Resolution for Oklahoma City family who lost a loved one in a 1945 plane crash
The Oklahoman, Oklahoma City
OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. — George Cohlmia never imagined he would one day stand on the site where his uncle was named was killed in a plane crash almost seven decades prior.
But over the Labor Day weekend, when he finally made it, Cohlmia realized it had been a goal of his all along.
“I don't know why it's so emotional to be honest; I didn't know him,” the 60-year-old financial adviser from Oklahoma City said about his uncle for whom he was named. “I guess I felt a little bit of relief for my father, my uncle and his siblings.”
The mission to find his uncle's final resting place in the mountains of Pennsylvania started a long time ago but didn't bear any fruit until several summers ago, when he began corresponding with a man who claimed to know where it was.
George Cohlmia, the first, died in October 1945, when his Curtiss SB2C Helldiver nose-dived into the mountains near Pittsburgh after a postwar celebration in Washington, D.C. One of 10 children of Adeeb and Najeeba Cohlmia, immigrants from Lebanon, George was a small-town hero in Watonga, where they lived.
He enlisted in the U.S. Navy when he turned 18 and died one year later.
Unbeknown to his survivors, several generations of crash witnesses and community servants developed and maintained a memorial for Cohlmia, a rear gunner on the bomber, and its pilot, Frank Z. Campbell.
A bronze plaque and an engine that survived the crash intact marked the spot, along with American flags placed there by locals.
Along with another uncle, Ray Cohlmia, an Oklahoma City dentist, George Cohlmia attempted to visit the site in July. Only they couldn't find it.
The failed attempt was nevertheless publicized in a local newspaper, and that caught the attention of one of the hunters who cared for the site and knew exactly how to get there.
Labor Day — this time with nine of his extended family in tow, including, again, his Uncle Ray — George Cohlmia found it.
They were met this time by eight locals: Cohlmia's friend from correspondence, the hunter/site caretaker, a newspaper reporter, the son of the man who led the original search party to the site in 1945, the grandson of a local reverend who helped recover the body, and a couple of their children.
The crew staggered 500 feet through thorny underbrush and forestland on Sugar Camp Hill, on state game land near Ligonier, Pa. Red signs, painted in the shape of an aircraft, marked the way.
When they found it, George Cohlmia said, they said a prayer, raised a permanent flag and reflected for about two hours.
“It was fantastic, the whole deal, the whole trip — something beyond anything I could imagine,” Ray Cohlmia said.
He and his sister, Elsie Simon, who lives in Clinton, are the only remaining of the 10 original Cohlmia siblings. He remembered his older brother as a hero — the star athlete who always seemed to stand taller than his siblings.
“I remember he was a senior when I was a freshman, and Watonga being a small town, we were both on the football team. He played right end, and I was his backup,” he said. “To think I was the only one in my family that was able to witness this was something beyond belief; I called my sister when we were there and she was elated that we found it.”
Simon, 83, had to cancel her plans to join in on the trek when she fell and broke her arm. She remembers her brother as handsome and honorable.
“It was so devastating to all of us, and especially to my parents,” she said. “It's just a wonderful, wonderful thing that we have found out more about it now.”
All three attributed the good will of strangers for bringing their journey to an end. They made lifelong friends, George and Ray Cohlmia said, and they plan to return to the site soon.
“It's almost like you have this newfound family you didn't even know you had,” George Cohlmia said. “We wouldn't have gotten there if it hadn't been for the people in Pennsylvania; they belong in Oklahoma, they're just such good people.”