Painful memories linger, 50 years after nuclear bomber crashed in western Md., killing 3

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The storm-driven crash of a nuclear bomber in western Maryland in 1964 made an indelible impact on the Cold War program that put the crew and public at risk.

Fifty years later, Operation Chrome Dome is nearly forgotten, but memories of the crash on Big Savage Mountain remain painfully fresh among the crew members' families and the rural Appalachian residents who helped recover the bodies.

Gary Finzel, 69, said his overnight trek through hip-deep snow with five others to recover the frozen remains of Air Force Maj. Robert Lee Payne was the worst night of his life.

"I can see him sitting there on his hunkers on the banks" of Poplar Lick, Finzel said Tuesday. "I still see him the same as if it was yesterday."

The accident on Jan. 13, 1964, is memorialized by stone markers in tiny Grantsville, about 140 miles west of Baltimore, and at the spots where three of the five crew members died. Payne succumbed to exposure in the Savage River State Forest after ejecting from the crippled B-52. Bombardier Maj. Robert Townley's remains were found in the wreckage on adjacent private land. The tail gunner, Tech Sgt. Melvin F. Wooten, bailed out and died from exposure and injuries near Salisbury, Pa., nearly 15 miles north of the crash site.

The pilot, Maj. Thomas W. McCormick, and co-pilot Capt. Parker C. "Mack" Peedin ejected and survived. Neither is still living.

Peedin enjoyed telling the tale in bars but he privately regretted his crew mates' deaths, said Mary Jo Vance of Washington, N.C., his wife from 1995 to 1998.

The Associated Press was unable to reach McCormick family members.

A heavily redacted Air Force report on the accident attributes the crash to a bulkhead structural failure that caused the vertical fin to separate from the plane during weather-related turbulence. But Wooten's widow, Carol, of Hermosa, S.D., called it the result of a "stupid" Strategic Air Command decision to fly the plane that night. She was left with three young children, including a newborn.

"Mel was supposed to be on leave because of the baby," she said. "They insisted, you know, that he go on this, and of course, he wouldn't say no. It was just going to be an overnight thing and be right back. Well, needless to say, it didn't work that way."

All the crew members were from Turner Air Force Base in Albany, Ga., the plane's home base. They were flown on Jan. 12 to Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts to bring the B-52 and its two bombs back to Georgia. Foul weather had forced the plane to land at Westover during its return from Europe, where it had had an engine failure.

The delays threatened to disrupt Operation Chrome Dome, an airborne nuclear deterrence program that operated mainly from 1961 to 1968. It aimed to keep 12 bombers airborne at all times, flown by crews on 24-hour missions.

The program's B-52s had had two crashes before the Maryland accident, both in 1961, said Rebecca Grant, an independent researcher and author who has worked for the Air Force secretary and the Air Force chief of staff. The bombs were unarmed, meaning they couldn't explode, but there was a risk of accidental loss of nuclear material, Grant said.

The Maryland accident, after nearly three crash-free years, underscored the folly of trying to keep nuclear bombers aloft at all times, regardless of the weather, Grant said.

"It was probably the worst crash with nuclear weapons on American soil, and it was truly an accident — a weather-caused aircraft accident," she said. "I think it pointed out that the risks were awful high, really too high."

Coincidentally, Grant grew up in Garrett County, where the plane crashed, often hearing her uncles talk about the accident.

It took the Air Force days to recover the bombs from the remote crash site, using equipment supplied by a local quarry operator, said Gerald Beachy of the Grantsville Community Museum, which has amassed a collection of crash memorabilia and wreckage pieces.

Beachy is organizing a 50th anniversary memorial service for July 12, when summer weather will make it easier for people to visit the sites.

Donald Townley, 71, of Galena, Kansas, said he plans to attend the event to again visit the crash site where his father died. Townley treasures his father's dog tags, given to him two years ago by a farmer who found them in a field.

"The people up there in Maryland are the nicest people I've ever seen in my life," Townley said Wednesday in a telephone interview. "They're keeping this thing alive for the upcoming people, and it's a wonderful thing they're doing."