Search persists for remnants from 1952 plane crash
Anchorage Daily News
ANCHORAGE, Alaska — For 60 years, rough glacial terrain east of Anchorage held tight the 52 men killed when their Air Force plane slammed into Mount Gannett on Nov. 22, 1952.
Now, for the second summer running, plane wreckage and human remains are being given up by Colony Glacier, more than a dozen miles from the crash site.
The mission to recover and, eventually, identify the human remains is being led by the Hawaii-based U.S. Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command and its recovery leader, forensic anthropologist Gregory Berg. The command operates what it calls the world's largest skeletal identification lab.
The ill-fated plane was a C-124 transport with an 11-man crew and 41 passengers. It was flying from Tacoma, Wash., to Elmendorf Air Force Base. In rough weather, battling strong winds, the plane blew 30 miles off course sometime after passing Middleton Island in the Gulf of Alaska, according to accident reports from the time.
"The plane basically flew into a mountain. It was in the clouds. They couldn't see and it flew into the side of Mount Gannett," said Doug Beckstead, Air Force historian on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.
The C-124 Globemaster was a heavy-lift workhorse nicknamed "Old Shaky" because of the racket from its big piston engines.
The recovery effort is getting support from the Alaska Army National Guard and the Air Force Alaskan Command, which has its own mission to recover the aircraft debris and clean up the glacier.
Crews last year removed all that they found, except one tire, Berg said. Now they have whole new areas from which to extract pieces of lives and the plane itself.
"As the glacier melts and as the glacier moves, more materials come up to the surface," Berg told reporters last week. "So this year, what we've seen is a dramatic shift down glacier, which has then brought new materials to light, No. 1."
Second, he said, the shifting glacier "has brought completely different areas to light than were present last year."
Among other items, one man's ID tag has been found this year.
"The things that we keep are things that are directly related to an individual on that aircraft, something that we can tie straight back to them," Berg said. "A journal or dog tags or clothing items that may have the name in it. This year we're finding many of those same types of items again, out on the ice."
No lost airmen or soldiers have yet been positively identified, but the MIA/POW command expects that to happen soon. The glacier-preserved remains are in better condition than those found in areas like Vietnam and include tissue as well as bones, Berg said. They are collected, labeled by precise location, kept in a morgue cooler, then shipped to the command laboratory on the island of Oahu, he said. Experts try to match the remains with DNA from relatives. If a positive identification is made, officials from the pertinent service branch notify the family.
Back in the 1950s, officials considered trying to recover the wreckage and remains. But two men who got to the site six days after the crash, and found no survivors, noted how challenging that would be.
Fresh snow 8 feet deep was already covering the glacier and drifted snow near the wreckage piled up to hundreds of feet, according to a statement by Air Force 1st Lt. Thomas Sullivan, who was flown to the site by then-University of Alaska President Terris Moore, a pilot in the Civil Air Patrol. The impact also appeared to trigger avalanches that further buried the debris.
The two men found a parka, a blanket covered with frozen blood and the plane's tail, but not the engines or any other major parts. The wreckage was strewn over a few acres.
Moore estimated the wreckage was at the 8,000 feet level of Mount Gannett, and the pilot must have barely missed other peaks as he came in over the Chugach Range.
"From this I conclude he was on instrument, flying blind, and probably crashed without any warning whatsoever to him directly into the southerly face of Mt. Gannett," Moore wrote in his report.
The site was completely buried within 10 days of the crash by new snow and avalanches, Beckstead said.
Decades passed and the glacier slowly surged, giving up what it had buried in snow and ice and rubble.
In June 2012, an Army Guard helicopter crew on a training mission discovered the wreck site. Crews worked into the fall to recover remains and debris.
Then this spring an Army Guard crew monitoring the area spotted a big yellow canister.
"You could see this thing from 100 feet in the air. It was obvious it was debris from the wreckage," said Lt. Col. Matthew Schell with the Alaska Army National Guard. It's probably an oxygen canister, Berg said.
The team from Hawaii returned on June 19.
A marker left last year has moved 300 yards down the glacier.
The newly emerged debris is spread over a stretch of glacier about two-thirds of a mile long and one-third-mile wide. It is concentrated in five main areas.
"Those areas are then cut up by a whole series of crevasses," Berg said. Team members wear crampons and carry ice axes but don't rope together on the blue ice because if one slipped into a crevasse, others could fall as well, he said.
"What it looks like is all those spaces that were cut by crevasses then were eventually squeezed together," Berg said. Maybe the materials at the bottom were forced up. Maybe glacier melt revealed them.
More than 100 people are involved in this year's efforts, including helicopter crews, ground support workers and Alaska pararescuers working on the glacier alongside the team from Hawaii, said Lt. Col. Adrian Crowley of the Alaskan Command.
On Tuesday, about 1,800 pounds of material was hauled off the glacier, the first batch removed this year, Crowley said.
"And there will be more, of course," he said. The plan is to remove it all.
Beckstead displayed items found last year: navigation tables and a small stove, a minuscule fishing kit with "fishing instructions" and tiny packs of Camel and Philip Morris cigarettes that used to come in food rations. A shredded mail bag with the lock still on it. A hockey puck. A key.
"The key. Where's that key go to?" he said. "I haven't got a clue. But it's somebody's key."
The items represent the lost men. A memorial may be made to them that could include some of what's been found, Beckstead said.
Berg said the team recovering human remains should be finished early in the week. The crews clearing out debris may continue to work.
And they may resume the effort next year, if the glacier continues to reveal what it has held for decades.