. The JPAC investigators recovered fragments of the plane and possible human remains a few days later, Army Capt. Jamie Dobson said.
On Wednesday, Dobson said the plane is believed to be a Douglas C-124A Globemaster, a heavy-lifting transport plane that crashed Nov. 22, 1952, while approaching Anchorage. The scattered wreckage has apparently been slowly moving with the glacier for 60 years, she said. The ice field where the wreckage was found earlier this month is more than 12 miles from the crash site.
“The evidence does positively correlate to that wreckage,” Dobson said.
The Globemaster was flying from McChord Air Force Base in Washington. With giant bay doors under its nose and four turboprop engines, the Globemaster, nicknamed “Old Shaky,” was the largest cargo plane in the American arsenal at the time, the only aircraft capable of carrying a tank or bulldozer — or 200 soldiers.
On this flight, it carried 52 men, mostly Air Force and Army personnel and at least one from the Marine Corps and one from the Navy.
It passed Middleton Island, in the Gulf of Alaska south of Prince William Sound, en route to Elmendorf Air Force Base. At about 4 p.m., the captain of a Northwest Orient Airlines passenger plane picked up a distress call.
A scratchy signal made the call almost impossible to understand, but the Northwest pilot heard, “As long as we have to land, we might as well land here.”
Silence followed. Nobody heard from the plane again.
Details of the Globemaster’s final moments were revealed Wednesday by Douglas Beckstead, the historian for the 673rd Air Base Wing at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Beckstead was looking over microfilm copies of the official reports on the incident.
“The weather was very bad with heavy clouds,” Beckstead said. “They were flying with no visual references, going by altitude, a radio beacon and a stopwatch.”
The bad weather continued for three days, until Nov. 25, when 32 military planes begin to scour the region. Four Coast Guard vessels searched Prince William Sound. The aerial searchers returned with reports of possible wreckage on several glaciers, but nothing conclusive, Beckstead said.
On Nov. 28, Lt. Thomas Sullivan and Civil Air Patrol Lt. Terris Moore — at the time the president of the University of Alaska and an experienced pilot with extensive knowledge of flying in Alaska mountains — spotted an apparent tail section sticking out of the snow.
“It was at the 8,100-foot level of Surprise Glacier,” said Beckstead. “Almost at the top of Mount Gannett.”
Sided by steep cliffs, Gannett is 9,100 feet high.
Sullivan and Moore landed their Piper Super Cub and spent several hours on the ice confirming that the wreckage was that of the C-124.
Fairbanks researcher and author Neil Davis knew Moore and spoke to him about what he’d seen for Davis’ 1992 book, “College Hills Chronicles.”
“The scene that met their eyes was not pleasant,” Davis said, reading from his book. “The large aircraft had plowed into the mountainside at full speed, and except for a portion of the tail section, everything else including the crew and passenger complement was strewn over the glacier in small pieces.”
The image stuck with Moore over the years, Davis said.
“What he told me was it was a pretty damn grim situation,” Davis said.
It appeared that the crash triggered an avalanche that buried the smaller pieces of the wreck. “One fact is obvious from observation,” Sullivan and Moore said in their reports. “The aircraft is scattered over at least two acres and covered by 8 feet of fresh powder snow.”
According to an Anchorage Daily Times story, a recovery crew left Whittier by barge on Nov. 29. They anchored the craft at the base of the glacier on Harrison Fjord. Their progress to the crash site was hindered by avalanche conditions and the return of foul weather. After several days, they established a base camp at 5,500 feet, still 8 miles from the tail section.
Helicopters went beyond their safe operating altitude to supply the crews. Winds hit 70 mph. Clouds and blowing snow darkened the slim hours of winter daylight. Men suffered frostbite and rations ran low as the weather socked in. Accumulating snow trapped men in their sleeping bags as the tent sides collapsed, obliging them to dig each other out.
On Dec. 9, they reached the tail section in blizzard conditions. Finding no trace of survivors or additional wreckage, they returned to base camp.
“On our way up we had carefully set out trail markers,” Capt. William Hackett, an Army mountain climber who was part of the team, told the Times. “They were barely discernible when we went down this afternoon, being buried in about three feet of snow.”
Further recovery activity was called off. In time, the men on the plane were officially declared dead. Official letters were sent to the survivors of the deceased.
“I can’t imagine what people were thinking back then,” said Dobson, the JPAC spokeswoman. “They must’ve been so frustrated, thinking they knew where it was but unable to find it.”
The C-124 crash made national headlines, one in a rash of military air fatalities at the end of 1952. It was just one of three military plane crashes in Alaska in a 15-day period. That included a C-119 that vanished with 20 men on route to Kodiak on Nov. 15.
Moore, who died a few years ago, received letters from family members of the Globemaster crash victims. The letters came from people all over the country hoping to learn more, said Davis, who has read some of them. A couple in Mississippi wrote about losing their only son. A brother wanted to know if Moore had seen a man with curly, red hair in the wreckage. Davis, reading one letter from siblings of a man killed in the crash, said some wrote just to talk about their missing loved ones.
“Our brother came from a large family, seven brothers and five sisters, and he was married just two years ago and leaves a wife who is expecting a child in February,” one of the letters said. “There are a lot of us who are going to miss him.”
The next step in the investigation is to start contacting family members of the plane’s occupants, Dobson said. The process will probably include asking for DNA samples in an attempt to return any human remains to the families, a process that could take up to six years to complete, she said.
Still, the Wednesday announcement brought a great deal of closure to Tonja Anderson and her father, Isaac Anderson Jr., just a 1-year-old when he lost his father and namesake in the crash.
The news was bittersweet, Tonja Anderson said.
“I cried, because it was more real,” she said. “I called my father and said, ‘They found him.’ He broke down. It wasn’t just a story that was told to him any more, it was real. All he had before was the pictures.”
Anderson started looking into the crash in 2000, hoping that someday her grandfather’s remains would be found and brought home. As the years rolled on, her grandmother died and Anderson started meeting other family members of the victims through a Facebook page.
The first of those was Mike Williams in Indiana, whose brother in-law was on the plane. Williams, who dug deep enough to find the only photos of the plane’s tail section on the mountainside, helped keep the search going, six decades after their relatives died, Anderson said.
“I wasn’t alone anymore,” she said.
Anderson said she kept pushing because they all still had questions. She knew JPAC had the ability to provide answers if they could find the plane.
“Whether it’s a bone or a dog tag, they bring something home, to say, ‘I know it’s not all of your grandpa but it’s part of him. He didn’t die giving his life to this country without us at least trying to bring him home,’ ” Anderson said. “To the crewmen of the Black Hawk (that found it), I just want to say thank you. Because if they hadn’t turned around to look, it would’ve just vanished and we never would have seen it again.”