Mountaineers, morticians, and a forensic anthropologist are scouring the surface of a glacier as they hunt for the remains of a military plane that crashed 64 years ago.
All 52 service members aboard a C-124 Globemaster traveling from Washington to Alaska were presumed dead after it went down in November of 1952. But the wreckage was quickly covered by ice and snow, hampering recovery efforts.
In 2012, debris from the crash was spotted during an Alaska National Guard training exercise, and in the years since crews have worked to identify remains.
The elaborate, dangerous recovery process is about bringing closure to families, even six decades later.
The 50 mile journey from Joint-Base Elmendorf-Richardson to the Colony Glacier takes about 20 minutes in a Black Hawk helicopter, passing grey-blue spires of ice and rock along the way.
An 11-person crew works on the site six days a week, methodically searching this corner of the glacier for remnants of the crash.
“We want to clear the debris off, for one,” said Allen Cronin, a civilian chief within the Air Force’s Mortuary Affairs Operations, based in Dover, Delaware.
“More importantly, we’re looking for our service members who were killed in this incident,” he added.
Though Cronin is used to investigating crashes, this mission is unique.
“They don’t have glaciers in Delaware.”
Oversight of the project was shifted over to the Air Force last year, and many of the individuals working this season were given special training to help deal with the difficulties and nuances of the setting.
Though the glacier preserved segments of the wreckage, decades of constant internal churning pulverized the physical remains.
“It’s difficult. Different from other recoveries because it’s ever-changing,” Cronin explained. In a forest, for example, where a jet might have gone down, the trees do not move during the course of the investigation.
“Three days ago it looked different,” Cronin said, pointing to the nearby humps and troughs that have shifted since the crew re-started work this month.
The amount of organic matter required to identify some one is three grams, about the weight of three small paper-clips.
“52 people (were) on board that aircraft. We have identified 32. We obviously will continue until we get all 52,” Cronin said, adding that its the largest investigation he’s worked on.
The work will take at least another two years. It’s expensive, and it’s dangerous. Even though my visit lasted just an hour, it required a safety briefing, crampons for walking around, as well as a snug harness and an ice-pick in case I fell in a crevasse. And this was considered a safe spot on the glacier.
Captain Jason Collier is the planner in charge of coordinating all the different pieces of this mission, and said the dangers are mitigated by all the training and precautions that go into it. He insists the risks are justified, and that the possibility of closure, even six decades later, has a value greater than symbolism.
“The families are very much in touch, and they are all very vigilant on this,” Collier said at the site. Children, grandchildren, and other family members of the deceased service-members pay close attention to the recovery efforts, and have formed an online group for relaying new information.
“It definitely brings closure,” Collier added.
At JBER in Anchorage, one such family member is still waiting for word on the recovery of her relative.
Tonja Anderson-Dell never met her grandfather, Airman Isaac William Anderson Sr., who was just 21-years-old when the plane went down. In 2001, she started asking politicians and members of the military about recovery efforts.
“My grandmother said to me that she was ready for a flag, and that’s because she knew he wasn’t coming home and she was dying at that time,” Anderson-Dell said during an interview. “I just started writing letters and I just wanted to know: Had they gone back? Had they found the men?”
It would be another 11 years before the remains were spotted and the arduous work of identification started.
Anderson-Dell is an informal intermediary between the military and families still seeking some finality. She lives in Florida, and flies to Alaska at her own expense. On this trip she said she was staying in a hotel.
But she’s adamant about staying involved with the recovery efforts. Since nearly all the personnel working on the glacier are new this year, her visit is intended keep long-waiting relatives in the minds of those doing the chilly work of forensic archaeology.
“I want to be able to tell the team…here’s a family member, here’s a face,” Anderson-Dell said. “When you go out there looking for these soldiers, it’s because of that person you met down there on the ground.”
They haven’t found her grandfather’s yet. Every time a new identification is made she goes through an “emotional roller-coaster.” But she intends to stay involved until all 52 lives are accounted for.
“Now that these men are coming home it’s going to be closure, that final piece to bringing that last member of their family home.”
Recovery operations on the glacier will continue until June 30th if conditions remain safe.