Recovery efforts continue in icy conditions

C-124C_Globemaster II USAF photo

Douglas C-124 Globemaster II similar to the aircraft that crashed.

By Capt. Anastasia Wasem
Alaskan Command Public Affairs

JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska – “The number one goal is to collect human remains, to have them identified and bring closure to family members,” said Capt. Jason Collier, Alaskan Command Operation Colony Glacier project officer.

Collier is referring to Operation Colony Glacier, an annual mission to recover remains, wreckage and debris from the 1952 crash of a U.S. Air Force C-124 Globemaster II onto Colony Glacier.

Fifty-two military members lost their lives when the C-124 went down on Mt. Gannett just 40 miles from its destination, then Elmendorf Air Force Base. And even though it’s been 64 years, the search for remains and wreckage continues every summer by personnel from Alaskan Command, the Alaska National Guard, Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations, U.S. Army Alaska, 673d Air Base Wing, 3d Wing and Detachment 1, 66th Training Squadron.

“It’s an emotional rollercoaster for me,” said Tonja Anderson-Dell, granddaughter of Isaac William Dell, Sr., a 21-year old Airman that died when the plane crashed. Anderson-Dell is still hoping to have the remains of her grandfather identified and returned to her family.

“It keeps me driven. I want to bring him back home,” said Anderson-Dell about the wait to hear that her grandfather’s remains have been found. “I wanted to come out, give them [the recovery team] some support and let them know that the families are there and want to thank them for all the hard work they’re doing. They’re taking a big risk for us.”

Operation Colony Glacier

Alaska Army National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter pilots, Chief Warrant Officer 3 David Friend, left, and Maj. Todd Miller, assigned to the 1st Battalion, 207th Aviation Regiment, approach the Chugach Mountains while conducting flight operations during Operation Colony, Alaska, June 4, 2016

The icy landscape, unpredictable weather and the ever-changing environment of the glacier presents very unique challenges to the mission.

“It’s not a daily task. Safety is paramount here. We put this team together a year ago; we sent people to mountaineer training,” said Allen Cronin, AFMAO Past Conflicts branch chief. “It’s difficult. It’s different. It’s different from other recoveries because it’s ever changing. Three days ago it [the glacier] looked different. Today you see humps and crevasses that are wider from three days ago.”

A joint effort and diverse team is essential to the success of this mission. The operation requires diverse skills, jobs and expertise from the Air Force, Army and Alaska National Guard to safely complete the recovery each summer.

“Absolutely, it’s worth the risk,” said Collier on the dangers of the mission and the glacier. “There are still 20 servicemembers that haven’t been identified and their family members are hoping to get them back. Some of them were a 1- or 2-year-old daughter or son whose father perished. There are still some parents alive whose son was on the flight that was an 18- or 19-year-old Airman. It definitely brings closure.”

On that fateful day in November 1952, the aircraft took off from McChord Air Force Base, Wash., with 42 Airmen, eight Soldiers, one Marine and one Sailor onboard. As the plane neared its destination, dangerous weather caused the plane to crash. A search party was dispatched and the aircraft’s tail was spotted, but the harsh Alaskan conditions forced the recovery effort to be suspended. The wreckage remained buried and hidden at the base of Mt. Gannett until June 9, 2012 when an Alaska Guard UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter crew noticed debris while on a training mission.

Since 2012, 32 of 52 servicemembers have been recovered, identified and returned home.

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An Alaska Army National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter lands on top of Colony Glacier near Anchorage, Alaska to pick up personnel as part of Operation Colony Glacier

Dependent on the constantly changing weather of the glacier, this year’s operation is being conducted from June 1 to 30 and will likely be conducted during the same timeframe next year as well.

“As long as the glacier keeps producing remains and aircraft parts and pieces we’re going to keep doing the mission,” stated Collier.

Editors note: May we never forget the victims’ sacrifice, and the efforts of the recovery teams to “bring them home”.

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