Arlington, Va. — The base where the Bakers Creek Memorial sits has a long tradition of honoring the nation's fallen heroes in Arlington Cemetery next door, but Friday's ceremony at the granite monument lacked proper dignity and respect for 41 American World War II servicemen as far as an advocate is concerned.
Devoted to ensuring 40 young men who died June 14, 1943, in a tragic plane crash in Australia and the lone survivor from Wichita Falls aren't forgotten, Robert Cutler worried Friday's cursory wreath-laying ceremony signaled growing neglect from Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall.
"If it keeps going down like this, it'll be a tulip," Cutler, volunteer executive director of the Bakers Creek Memorial Association U.S.A., said. "You would think this place would know better."
The base houses ceremonial units and honor guards such as "The Old Guard," the Army's elite 3rd Infantry Regiment. Members conduct memorials, appear at White House events and meet stringent requirements for solemn occasions.
But Friday, there was no speech, prayer or base commander in attendance, and the 9 a.m. start time meant elderly family members from West Virginia and Maryland couldn't attend, Cutler said.
"The concerns of the families were never considered in the planning of this event," the retired George Washington University professor said. "We're being marginalized, and we don't like it."
Cutler became interested in the tragic World War II crash after discovering a reference to it in his father's wartime diary.
The late Sam Cutler was officer of the day and closed the hatch on the B-17C -- a bomber converted for troop transport -- just before it took off the last time. The late Foye Kenneth Roberts, of Wichita Falls, walked away from the crash near the tiny town of Bakers Creek.
The modest monument to the crash victims lacked a permanent home for a few years, sitting at the Australian Embassy in Washington. In 2009, the joint base gave it a spot just over the fence from Arlington National Cemetery.
After Friday's ceremony, Cutler confronted a civilian base official, waving a 2010 letter from Army Secretary John M. McHugh about "a sacred vigil" on base to be coordinated annually with the fallen men's family members and the Australian Embassy on the crash's anniversary.
"What's happened to the dignity and the honor of the ceremony?" Cutler said.
The base official, who declined to give his name, said the ceremony was held in the morning because unpredictable spring weather often brings afternoon showers.
He told Cutler they could review his complaints later.
The base issued a statement Friday, saying requests for support are "fulfilled based on availability of assets, cost and mission tempo. A request is granted if there is no other conflicting mission to the joint base."
The joint base commander, Army Col. Fern O. Sumpter, was occupied elsewhere, but two high-ranking base officers appeared. Australian Ambassador to the United States Kim Beazley was unable to attend, but Australian Air Commodore Gary Martin, assistant defense attaché, did.
"We are the most dependable ally that America has because we are always right there beside them," Martin said after the ceremony.
Cutler and other volunteers were instrumental in telling crash victims' family members what really happened to their loved ones. Wartime censorship kept the story of the crash secret for decades.
Nicknamed "Miss Every Morning Fix'n," the plane went down about 6 a.m. just after takeoff, crashing near Bakers Creek about 5 miles from Mackay, a city on the east coast of Queensland, Australia.
The plane's six-member crew was from the 317th Troop Carrier Group, forerunner of the 317th Airlift Group at Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene.
The plane was full of American GIs who had been on 10 days leave in Mackay. They were returning to New Guinea. The cause of the crash is unknown.