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Recovery mission continues for cargo airplane — 70 years later

In the 1950s, the C-124 was the largest cargo aircraft the U.S. had in its arsenal. (Courtesy: National Museum of the U.S. Air Force)

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By Kimberly Johnson

On the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1952, and while sitting at McChord Air Force Base in Tacoma, Washington, awaiting a transport flight to his next duty station, Airman Isaac Anderson took advantage of what time he had left. He pulled out paper to write a letter home to his wife, Dorothy, who was more than 3,000 miles away at their home in Tampa, Florida.

Airman Issac Anderson (Courtesy: Tonja Anderson-Dell)

The 22-year-old had been in the service for less than two years, joining the U.S. Air Force as the service began desegregation. He was motivated to enlist in order to provide a better life for his wife and their son, his namesake, who was celebrating his second birthday in two months.

“Am now looking to leave here within the next two hours,” Anderson scrawled in blue pen. “Going back to Alaska. All I want you to do is write me every day and stay sweet.”

Anderson finished up and posted the letter before climbing aboard the C-124A Globemaster II with tail number 1107, set to depart at 3:30 p.m., en route to Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage. The aircraft was assigned to the 1705th Air Transport Group, 34th Air Transport Squadron, based at McChord Air Force Base, and it had been in service for seven months, having spent about 500 hours in the sky.

Read more: A look back at Old Shaky, the famed Douglas C-124 Cargomaster II 

As far as military flights go, the journey was routine. Onboard were 52 people — soldiers, a Navy commander, a Marine Corps major and 41 airmen — 11 of whom were crew. The airplane was fully loaded, with a gross weight of 174,746 pounds, just 254 pounds shy of the maximum weight allowed. At least 3,000 pounds of the contents in the belly of the airplane was mail.

Up in the cockpit was Capt. Kenneth James Duvall, a pilot with more than 2,600 flight hours accrued over nearly a decade of experience, of which 427 hours were in the C-124. Douglas Aircraft Co. had begun production of the cargo airplane in 1950 amid the onset of the Korean War, and its range was useful for far-flung airlift support in Southeast Asia. Its tendency to lumber and shake during flight, however, had earned it the nickname Old Shaky.

The Saturday afternoon flight would be Duvall’s third over the route. The crew was considered very well qualified; however, it was the navigator’s first flight to Alaska. The flight was to take seven hours and three minutes, but the cargo airplane had enough fuel to stay airborne for nearly 12 hours.

On the tarmac in Tacoma, it was 46 degrees with fog limiting visibility to 2 miles. But clearer skies were expected up ahead, until about the halfway point. There, the pilot was told, would be increasing cloudiness and 30-knot winds.

About six hours later, the pilot’s radio check-in confirmed that the flight was over Middleton Island at 8,000 feet and expected to reach Whittier about 30 minutes later. Air traffic control in Anchorage attempted to issue a clearance to the C-124 but was unable to reestablish contact. Several additional attempts were made to make contact, to no avail.

Flying blind

Three days after that last radio transmission, on Nov. 25, a search aircraft spotted wreckage on Mount Gannett. The wreckage would not be positively identified as that of Flight 1107 for days. On Nov. 28, University of Alaska president and avid mountain pilot Terris Moore returned to the site with Air Force Lt. Thomas Sullivan. Moore had flown the officer to the location in his personal Piper Super Cub, landing on Surprise Glacier at the foot of the mountain.

The mountain had a height of nearly 10,000 feet, and according to Moore’s altimeter, remains of the C-124 were found around 8,000 feet. Debris was scattered over several acres, down 500 yards to the glacier. The snowy scene led to a grim realization. An avalanche likely occurred following impact, burying most everything under powdery snow.

They arrived at the tail section, and spotted 1107 on the right side of the vertical stabilizer. Among the strewn wreckage debris they “discovered a blanket, which was stained with frozen blood, and melting in the sunlight,” Sullivan said in his official statement.

High winds at the site, however, forced the pair of first responders to sleep on the glacier overnight as their priority quickly turned to working toward their departure. Armed with one set of snowshoes, the two men spent hours packing down an 1,500-foot strip of snow 10 feet wide for a runway.

In the span of a week, conditions on the ground had deteriorated. About 8 feet of fresh powdery snow covered the wreckage site. Drifts were much higher.

“There is a huge snowdrift along the northern edge of the glacier where it joins Mount Gannett, and I would estimate the snow to be as deep as several hundred feet in the area of the wreckage,” Sullivan said.

“In my opinion, based on the conditions which I observed on the Surprise Glacier, any attempt to locate the remains of the passengers aboard the C-124 aircraft, or to locate the remains of the wreckage of that aircraft, will be an extremely difficult operation,” Sullivan said.

In his official statement to the Air Force, Moore said that “it was obvious at the outset that there were no survivors.” 

“It would appear to be the case that the aircraft, having come in from Middleton Island, must have passed over other peaks in the range immediately south of Mount Gannett, namely the outlying fringe peaks of a two- to three-mile-wide snow field extending from the south base of Mt. Gannett immediately southerly,” Moore wrote, adding that it appeared to him the pilot must have been completely unaware of the terrain and that given the impact point, he would have barely skimmed the fringe peaks of the snow field.

“From this, I conclude that he was on instruments, flying blind, and probably crashed without any warning whatsoever to him directly into the southerly face of Mt. Gannett,” Moore said. “My own opinion is that there is not any evidence whatsoever that he attempted a forced landing for the reason that the aircraft is so completely demolished, only the tail assembly to any degree at all retaining its original shape, that it would seem that he must have struck the face of the Mountain at full flying speed somewhere between 200 and 300 m.p.h.”

Another account included in a 164-page report detailing the investigation into the incident offered additional explanation of how things went so horribly wrong.

“There is much conjecture as to how the flight passed through two range legs to hit the mountain and consensus of opinion is that severe precipitation static was a logical factor,” according to a 1705th Air Transport Group Headquarters memo written seven days later. “It is considered that this assumption plus the unpredicted high cross wind were major considerations in the flight drifting so far off course.”

The winds — estimated to be about 60 knots and twice what the pilot anticipated from the earlier forecast — had pushed the C-124 at least 30 miles off course.

In the weeks following the accident, an Aircraft Accident Investigation Board concluded there had been no indication of mechanical or radio equipment malfunction and that the most probable cause was that the navigational error was set in motion by an incorrect forecast and precipitation static.

Landing gear of the 1952 C-124 Globemaster II aircraft sits on top of Colony Glacier in 2015. (Courtesy: U.S. Air Force)

Lost, then found

In June 2012, a bit of yellow bloomed from the white tundra landscape, catching the attention of Alaska National Guard UH-60 Blackhawk crew members during a training mission. Closer inspection revealed that the yellow debris was near objects that appeared to be remnants of wreckage.

The items were emerging from the snow of Colony Glacier, about 12 miles west of Mount Gannet.

“Low passes of Colony Glacier revealed what seemed to be aircraft debris, including shredded metal, life rafts and possibly a portion of landing gear,” the Air Force said in a statement later that year.

The mystery surrounding the location of the C-124 site was well known, and officials deduced the possibility that the wreckage was that of the Globemaster, said civilian forensic anthropologist Derek Congram.

Following that summertime discovery by the Alaska Air National Guard, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) was initially called in to conduct a recovery operation, and Congram led the effort. JPAC is now known as the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) and is the Department of Defense’s agency tasked with returning U.S. military personnel remains following foreign conflicts — a mission that would later prompt the command to hand off responsibility for the domestic, non-conflict-related recovery site.

The size of the tires gave clues that the debris emerging on the glacier was that of a large aircraft, Congram said.

Still, there are official procedures.

“Until you get a serial number, you can’t officially uniquely identify it,” Congram said, yet, “the families knew what aircraft we found.”

The recovery effort at Colony Glacier was complicated not only by weather but also the slow movement of the debris field owing to the annual freeze-thaw that can allow bits of wreckage and artifacts to scatter when they emerge from the confines of snow and ice. And there are other natural impediments, such as birds and bears that scavenge. 

Satellite imagery since the mid-1970s confirmed that areas of the debris field had moved about 200 to 300 meters — the length of as much as nearly three football fields — each year since 1952, Congram said.

The site on Colony Glacier was also atypical in that there was no digging or excavation as JPAC teams would normally do at the site of ground losses from past conflicts, such as burials and bodies located in trenches. Artifacts and remains, such as bone fragments and teeth, were collected from the surface of the glacier, found scattered loose among sediment and palm-size shards of shale.

During the first expedition, the recovery team found a trove of items and objects that had remained untouched by human hands for 60 years.They found a flight suit in near pristine condition, a class ring with initials and a year, dog tags and two wallets. One of the wallets had a military ID card, Social Security card, military record and an immunization record, all still legible.

“During that expedition, we collected 58 bags of biological materials, mostly bone fragments,” Congram said. “This stuff was frozen, so the preservation was great.”

To Congram, whose professional forensic anthropological role working with the U.S. military was typically spent searching for remains of fallen U.S. service members in Southeast Asia, and who had amassed more than two decades excavating mass graves in war-torn countries, the expedition was distinctive in that those who died had lost their lives on American soil.

“At the time [of the incident], they were deemed unrecoverable,” Congram said. Then, time passes. “Everybody forgets about them, except their families.”

A bone fragment — even one as small as a pinky nail — can make all the difference for them.

“The terminology a lot of people commonly use is ‘closure,’ and it’s really misguided. It’s a bad term, really,” Congram said. “The more common term used in psychology is called ‘ambiguous loss,’ where you presume someone is dead but you don’t know for sure. It’s worse than someone dying, they say often, but you don’t know. You’re left wondering, and there’s part of you that doubts. Logically, they’re dead, but seeing is believing.

“You need something concrete.”

A portion of a letter that Airman Isaac Anderson wrote to his granddaughter. (Courtesy: Tonja Anderson-Dell)

Promise to Grandma

For decades after Isaac Anderson wrote his last letter home to his wife, Dorothy held onto hope he was working his way out of the Alaskan tundra and would one day walk through the door, according to their granddaughter, Tonja Anderson-Dell.

Dorothy refused to accept a military service or a ceremonial flag marking the sacrifice of her husband’s life, and she never remarried.

“She didn’t want to believe he died in the crash,” Anderson-Dell said.

By the time her grandmother died in 2001, Anderson-Dell had already been lobbying the military to find her grandfather for two years. She had promised Dorothy she wouldn’t give up. She wrote letters and met with senators for support, and she remembers the time as years of all branches of the military talking in circles.

During her advocacy urging the military to prioritize the search for her grandfather’s remains, she began leading a network after meeting with about 30 other families of the 52 service members lost in the incident. She attended funerals for those who had remains recovered. To date, she’s attended 15, including her grandfather’s. He was identified by a found tooth in 2018. 

Frustrated by a lack of centralized information from DOD, she began compiling her own data and launched the website Honored Bound, which chronicles non-war-lost military service members.

Efforts picked up speed in the summer of 2012 when she spotted a local news report out of Alaska about the Alaska National Guard discovery of wreckage.

“I screamed, I cried, I called my dad at work and told him, ‘They found Grandpa’s plane,’” she said.

Everything her father knew about Isaac Anderson Sr. stemmed from a few photos and stories her grandmother told him, Anderson-Dell said. Sixty-six years later, he stood on an airport tarmac and was able to watch his father finally come home.

“But for me, it’s not closure, because there are so many families out there who are seeking just a little bit of what I’ve given my father. And I want to be able to give them that closure,” she said. “And closure for me would be if our military would change how DPAA [Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency] is structured because it would allow them to help other families that are outside Missing In Action.”

The families want their losses acknowledged.

“We are a pool of families who don’t get recognized. We don’t fit in anywhere,” Anderson-Dell said. While their service members did not die fighting for the country, they were still serving it, she said.

“There’s no government agency that looks for these men and women,” she said. “Until you become one of those families, you don’t know it.”

Alaska Army National Guard Uh-60 Black Hawk Helicopter pilots, Chief Warrant Officer 3 David Friend, left, and Maj. Todd Miller approach the Chugach Mountains while conducting flight operations during Operation Colony, Alaska in 2016. (Courtesy: U.S. Air Force)

Remains to be found

Seven decades after the loss, searchers are now in a race against time and cyclical weather patterns to find what they can.

So far, the remains of all but eight of the 52 on board the C-124 have been recovered and identified. The ongoing searches on Colony Glacier cost about $500,000 per year and take about 10 months to plan, according to Capt. Briana Quintana of Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations (AFMAO), who led the most recent mission in the summer of 2021. The 

Air Force took the lead in recovery at the Colony Glacier debris field in 2016.

The team is composed of two AFMAO officers who head up planning, two or three airmen from an Alaskan Air Force unit and two civilian death investigators from the armed forces medical examiners system who help to identify remains. About five or six members of the team are Army Rangers who have medical and mountaineering certifications, Quintana said.

After nearly a decade of searching, the teams continue to find small bone fragments and personal effects belonging to those onboard.

The debris field comes with unique challenges. It’s edged by areas of shale and searchers are only able to pick up what has melted out of ice. “We’re not digging or cracking into the ice,” she said. “A lot of the remains that we find are so small and delicate, that if we were to be chipping through ice, it could destroy what we’re trying to recover.

“We are at the mercy of what the glacier will give us,” Quintana said. “AFMAO, the Alaskan command — we’re deeply committed to bringing home all those who passed in the C-124 crash and provide their loved ones and their families with that closure that they so deserve.” 

The Colony Glacier site will stay prioritized, Quintana said.

“There has not been a decision of when or what will indicate the conclusion,” she said. “But I can say as long as we’re finding remains, and as long as we’re getting new identifications, we will continue to return.”

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  1. Reese

    I read the report on missing and discovery of C-124 on November 22,1952. Tomorrow is the 70th anniversary of the lost plane. As a retired pilot, it was very interesting to read the whole article and now, the report of discovery!!! We are very lucky , that we live in this great nation, which can afford half million dollars a day to recover our lost love ones from the glacier. Please keep the good job, till all return home, and put an end , for the waiting relatives, and family members. I raise my hat to those who are searching for remains in that cold temperature .

  2. Chief Rick Stone Foundation

    “His Lord said to him, Well done, you good and faithful servant…” Matthew 25:21.
    Fifty-two passengers and crew were on board a C-124 reported as Missing in Action due to an aircraft crash on the Colony Glacier in Alaska on 22 November 1952. On 13 June 2012, Chief Rick Stone, while a member of the Department of Defense (DoD), investigated a report by the Alaska Army National Guard that aircraft debris had been found. Chief Stone correlated the crash site with the loss of the C-124 carrying 52 “Unresolved” casualties. Chief Stone submitted a report to the DoD which included a list of all 52 MIA’s associated with this crash and recommended immediate recovery efforts of remains from the crash site. Despite skepticism by members of the now defunct “Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command” (JPAC) Laboratory, a search and recovery mission was launched based on Chief Stone’s recommendation. The Chief Rick Stone and Family Charitable Foundation continued to investigate the crash and provided comprehensive “Family Reports”, at absolutely no cost, that were requested by many of the remaining family members of the airmen and soldiers on board the lost aircraft. Many have now been identified and was being returned to their families.
    Welcome home to all who have been recovered and identified! We share the joy of your family in your return! God Bless you and thanks to ALL who never forgot you and your service to our country!

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