The U.S. Department of Defense announced earlier this year that the remains of 17 service members who died in a 1952 Globemaster crash on the side of an Alaskan glacier were recovered and are being sent home to their families after being lost for more than six decades.
A day would rarely go by when 90-year-old Michael Smith wouldn't ask his Internet savvy young relatives about the big brother he idolized all his life.
They would dutifully print out any Google Alert that included the word "Globemaster" and "Alaska" or any other clue about what had become of Col. Gene Smith and 51 fellow servicemen killed in the Nov. 22, 1952, U.S. Air Force C-124 Globemaster crash into Mount Gannett. But answers – and Gene Smith's return to Wilmington, Del., for Friday's funeral at St. Elizabeth Catholic Church -- came too late for Michael Smith, who died two years before it was learned that his brother's remains were recovered.
"It hurts," Jim Coen, Michael Smith's nephew, said. "He loved his big brother; admired him his whole life."
Gene Smith and the others were lost when the plane, likely travelling at full speed in a snowstorm, slammed into the 10,000-foot mountain and fell in pieces into the Colony Glacier, about 50 miles east of Anchorage.
Gene was 39, unmarried and a military lifer. His move up the ranks was a source of pride for his Irish-immigrant family. They were told he was flying from McChord Air Force Base in Washington state to Elmendorf Air Force Base, where he was in line to be named base commander.
'If I could give my uncle one more news update, I'd tell him Gene came home'
- Jim Coen
But instead, on Thanksgiving weekend that year, two impeccably dressed Air Force officers visited his mother's house in Wilmington to tell her her son was dead.
The military provided painfully few details. Officials didn't know for certain what went wrong in the cockpit prior to impact. One persistent theory was that the magnetic pull at that high altitude could have altered the plane's navigation so the pilot had no idea he was bearing down on the mountain.
"Nothing is proven," said Joe Orr, the Elmendorf historian.
A week after the crash, a brave two-man crew flew a small plane and reached the crash site, about 8,000 feet above sea level. They reported that they identified the plane's tail number, 1107. They also found bloody blankets, but no other clear shapes of wings or a fuselage. One told reporters that the plane was "obviously flying at full speed" when it hit the mountain's southern face. Much of the debris was covered with eight feet of snow atop the glacier that served as an icy graveyard.
"They were near the envelope on that flight," said Orr, who pointed out helicopters at the time could not fly at that altitude.
Another crew, this time with 12 men, was dropped off by barge at the Harriman Fjord in early December 1952 to try and access the debris via the Surprise Glacier, which would save them over 15 miles "as a crow flies." The crew was met by harsh weather and had to spend the night in four abandoned cabins before departing to the site.
But they persisted and, according to The Anchorage Daily Times, reached the site but found no sign of life, and confirmed that the debris was buried. They were only able to positively identify the plane's rudder and its horizontal stabilizer.
"This is not a land area where you say one day, 'Yeah, I want to go up," Orr said. "It's beautiful but brutal."
There was not another ground search for six decades, as wreckage remained buried in the Colony Glacier.
Tonja Anderson-Dell never met her grandfather, Isaac Anderson, Sr., an Airman first class, who was 21 when he died in the crash, but she said she is enthralled by the story and senses that she has a connection with her grandfather.
Dell made "the trip of a lifetime" in September 2012, when she was joined by a friend and took a flight from her Florida home to Anchorage. By chance, she met up with a small plane pilot who agreed to fly her to the glacier that holds her grandfather.
"I get chills just thinking about it," she said, recalling the flight. "I remember the beauty and thinking this will probably be the closest I will ever be to my grandfather."
Families of the victims looked to each other for comfort. Dell created a website with facts about the flight and crew members and asks anyone with any more information on the crash to alert her.
Jim Coen, the nephew of Gene Smith, formed friendships with workers at Dover Air Force Base because he would periodically call to see if there were any updates on the crash. He was given the same response: We'll keep you posted.
"There wasn't much they could say," he recalled.
But the morning of June 9, 2012, was remarkably clear near Anchorage.
"Perfect for flying," Chief Warrant Officer 4 Bryan K. Keese, the pilot of a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter, said.
Keese, who served two tours in Iraq, was flying a training mission for the Alaska Army National Guard over the Colony Glacier. Military planes and commercial airlines frequented the route.
The snow was white, and it pressed against the clear sky that was blue. Visibility in any direction lasted until it faded into a distant gray. All was quiet except for the swoosh of the chopper.
The otherwise routine training flight was interrupted when Sgt. Roman Bradford, the crew chief onboard the Blackhawk, spotted something yellow emerging from the ice.
Keese took the helicopter in for a closer look, about 25 feet from the ground.
"This wasn't my first rodeo," Keese said. They got a better look and saw the size of the tires and life raft. "I was like, Holy smokes, that must be a big airplane."
The crew flew back to Elmendorf and reported the find. They returned to the glacier, landed at a reasonably safe location, and the team confirmed that the find was the Globemaster.
The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) is tasked with searching for any American missing from past conflicts. There are currently about 83,000 unaccounted for, but when news that the Coloney Glacier was starting to give up debris from the crash, JPAC led the joint search.
Teams have been sent up to the glacier, mainly in June and July, because the glacier is considered safest during those periods. The Colony Glacier shifts about three meters a day northeast. Keese pointed out that the debris was mostly discovered 14 miles from where it initially fell.
"It's a great feeling to work at giving closure to these families," said Lt. Col. Adrain Crowley from Joint Task Force Alaska, who works on the recovery missions.
Reuters reported that beside the human remains collected at the site in 2012, searchers found a mini-box of Camel cigarettes, a survival suit and a hockey puck. In all, military personnel removed about 1,800 pounds of debris.
The families learned that human remains were recovered, but decades take a toll on families. Mike Smith was 88 when he learned that JPAC recovered human remains.
"We were all excited," Coen said. "We couldn't wait to hear."
The remains were sent to a laboratory in Hawaii for identification, and the families waited. During that time, Mike Smith, then 90, had a stroke and died before learning that his brother was one of 17 positively identified.
"He told me in the hospital: Jim, make sure you bring Gene home," Coen said.
Dell was told that her grandfather was not found on the Glacier.
"It was difficult, because you get so close," she said. She said finding her grandfather has become a life mission. She continues to post updates on her Facebook page and goes to many of the funerals for the airmen recovered. JPAC, which continues to send search teams as long as the glacier is deemed safe, said it will continue to visit the site in hopes of finding more remains.
The Department of Defense paid for Coen to fly to Hawaii and bring back his uncle’s remains. He was to be buried with full military honors, and once again his family was greeted by Air Force officers in finely pressed suits. But this time, they got closure.
"If I could give my uncle one more news update, I'd tell him Gene came home," Coen said, with his voice breaking. "Gene came home."'
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