Alaska glacier's churning raises old mystery
TAMPA — For 60 years, the glacier refused to give up the airplane.
The C-124A troop transport crashed into Colony Glacier in Alaska in 1952, killing everyone aboard. The plane was swallowed by the slow-moving river of ice and churned below the surface like a pebble in a mountain brook.
Most of the 52 people aboard were servicemen bound for Korea. Among the dead: Isaac Anderson, a 21-year-old Tampa man who had been in the Air Force for not quite a year and a half. He left behind a 20-year-old wife, Dorothy, and 18-month old son.
Last month, the glacier gave up debris and human remains, tumbling them to the surface, where they were spotted by an Alaska Army National Guard unit in a Black Hawk helicopter on a training mission. The debris field is more than 12 miles from the suspected site of the crash.
The news came out of the blue for Tonja Anderson-Dell, a Tampa woman who is the granddaughter of Isaac Anderson. She's been hounding the military for more than a decade about why there never was a successful recovery effort.
"Thank you, Black Hawk team, for turning around," Anderson-Dell said this week.
The 41-year-old Tampa woman said she became interested in researching the crash, about 40 miles east of Anchorage, Ala., after she got the blessing from her grandmother, Isaac's widow, in 2000.
Before that, her grandmother seldom spoke of the crash.
"We always just wanted to know what happened," Anderson-Dell said. "My grandmother never accepted it. She always was hoping that one day he would come walking through the door."
Her grandmother finally relented and encouraged Anderson-Dell to try to get answers. All she asked for in return was an American flag from the Air Force.
Her grandmother died in 2001, a year before the Air Force presented a flag to the Anderson family at MacDill Air Force Base. It was the 50th anniversary — to the day — of the plane crash. The flag now sits in a polished wooden case on the mantle of Anderson-Dell's Town 'N Country home.
She said her father, Isaac Anderson Jr., has no memory of his father and has only photographs to remember him by. "For my father, it always was just a story told."
She said he initially was hesitant in joining her in the quest for information from the military.
"He told me to not get excited and to leave it alone," she said. "But I wanted answers."
She said her father "didn't want to know. He didn't want to dredge up something he never had to think about. It was never really real to him.
"It's real now."
Isaac Anderson Jr. of Tampa said there was no stopping his daughter when she began her push for answers.
"When she wants to do something, she's going to do it," said the 61-year-old Anderson. "Whatever she wants, she won't stop until she gets it."
Military records state the plane was flying from McChord Air Force Base in Washington to Elmendorf Air Force Base near Anchorage and then on to Korea.
At the time, the aircraft, nicknamed "Old Shaky," was the largest cargo plane in the U.S. military, the only one capable of carrying a tank or bulldozer. The plane could hold up to 200 soldiers.
The aircraft had passed Middleton Island in the Gulf of Alaska when trouble arose. A commercial airline pilot picked up a distress call.
The plane crashed into a mountain and slid into the glacier; the impact might have caused an avalanche that buried part of the fuselage. A few days later, a rescue team found the tail section but no survivors.
Then winter weather set in, making it impossible to recover the aircraft and remains.
When the weather eased up, 32 military planes scoured the region, but none spotted anything conclusive. Efforts to recover the wreckage were called off, leaving the transport plane to the Colony Glacier, where it has been grinding along inside the monster layer of ice for a half century, inaccessible.
For 12 years, Anderson-Dell wrote and called the military seeking answers and information. She got congressmen involved.
The answers always were the same: It's not feasible to excavate the glacier for the wreckage.
"What price can you put on this?" she said.
But now, with the glacier giving up its cargo, it is feasible.
An eight-member team from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command was sent to the scene of the crash last week, according to the command's website.
Army Capt. Jamie Dobson said the team has no plans to return to the site in the immediate future.
"There is the possibility that there still is evidence that the glacier will give up later," she said, and that would call for a return. But the recovery team did collect all it could, including bone fragments and evidence that the wreckage was from that particular C-124A.
Local authorities are aware of the debris field and are taking measures to protect it, she said.
"It was a successful recovery," she said. "The team was very happy with what they were able to recover. All the evidence is in labs in Hawaii. Now the analyzing begins."
The site was among the more perilous faced by the team, which travels all over the Pacific Rim searching for remains of missing troops, from Southeast Asia to, now, Alaska.
"It was riddled with crevasses," Dobson said, and workers had to wear harnesses to keep from sliding into gaping cracks in the glacier. "It was a dangerous site."
The team collected material from the plane and possible bone fragments, which were taken to the command's lab in Hawaii for analysis.
Processing the DNA recovered from the site and determining identities of victims could take years, officials said. There were 41 passengers and 11 crew members, all military from different branches of service.
"They told us to be patient," said Anderson-Dell, an operations manager for a South Tampa telecommunications company.
In the beginning, Anderson-Dell said, she thought she was the only relative asking about the plane. She built a Facebook page and began contacting families of other victims. Together, they are keeping track of progress.
If she gets word that DNA from remains is her grandfather's, she plans on having a military funeral in Tampa, an end to her quest and closure for the family.
Her grandfather's influence on his family was more than he could have imagined, she said.
Her father joined the Navy because he didn't like to fly, she said, and her brother Isaac Anderson III enlisted in the Army.
Anderson-Dell said her grandfather "wanted something better for his family," and military service was his choice of how to accomplish that. He enlisted right out of high school. "He was in only one year and four months before the crash."
Strewn on a coffee table in her home are documents and correspondence with the Air Force and the recovery team and maps and photos of the crash site and glacier. Amid the paperwork is a treasured letter, torn in half and faded. It was written to her grandmother from her grandfather hours before the plane took off.
"All I want you to do is write to me every day," he wrote, "and stay sweet."