Kansas soldier to be laid to rest six decades after Alaska glacier swallowed plane’s wreckage

06/19/2014 6:44 PM

06/19/2014 11:25 PM

The gravestone next to his mother has been waiting for him for more than 60 years.

Saturday, the remains of Army Pvt. Leonard Kittle finally will be placed beneath it.

The shift of a glacier in Alaska two years ago released the remains of a C-124A Globemaster cargo plane that crashed on a mountain near Anchorage in 1952, killing Kittle and 51 other military personnel who were flying from McChord Air Force Base in Tacoma, Wash., to Elmendorf Air Force Base near Anchorage. DNA testing in April confirmed Kittle’s identity.

A full military funeral is set for 10:30 a.m. at the Sunnyside Cemetery in Caney, a town of about 2,100 people in southeast Kansas where Kittle was born and raised.

Surviving family members said they have been through an emotional cycle, churning from surprise and joy that the plane was found through a new round of grief, followed by a sense of relief that DNA testing ultimately identified him, and finally happiness that he is home and they can get some closure.

“We can put him to rest beside his mother,” said Kittle’s wife, Sandra Kozak, 79, who lives in East Troy, Wis. “She never believed he got on that plane. She thought he had amnesia and was living in Canada. She believed that till the day she died. There was no body, and she just couldn’t accept that.”

Kittle’s sister, Beatrice Crawford, 82, his only surviving sibling, had decorated her brother’s headstone for years until ill health prevented her from making trips to Caney from her home in Bartlesville, Okla. She’d place red, white and blue flowers, usually in the form of a cross, with a little flag on it.

It was all she could do. And it was never enough.

“I always was wishing there was something else than just the stone I could remember him by,” Crawford said. “I was glad to have that. But I am really happy we’re going to have something of Leonard’s to put in there.”

Leonard Kittle was two years older than his sister. They were very close, she said. They had the same friends in Caney, walked the railroad tracks together, played in the park together, played cards together, even double dated.

“He was a winner,” Crawford said.

Kittle boxed in grade school and beat everyone he fought, she said. He played marbles and won more marbles than any kid in town. He brought home more blue ribbons from track competitions than other kids. In high school, he was first-team football and basketball for four years.

He loved motorcycles and fast cars, said Sandra Kozak. She would go with him on motorcycle rides, and they’d take picnic lunches.

“He was very careful on his motorcycle,” she said, “but in his car, boy, could he go. He was a really good guy. He was an outgoing young man. Just loved life.”

“He had more friends and did more living in the few years he was here with us than probably anybody,” said Crawford, Kittle’s sister. “Everybody wanted to be Leonard’s friend, and Leonard wanted to be everybody’s friend.”

“I’ve wondered a million times why this happened,” she said. “Why did they take Leonard so young?”

The crash

Kittle had spent four weeks in Caney just before the plane crashed. He had gone home to see his newborn daughter, Linda, and to be with Sandra, who was still in school in Caney and only 17 years old.

They attended an Armistice Day celebration and played cards every night. Crawford said she spent as much time as she could with her brother while he was home. He told her he didn’t like being in the service, she said. He was glad to be home with Linda, whom he adored, Crawford said.

Sandra last spoke with her husband when he was in Seattle waiting to board the plane for Alaska. He told her they’d already lost two planes to bad weather and he wasn’t real happy about flying through it, she said.

The Globemaster crashed into Mount Gannett on Nov. 22, 1952, with 41 passengers and 11 crew members aboard. The wreckage was discovered six days later but was eventually lost to glacial movement and was covered for decades.

According to an Associated Press story from the time, a member of the team that located the plane said it was obviously flying at full speed when it hit the mountain, because it had exploded and disintegrated over several acres.

News of the crash devastated Kittle’s parents, Crawford said.

“Mother just went into hysterics and they called the doctor,” she said.

Kittle’s parents, Hazard and Mary, spent a week listening to the radio with the rest of the family, scanning stations for the latest information about the wreck. After the news shows, they turned the radio off. They did not listen to any entertainment shows, Crawford said.

“Mother felt like she didn’t deserve to be happy because her boy had died,” she said.

Her parents didn’t celebrate Christmas for five years, she said.

“They weren’t the same,” Crawford said. “Years after that, they were still hurting.”

‘My hero from afar’

Crawford felt some of her own pain subside over the years, but she never forgot her brother. She was always reminded of him when she saw classmates. They always asked if Leonard had been found, she said.

The family never expected him to be found. Sandra Kozak said she was told there would be no remains because the plane had exploded on impact. When the Army called her two years ago to tell her remants of the plane had been located, she thought it was a scam.

The wreckage had been spotted on June 10, 2012, by an Army National Guard helicopter that was running a routine training mission. The Joint MIA/POW Accounting Command led an investigation and recovery effort.

Remains were shipped to labs in Hawaii. Sandra, Beatrice and Linda submitted DNA samples for testing. It took nearly two years to make the identification.

The Department of Defense this week released the identities of 17 people on board the plane, and said the remains will be returned to their families for burial with full military honors. Kittle’s service will be the first, according to Tonja Anderson-Dell, of Tampa, Fla., who has been researching the crash for 16 years because her grandfather was aboard the plane.

With so many on the plane still unidentified, Kittle’s family feels lucky they have something of him to bury.

The daughter Kittle visited before he died, Linda Erickson, 61, lives with her mother in East Troy. She is happy that the burial will give her mother some closure.

“I’ve always known what happened. I just grew up with it being part of my life, that he was gone,” Erickson said.

“He was always my hero from afar, I guess, because he was doing his military obligation, and ended up giving his life for it,” she said.

‘Waiting to come home’

Kittle’s casket was flown with an Army honor guard to Tulsa International Airport on Thursday. It was escorted to Caney by Oklahoma Patriot Guard motorcycle riders.

Kittle will lie in state on Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the Potts Chapel in Caney. At 10 a.m. on Saturday, the casket will be escorted from the chapel to the Sunnyside Cemetery by American Legion and Patriot Guard riders. An Army chaplain will deliver a message and a detail of soldiers will give tribute. Members of Blue Star Mothers will host a luncheon after the service.

The Army flew Sandra Kozak and Linda Erickson in from Wisconsin for the events. Beatrice Crawford will be driven to Caney from Bartlesville by a daughter who came from Washington state to be with her.

“It’s going to be such a joyous feeling to know we’ve finally brought my brother home and can place him right beside mother,” Crawford said.

“I feel like his soul has been circling up around that mountain all these years waiting to come home.”

Contributing: Associated Press

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