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Globemaster Crash - Larson Air Field

 
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[KWE Note: The Korean War Educator is continuously seeking more information, as well as pictures, for this page. Dee Lovingood (TN), Richard Beeson (WA), Jock O'Connell (CA), Martel Donahoe (TX), Wilma Donahoe Jones (TX), the Read Family in the Ashland City, TN area, the Ralf Miller, Howell  McCarley and Charles Welker families, and others are helping in the search for further details about the crash.  If any of our readers have any details about this accident, they are encouraged to contact Lynnita Brown, lynnita@koreanwar-educator.org or phone 217-253-4620 (Illinois) in the evening; 217-253-5171 days.]

Most recent additions: March 18, 2014

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About the Crash

One of the world’s worst air disasters occurred in December of 1952 and involved veterans who were stationed stateside and veterans returning home from the Korean War and Far East Command.  At that time, the Air Force had a program called "Operation Sleigh Ride", which brought servicemen home in time for the holidays. The lucky passengers' names were drawn by lot number.  This particular flight was scheduled for Texas and points east. The accident took place at 6:27 a.m. on December 20. There were 105 passengers and 10 crew members. Eighty-two passengers and 5 crew members were killed when the plane crashed shortly after takeoff.  The four pictures below were contributed to the Korean War Educator by Howell and Peggy McCarley.  He was one of the fortunate survivors of the crash.



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The plane involved in the accident was a C-124A Globemaster that had been made by the Douglas Corporation. These giant planes were big enough to carry an armored vehicle, two big buses, or 200 fully armed troops. It was a two-deck plane with four 3,500 horsepower engines, and passengers entered it by a nose ramp. The cost of the plane was about $1.8 million.


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The accident took place at Larson Air Field. The base was geographically located five miles northwest of the city of Moses Lake, Washington, fourteen miles southwest of Ephrata, Washington, and seventeen miles south of Soap Lake, Washington. Larson AFB closed in June of 1966. The plane took off from the runway, climbed to about 100 feet, started to turn left, and then plunged back to earth. The plane shattered into pieces of metal in a fiery crash.

The victims were rushed the 3 miles from the accident scene to the base hospital. According to newspaper reports, some of the injured needed up to 12 pints of blood. Within two hours of the accident, 81 donors had given blood at the Yakima Red Cross regional blood center. Forty-eight pints of whole blood and 100 units of plasma were rushed to the Larson air Force Base hospital, where base doctors and nurses, as well as airmen’s wives, were handling the emergency. By noon, more doctors and nurses had been flown in to care for the injured.

One of the survivors of the crash was the plane engineer. He was conscious long enough to talk to his wife, but he died the next day. Another survivor, Lt. Frank Riggenbach of Houston, is now deceased, but his wife at the time, Dorothy Riggenbach of Pasadena, Texas, remembers the day she heard the news about the crash. Frank had flown in India and Burma in World War II. The father of two children, he had been sent to Korea after the war broke out. He had just finished 50 combat missions in Korea and had notified Dorothy that his time was up in Korea and he was coming home on a commercial flight.

On the day he was scheduled to leave Washington for his home in Texas, he overslept and was thus rushed to get to the plane before it took off. Because he was late, he had to sit in the tail end of the plane. His lateness probably helped him to survive what so many others tragically did not. According to Dorothy, Frank told her that he knew that something was wrong as soon as the plane started to lift off. He had flown so many missions that he knew how a plane was supposed to "feel". This one didn’t feel right. Within two minutes after takeoff the aircraft began to lose altitude. It crashed and burned into a snow-laden field at the end of the airstrip.

Dorothy said that she received a telephone call from a Red Cross worker telling her that her husband had been in an accident on "a ship in Washington". Dorothy told her that that was impossible because he had already written to her to say that he was coming home by plane. Within hours, local newspaper reporters were on her doorstep in Houston trying to get a story about something Dorothy knew nothing about. The next day, she received a telephone call from a neighbor saying she was to call the Red Cross. When she called, she was told that her husband had been in the crash but that, other than a few scrapes and burns and a dislocated shoulder, he was fine and would soon be coming home. She took both of her young children to a nearby shopping area to try to get away from the reporters and to calm herself down. When she returned home, she found her injured husband waiting for her, along with LIFE magazine reporters and photographers. Photos of the Riggenbach family appeared in LIFE magazine in Volume 34, No. 1, January 5, 1953, on pages 22-24.

Larson Air Force Base, now Grant County International Airport, is today a world-class heavy jet training and testing facility used by the Boeing Company, Japan Airlines, the U.S. military, and many other air carriers from around the world. With 4,700 acres and a main runway 13,500 feet long, it is one of the largest airports in the United States.


Tail Section
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Debris Field
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One of the Landing Gear sections
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The three photographs above were provided to the Korean War Educator by the Air Force Historical Research Agency, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama.  AFHRA provides Aircraft Accident Reports and other Air Force-related data to the general public upon reasonable request.  To find out more information about that agency, visit http://www.maxwell.af.mil/au/afhra.


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Government Investigators

The cause of the plane crash was later determined by government investigators to be the failure of the pilot to remove the rudder and elevator locking pin prior to taking off.  It should be noted, however, that more than one Globemaster inexplicably crashed in the late 1940s/early 1950s.  Consequently, some believe that it was not pilot error that caused the crash; instead, they believe it was a plane malfunction not caused by error on the part of a crew member, and that the C-124 was not a safe aircraft. Among those who believe the latter is Jock O'Connell, the pilot's cousin, who has researched and written extensively on the subject in an effort to clear the name and reputation of Lt. William N. O'Connell. An article about the crash, written by Jock O'Connell, appeared in the Sacramento Bee on May 30, 1999.

Official Declassified Structures & Aerodynamics Group Report (PDF File)

Official Flight Operations Group Report (PDF File)


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Manifest

All Military Personnel Onboard the Plane
  1. Airman 2/C Lewis Jackson "Bill" Adams, Jr. - Hopkinsville, KY.  Fatality.  Born June 19, 1931 in Hopkinsville, he was the son of Lewis J. Adams Sr. (1902-1975) and Linda Torian Adams (1904-1965).  He is buried in Riverside Cemetery, Hopkinsville.  The following is from the source "Findagrave": As reported on the front page of the KY New Era Newspaper-December 22, 1952 which saddened the hearts of many who knew this handsome young airman: Adams Victim Of Plane Crash – Among First Identified Following Catastrophe – A local youth 21 year old Lewis J Adams, Jr., was among the fatally injured G.I.'s in the Saturday morning crash in the State of Washington that proved to be the worst aviation disaster in history. Airman Second Class Lewis Jackson (Bill) Adams, Jr., 1808 So. Virginia St., lost his life in the crash of the C-124 Globemaster that killed a record 86 persons at Moses Lake, Wash., on Saturday. His parents were notified yesterday. He was 21 years of age. The Defense Department telegram said arrangements would be made to have the body shipped home for burial. Further details are to be revealed in a letter which will be sent to the parents at a later date. An Associated Press dispatch said he was among the first victims identified. Young Adams, who spent a 10 day leave at his home here at Thanksgiving time, had been stationed at Larson Air Force Base in Washington only since Dec. 3rd. Prior to that time he had been at Keesler Field, Miss., and before that he was at Sampson Air Base in New York. He was the only son of Lewis J & Linda Torian Adams. He was born here on June 19, 1931, and spent his entire life in this community. He entered the Air Force in September, 1951. He received his education in the local schools and was graduated from the high school department of Columbia Military Academy, Columbia, TN., in 1950. He then attended Tulane University in New Orleans for a year. He was a member of the local Universalist Church. The local young man served as a radio operator in the Air Force. It was believed he was serving in that capacity aboard the plane that crashed. He was one of two Kentuckians to die in the crash. The other victim was Airman third class Charles R Baker of Route 2, Springfield, who identity was not immediately learned. In addition to his parents, he leaves a grandmother, Mrs. A.J. Adams, and four aunts and a number of more distant relatives. (KY New Era - Front Page 12/22/1952)
  2. SN Billy Paul Alexander (USS Duncan) - Survivor.  Sherman, TX  Son of Mrs. C.E. Alexander.
  3. Airman 3/C C. J. Allen
  4. Airman 3/C John W. Allen (62nd Instl Sq) - Fatality. Silver Creek, Polk County, GA.
  5. Airman 3/C Robert Leon Allen (Maint Sq) - Kenton, TN
  6. Airman 2/C Kenneth Rodney Bacot (A.P. Sq) - Fatality.  He was born January 7, 1932, son of Harry G. Bacot (1902-1978) and Loryne Huffhines Bacot (1904-1998).  He is buried in Fairmount Cemetery, Hollis, OK.
  7. Airman 3/C Charles R. Baker (Fd Sv Sq) - Fatality.  Springfield, KY
  8. Airman 3/C David Bolden (Fd Sv Sq) - Survivor.
  9. S/Sgt. James Robert Beck (59th RS&S) - Fatality.  Pasgagoula, MS.  He was born July 31, 1931 and is buried in Evergreen Cemetery, Ocean Springs, MS.
  10. A/2C W. E. Bennett (Fd Sv Sq)
  11. ATAM Arthur S. Beach (Op Emgcy Lv) - Fatality.  Born August 13, 1931, he is buried in Palm Cemetery, Winter Park, FL.
  12. Airman 2/C Willie James Blake (15th T.C.) - Fatality.  Birmingham, AL
  13. Airman 2/C Louis A. Bowen (Fd Sv Sq) - Fatality.  Mt. Pleasant, TN  He was born June 22, 1926 and is buried in Lynnwood Cemetery, Lynnwood, TN.
  14. Airman 3/C Sidney R. Bozeman (Maint Sq) - Fatality. Opelka, AL.
  15. Airman 2/C James H. Bradley (Maint Sq) - Fatality. Ft. Worth, TX.
  16. PN3 Robert W. Buecker (USNS Caffey) - Fatality.  Atlantic City, NJ. He was born September 4, 1929 and was a US Navy Patternmaker 3C.  He is buried in Beverly National Cemetery, Beverly, NJ.
  17. S/Sgt. Ceathill R. Bumpers (Comm Sq)
  18. M/Sgt. Wendell L. Burton (flight engineer). Fatality. Temple, OK. He was transferred to Brooke AH, and died in that hospital on December 22, 1952.  Born November 9, 1921, he is buried in Temple Masonic Cemetery, Temple, OK.
  19. 1st Lt. Anthony Cannizzaro (7th T.C. Sq) - Fatality. Nashville, TN
  20. Airman 1/C Allen C. Carson (15th T.C.) - Fatality.  Kerrville, TX.  Born October 5, 1930, he is buried in Garden of Memories Cemetery, Kerrville.
  21. Airman 2/C Edward Roy Choate (Fd Sv Sq) - Fatality.  Nashville, TN.  Born January 29, 1933 in Robertson County, Tennessee, he was the son of Edward T. Choate (1911-2005) and Georgia Helen Choate (1914-1999).  He is buried in Lights Chapel Cemetery, Greenbrier, TN.
  22. 2nd Lt. Donald Herbert Clayton (62nd Supp) - Fatality.  Greenwood, SC.  He was a graduate of Clemson University, Class of 1952.  He was born March 11, 1931 and is buried in Zion United Methodist Church Cemetery, Dorchester, SC.
  23. Airman 1/C Robert N. Dalton (Fd Sv Sq) - Fatality.  Baxter, TN.  Born August 23, 1931, he was the son of Charles Herman Dalton (1895-1946) and Minnie Austin Dalton (1900-1992).  He is buried in Boiling Springs Cemetery, Putnam County, TN.
  24. S/Sgt. Thomas Richard Dehart (Hq Sq Wg) - Fatality.  Born February 5, 1929, he is buried in Fairview Cemetery, Narrows, VA.
  25. Capt. George Demas (61st T.C. Gp) - Survivor.  25 years old.  Cleveland, OH.  He was severely burned and flown to Brooke Army Hospital in Texas.
  26. Airman 2/C Percy J. Develle Jr. (Hq Sq AB Gp) - Fatality.  Born March 8, 1931 in Alabama, he was the son of Percy DeVelle Sr. (1912-1978) and Emma Alexander DeVelle (1915-1986).  He is buried in DeVelle Cemetery, Boligee, AZ.
  27. Airman 2/C Amos W. Dinkins (Hq Sq Wg) - Fatality. Winston-Salem, NC.  He was born July 29, 1932, the son of Mr. and Mrs. Reid Dinkins of Winston-Salem.  He enlisted in the Air Force in May 1951 and had been at Larson AFB for eight months.  He is buried in Woodland Cemetery, Winston-Salem.
  28. Airman 1/C Paul Kenneth Donahoe (637th AC&W Squadron) - Fatality.  LaPorte, TX.  Born January 12, 1930 in Texas, he was the son of Sam David Donahoe (1896-1979) and Eva Ethel Windsor Donahoe (1899-1986).  He is buried in Wealthy Cemetery, Normangee, TX.
  29. Airman 2/C Will Calvin Dunn, Jr. (62nd Supp) - Fatality.  Aberdeen, NC. He joined the Air Force in December 1951 and had been at Larson since then.
  30. Airman 2/C Robert H.J. Dupriest (7th T.S. Sq) - Fatality.  Searcy, AR.  He was born May 6, 1932 and is buried in Oak Grove Cemetery, Searcy, Arkansas.
  31. M/Sgt. Willy Ellis (Mtr Veh Sq) - Survivor. 26 years old.  Holdenville, OK.  He was severely burned and flown to Brooke Army Hospital, Texas.
  32. Airman 3/C Robert J. Elrod (4th T.C. Sq) - Survivor.
  33. Airman 3/C Waymond Keith Ferguson (Fd Sv Sq) - Survivor.  Batesville, AR. Waymond K. Ferguson, born in Humphrey, Arkansas on April 25, 1930, passed away on August 26, 2007 while a resident of San Antonio, Texas.  His funeral service was August 29, 2007 and he was buried in Ft. Sam Houston National Cemetery. He is survived by his wife Eileen; three children, Paul Ferguson, Carolyn Moore, and Lois Bourne; and five grandchildren, Kristyn, Jonathan, Brandon and Kathleen Moore, and Ryan Ferguson. [KWE Note: The following excerpt was found in the Independent Press-Telegram, 21 December 1952.0] "Waymond K. Ferguson, 22, an enlisted man who was en route to his home in Batesville, Ark., was one of the survivors. He suffered only a skinned forehead, a scratch on one arm and a bruised leg. "I was in the tail section of the plane where most of the survivors also were," Ferguson said. "When the plane took off, it was shaking a bit and then it righted itself and went into a long glide. "I felt it was going to crash and so I huddled my head down and started to pray. Somebody was listening, or I wouldn't be here talking now."  Ferguson said five of his "buddies" in the front of the plane were killed. He said he unfastened his safety belt as fast as he could and helped carry one injured man out. "We tried to rescue others, but they were trapped by flames," he said. "It was terrible." Ferguson said he found his suitcase and that it had a few holes in it. He said Air Force officers would not let him have the bag. Police ringed off the crash area and permitted only authorized personnel near the wreckage. Newsmen and photographers were kept away from the scene. Every available ambulance, doctor and nurse in the area was called to help or stand by."
  34. Airman 2/C F. Ford (Instl Sq) - Survivor.
  35. Airman 2/C Zachariah Gaither (62nd Instl Sq) - Fatality. Charlotte, NC
  36. Airman Basic Otis Roland Gilley (15th T.C.) - Fatality. Ada, OK
  37. S/Sgt. Richard G. Girdham (61st T.C. Gp)
  38. Airman 1/C Ernest W. Gomillion Jr. (4th T.C. sq) - Fatality. Columbia, SC.
  39. Airman 2/C Jewell D. Grantham (Instl Sq) - Fatality. Bush, LA.  He was the son of Ralph D. and Hattie T. Grantham.
  40. M/Sgt. Hoyt G. Greene (Med - Army) - Survivor.  Scheduled to fly home out of Portland, Oregon the day before, the pilot of that flight was stricken with appendicitis and the flight was cancelled.  The next day he got a seat in the third upper deck of the fated Globemaster.  Greene had been in the Army since 1938 and was going home on a 10-day leave before being shipped to Korea.  When the crash occurred he was sent to Madigan Hospital, where he stayed six months before being sent to Korea.  In 1965 M/Sergeant Greene was an army recruiter in Gadsden.  To see a story about his experiences in the Globemaster crash see Gadsden Times, January 10, 1965, "Flight He Almost Missed - 87 killed in Plane Crash" written by Frank Sikora.
  41. A/3C Donald H. Grogan (82 Supply Sq.) - Survivor. Cookeville, TN.  Son of Mrs. William Grogan.
  42. Airman 2/C James Pierre Guidry (637th AC&W Squadron). - Fatality. Port Arthur, TX
  43. Airman 2/C Charles Nelson Hall (61st T.C. Gp) - Fatality. Front Royal, VA.  Born December 19, 1929 in Northumberland County, Virginia, he was the son of Chowning Reginald Hall (1900-1969) and Henrietta Nelson Hall (1901-1999).  Charles' siblings were Chowning Reginald Hall Jr., William Armistead Hall and Lucy Page Hall.  Charles is buried in Prospect Hill Cemetery, Front Royal.
  44. Airman 3/C Thomas T. Hartley (SKA) - Fatality. Jacksonville, FL.  Born November 28, 1934, he is buried in Oaklawn Cemetery, Jacksonville, Florida, in a plot along with C.A. and Kathleen Hartley.
  45. Pfc. Arnold Eugene Helms (62nd Supp) - Fatality. Charlotte, North Carolina.  Born August 15, 1933, he was the son of Mack and Bright Hargett Helms.  He is buried in Mt. Harmony Baptist Church Cemetery, Matthews, NC.
  46. S/Sgt Lewis Fletcher Henry (63rd T.C. Sq) - Fatality.  Born October 8, 1929, he is buried in Beaver Creek Baptist Church Cemetery, Neeses, SC.
  47. AA Donald L. Herring (USN) - Survivor.
  48. Airman 1/C Bobby Harry Lee Hyman (62nd T.C. Gp) - Fatality. Winston, NC.  He was born September 25, 1931 and is buried in Rest Haven Cemetery, Wilson, NC.
  49. A/B Manford L. Irwin (Instl Sq) - Survivor.
  50. Airman 1/C Robert M. Jacobs - Fatality.  Burbank, CA.
  51. Airman 1/C Alvin Cullen Jared (62nd Instl. Sq) - Baxter, TN.  Fatality. Age 22, he was born on March 13, 1930 in Putnam County, Tennessee, the son of Leonidas Polk Jared Sr. (1879-1963) and Mary Frances Maxwell Jared (1886-1981).  He is buried in Maxwell Cemetery, Baxter, TN.
  52. M/Sgt. James Sam Jones, Jr (61st T.C. Gp) -  Fatality. Unknown how he escaped from the plane. Taken to Larson AFB Hospital, where he died shortly thereafter.  He was the son of Mr. and Mrs. J. Sam Jones of Greenwood, South Carolina.  He left a wife and children: Shirley Mae, age 2; Mary Ann, age 6; and John Wayne, age 5.  He was also survived by a sister and five brothers.
  53. Airman 2/C Sam R. Kaufman (Hq 39th Air Div Wg). - Fatality. Nashville, TN.  Taken to Larson AFB Hospital, where he died shortly thereafter.
  54. 2nd Lt. Artice Lee Laird (Hq Sq Wg) - Fatality. San Antonio, TX.  Former reporter for The Corpus Christie Caller Times.  He was born in Texas August 29, 1929, and was married in December 1951 to Patricia Ann Cloud, daughter of Colonel and Mrs. H.H. Cloud.  His mother was Mrs. L.L. Laird of Magnolia, TX.  Lieutenant Laird had been in the Air Force for two years and was stationed at Larson, where he was assistant adjutant.
  55. Airman 1/C Walter J. Lavette (62nd Supply) - Chattanooga, TN
  56. Airman 2/C George Lee Leverette (Fd Sv Sq) - Fatality.  Mississippi.
  57. Airman 3/C James W. Lewis (62nd Supply Sq)
  58. Airman 2/C Francisco E. Loya (62nd Sq) - Fatality. McAllen, TX.  He was born August 6, 1932 in San Benito, Texas, a son of Salvador G. Loya Sr. (1913-2009) and Hortencia E. Loya (1914-2004). His brother was Salvador Loya Jr.  Francisco is buried in Valley Memorial Gardens, McAllen, TX.
  59. 1st Lt. Robert J. Maple (Co-Pilot) - Larson AFB, WA
  60. Airman 3/C David Martinez (Fd Sv Sq) - Fatality.  San Antonio, TX.  Born August 24, 1931, he was the son of Mr. and Mrs. Estanislado Martinez of San Antonio, and the fiance of Olivia Casares.  He had siblings, two of whom were Lilia Martinez and Ruben Martinez.  Names of his other siblings is not known by the KWE.  David is buried in San Fernando Cemetery #3, San Antonio.
  61. Airman 3/C Felimon G. Martinez (62nd Supply Sq) - Survivor. New Mexico.  Severely burned.  Flown to Brooke Army Hospital, Texas.
  62. SN Alexander J. Maynes (USS Duncan) - Survivor.  22 years old, El Paso, TX.  Severely burned.  Flown to Brooke Army Hospital, Texas.
  63. S/Sgt. Johnny L. McBride (53rd T.C.) - Fatality.  SSgt McBride was the son of Fulton McBride and Emma Louella Bolt McBride. He was a native of McMinnville, Warren County, Tennessee and attended the public schools, completing two years at Central High School before enlisting in the military.
  64. Howell Day McCarley (AF - Hq Sq Wg) - Survivor.  Blue Ridge, TX. Mr. Howell Day McCarley of Blue Ridge, Texas, passed away November 12, 2012, in McKinney. He was born March 1, 1929, in Delva, Texas, the son of Eugene and Lena Duke McCarley. He graduated from Blue Ridge High School at age 16 and then attended and graduated from East Texas State College in three years. He then began his teaching career in Blue Ridge. In 1951 he joined the U.S. Air Force and, while stationed in Moses Lake, Washington, he was one of the lucky 29 survivors out of 116 that were involved in the crash of a C124. After his term in the Air Force he resumed his teaching career in 1955 at Dallas ISD and retired in 1985 as an administrator of the evening school at Skyline High School. He married Peggy Compton December 31, 1953, in Celeste, Texas. He was also a member of the Blue Ridge Baptist Church and the Blue Ridge Masonic Lodge and a 50-year-member Shriner. He is survived by his wife of almost 59 years, Peggy; and his children, Ken McCarley and Chuck McCarley and his wife Becky of Blue Ridge and Dean McCarley and his wife Kelly of Sugar Land. He is also survived by seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild. He was preceded in death by one daughter, Vickie Musser and one grandson, Neal McCarley. Funeral services will be held at 10 a.m. Thursday at the Blue Ridge Baptist Church with the Rev. Johnnie Jones and the Rev. Shawn Bailey officiating and Masonic graveside rites following at the Blue Ridge Cemetery. Visitation was held from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday evening at the Blue Ridge Baptist Church in Blue Ridge. In lieu of flowers the family requests that contributions be made in his name to the Blue Ridge Baptist Church Building Fund.
  65. Airman 3/C Thurman McDonald (Instl Sq) - Survivor.
  66. Airman Basic Howard McGuire (62nd Supp Sq)
  67. Airman 1/C Joseph Bartolo Miccli - Waterbury, CT
  68. 2nd Lt. Ralf M. Miller - Survivor. Ft. Lewis, WA.
  69. Airman 3/C Willie J. Milton Jr. (Maint Sq) - Montgomery, AL
  70. Airman 2/C Thomas W. Mires (A.P. Sq.) - Mt. Juliet, TN
  71. Airman 2/C Washington Morgan Jr. (4th T.C. Sq).  Fatality. Roanoke, AL. Unknown how he escaped from the plane.  He was transferred to Brooke AH, and died in that hospital shortly thereafter.
  72. QMS Robert Thompson  Myers (LSL 25, NY, NY) - Fatality.  Navy Gunners Mate 3C from Shelton, WA.
  73. A/2C Ernest Narcisse (7th T.C. Sq) - Survivor.
  74. Airman 1/C Van Buren Nickens (Hq Sq AB Gp) - Fatality. Monterey, TN.  Age 23, Van Buren "Bud" Nickens Jr. was born on December 12, 1929 in Detroit, Michigan, the son of Van Buren Nichens Sr. (1906-1953) and Martha Jane Winningham Nickens (1911-1982) of Monterey.  He is buried in Welch Memorial Cemetery, Monterey, TN.  His funeral was a double funeral with his best friend and fellow crash fatality, Paul Eugene "Boob" Vaden.
  75. Lt. William N. O'Connell (pilot) - Fatality. Portland, ME
  76. Airman 3/C Leroy Parker (Fd Sv Sq)
  77. Airman 1/C Charles E. Phillips (62nd Hq T.C. Gp) - Fatality. Florence, AL.
  78. A/1c David C. Pinnick (10th Air Division)
  79. Airman 1/C Robert R. Poole (Mtr Veh Sq) - Fatality. Taccoa, GA
  80. Airman 1/C Leroy Prestwich (7th T.S. Sq) - Fatality. Columbia, TN
  81. Airman 1/C John R. Price (Mtr Veh Sq)
  82. Pfc. Donald M. Queen (Ft. Lewis, USA)
  83. Airman 2/C Joseph E. Quinn (667th MV Sq).  - Unknown how he escaped from the plane.  He was taken to Larson AFB Hospital and died shortly thereafter.
  84. Airman 1/C Harold B. Ramsey (Hq Sq Wg) - Tensas, LA
  85. Airman 2/C Marion Jimmy Read (Fd Sv Sq) - Survivor.
  86. Airman 3/C Teddy G. Reynolds - Alcoa, TN (637th AC&W Squadron)
  87. Lt. Frank Riggenbach (22nd Air REF Wg) - Survivor.  Pasadena, TX.  At the time he had a wife and two children.  He was burned on the leg and had a dislocated shoulder and cut hand.  He was flown to Brooke Army Hospital in Texas.
  88. S/Sgt. Thomas Eugene Roberson (637th AC&W Squadron) -  Little Rock, AR
  89. A/3C John C. Ross (62nd Supply) - Fatality.  Jackson, MS
  90. Airman 2/C Arthur A. Ruffin (62nd Supply) - Morgan City, LA
  91. Airman 2/C N.A. Rustad (G. Squadron)
  92. Airman 1/C Ignatino A. Schwan - Survivor.
  93. Airman 3/C Alvin R. Six (62nd Sup) - Survivor.
  94. S/Sgt. Joseph Skmartz - Survivor.
  95. Airman 1/C John P. Sloan (5201 AB Sq APO 729) - Bellrose, Long Island, NY
  96. Airman 3/C Walter E. Smith (637th AC&W Squadron)
  97. Airman 1/C Spurgeon D. Stonecypher (15th T.C.) - Survivor.  21 years old.  Tucker, GA.  He was severely burned and flown to Brooke Army Hospital in Texas.
  98. Airman 1/C Joseph C. Stout (567th Inst. Sq) - Survivor.  22 years old.  Lancaster, OH.  He was severely burned and flown to Brooke Army Hospital in Texas.
  99. S/Sgt. Carlos Manuel Suarez (7th T.C. Sq) - Fatality.  New Orleans, LA.
  100. Airman 2/C Bernard A. Tacy (66th FTR In Sq) - Keene, NH
  101. S/Sgt. Clarke H. Taft (Hq AB Gp)
  102. Airman 1/C Alexander Taylor, Jr. - Fatality.  Kinston, NC.
  103. Airman 3/C Duane O. Taylor (66th FTR In Sq) - Survivor.  27 years old.  Helen, GA.  He was severely burned and flown to Brooke Army Hospital in Texas.
  104. Lt. James D. Taylor (22nd Air REF Wg) - Survivor.  Amarillo, TX.  Had a wife and three children.
  105. 2nd Lt. Marshall R. Thompson (M&S Gp) - Fatality.  Okay, AR.
  106. M/Sgt. Thomas Turner (61st T.C. Gp)
  107. Airman 1/C Paul Eugene "Boob" Vaden (Hq Sq AF Gp) - Fatality. Monterey, TN.  He was born August 12, 1930, son of Walter Lee "Athie" Vaden (1904-1982) and Lena Mae Smith Vaden (1907-1977) of Monterey.  He is buried in Welch Memorial Cemetery, Monterey.  His funeral was a double funeral with his best friend and fellow crash fatality, Van "Bud" Nickens.
  108. S/Sgt. Finn Otto Wahl (Maint. Sq.)
  109. Airman 2/C Ned McGinnis Walker (Mtr Veh Sq) - Fatality. Born May 28, 1931 in Mocomas, Mercer County, West Virginia, son of M.K. & Clara Stanley Walker. He is buried in Resthaven Memorial Park.
  110. Airman 2/C Jerry Nehland Wall (Maint. Sq)
  111. S/Sgt. O.B. Weaver (15th T.C.) - Coushatta, LA
  112. AF2 Robert L. Weaver (USS Yorktown)
  113. S/Sgt. Francis W. Wehrle (61st T.C. Gp) - Survivor.
  114. S/Sgt. Charles B. Welker (Fd Sv Sq) - Survivor
  115. Capt. Joseph E. Wells - Fatality.  Pawhuska, Oklahoma
  116. Capt. Beryl L. Williams (1727___ Sep Sq APO 729) - Baltimore, MD

Airman 1/C Vance Jones (62nd Supply) was scheduled to board the craft, but did not. Also on the passenger list, but not on the plane, was Sgt. Bobby J. Wilbanks of West Monroe, LA.  1st Lt. Cammizaro and S/Sgt Suarez did not arrive for the roll call, but boarded the aircraft after engines had started.

Deceased Crew Members

Airman 2/C Louis J. Adams Jr.
M/Sgt. Wendell Burton (lived a short time; was seated by the engineers panel)
S/Sgt. Melvin L. Flowers
Airman 1/C Robert M. Jacobs
1Lt. Robert V. Maple
Airman 1/C Joseph B. Micelli
1Lt. William N. O'Connell
Capt. Joseph E. Wells


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Survivors

Survivors (Military Personnel)
  • Alexander, SN Billy Paul - Sherman, TX
    Unknown how he escaped from the plane. Transferred to Madigan.
     
  • Balden, Airman 2/C David
    Escaped through a break in the tail section.  He was seated in the end seat, lower deck, center, facing outward.
     
  • Diemas, Capt. George
    He escaped through the bottom of the fuselage.  He was seated 3rd right rear left, lower center, facing outward.  Transferred to Brooke AH.
     
  • Ellis, M/Sgt. Willie
    Exited through break in tail section.  He was seated 2nd seat from back, right lower center, facing outward. Transferred to Brooke AH.
     
  • Elrod, Airman 3/C Robert J.
    Unknown how he escaped from the plane.  He was seated in the tail section.
     
  • Ferguson, Airman 3/C Waymond K.
    He escaped through a hole in the ship.  He was seated fourth seat from the rear against the wall, facing inward.
     
  • Ford, Airman 2/C F.
    Unknown how he escaped from the plane.
     
  • Greene, M/Sgt. Hoyt
    Unknown how he escaped from the plane.  He was seated in the tail section.  Transferred to Madigan AH.
     
  • Grogan, Airman 3/C Donald H. - Cookeville, TX
    Unknown how he escaped from the plane. Transferred to Madigan AH.  Donald Howard Grogan was born September 6, 1931, son of William Haskel Grogan (1898-1967) and Mary Jane Dunn Grogan (1908-1995).  He died on March 2, 2001 at the age of 69 in Putnam County, TN and is buried in Cookeville City Cemetery, Putnam County.
     
  • Herring, AA Donald Lee
    Unknown how he escaped from the plane. Transferred to Madigan AH.  He was an airman apprentice from New Llano, LA.
     
  • Higgenbach, Lt. Frank
    Houston, TX - Exited through hole in fuselage. Was seated facing forward in the left rear, 6th seat against the wall.
     
  • Irwin, A/B Manford L.
    Unknown how he escaped from the plane.
     
  • Martinez, Airman 3/C Fulimon G.
    He escaped through a hole in the ship behind the right wing.  He was seated in the lower deck, right side against wall, facing inward.  Transferred to Brooke AH.
     
  • Maynes, SN Alexander
    Unknown how he escaped from the plane.  Transferred to Brooke AH. He was a seaman recruit from El Paso, TX.
     
  • McCarley, Airman 1/C Howell - Blue Ridge, TX
    Unknown how he escaped from the plane. Transferred to Madigan.
     
  • McDonald, Airman 3/C Thurman
    Unknown how he escaped from the plane. Transferred to Madigan.
     
  • Miller, 2nd Lt. Ralf M.
    He escaped through a hole in the ship.  He was seated in the left rear against the wall.
     
  • Narcisse, Airman 2/C Ernest
    He escaped through a hole in the right wall.  He was seated on the right side, lower deck, against the wall, facing inward.  Resides (2005) in Lafayette, LA.
     
  • Read, Airman 2/C Marion J.
    Unknown how he escaped from the plane.  He was seated in the tail section.
     
  • Riggenbach, 1st Lt. Frank - Pasadena, TX
     
  • Schwan, Airman 1/C Ignatino
     
  • Six, Airman 3/C Alvin R.
    He exited through a hole in the right wall.  He was seated in the lower deck, right side against the wall, facing inward.
     
  • Skrnartz, S/Sgt. Joseph.
    Unknown how he escaped from the plane.
     
  • Stonecypher, Airman 1/C Spurgeon D.
    Not known how he escaped from the plane.  He was seated left rear, middle seat, facing outward.  Transferred to Brooke AH.
     
  • Stout, Airman 1/C Joseph C.
    Exited through hole in plane behind him.  He was seated right rear, 5th seat against the wall, facing inward. Transferred to Brooke AH.
     
  • Taylor, Airman 3/C Duane O.
    Unknown how he escaped from the plane. Transferred to Brooke AH.
     
  • Taylor, 1st Lt. James D. - Amarillo, TX
    Exited through hole in fuselage.  He was seated in the tail.
     
  • Wehrle, S/Sgt. Francis M.
    He escaped through a hold in the ship.  He was seated in the lower deck against the left wall, 3rd seat, facing inward.
     
  • Welker, S/Sgt. Charles B.
    Unknown how he escaped from the plane.  He was seated in the tail section.

Survivors (Crew Members)
  • S/Sgt. Joseph Skrzyniarz (major injuries) - He was seated near the rear exit door, right side of plane.
     
  • Airman 1/C Ignatiusa Schwan (no injuries) - He was seated in the scanner seat, left rear.  Escaped through the elevator well.

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Pilot/Co-pilot Information

The Pilot

The pilot of the aircraft was 1st Lt. William Norbert O'Connell, based at Larson Air Force Base with the 62nd Troop Carrier Group, 7th T.C. Squadron, 18th Air Force.  He received his pilot's license on 30 September 1949, and since that time had acquired the following hours of experience:

  • Total pilot (1st pilot, copilot, command pilot etc) hours - 2,775

  • Total 1st pilot hours - 1633

  • 1st pilot hours within last 90 days - 255
  • 1st pilot hours within last 30 days - 35
  • 1st pilot hours with this model - 331
  • Other pilot hours this model - 137
  • Total time spent in air during 24 hours prior to accident - 20 minutes
  • Total 1st pilot instrument weather hours - 329
  • Total 1st pilot instrument hood hours - 28
  • 1st pilot instrument (weather & hood) hours last 6 months - 95
  • 1st pilot instrument (weather & hood) hours last 60 days - 73
  • 1st pilot night hours last 6 months - 87
  • 1st pilot night hours this model last 60 days - 74

The Co-Pilot

The co-pilot of the aircraft was 1st Lt. Robert Vernon Maple, based at Larson AFB with the 18th Air Force, 62nd T.C. Wg., 62nd T.C. Gp, 7th T.C. Sq.  He received his pilot's license in August of 1950 and since that time had acquired the following hours of experience:

  • Total pilot (1st pilot, copilot, command pilot etc) hours - 2007
  • Total 1st pilot hours - 1133
  • Pilot hours last 90 days - 198
  • 1st pilot hours last 90 days - 130
  • Co-pilot hours last 90 days - 68
  • Pilot hours last 30 days - 7
  • Total pilot hours this model - 388
  • 1st pilot hours this model - 269
  • Co-pilot hours this model - 119
  • Total pilot hours this model last 90 days - 141
  • 1st pilot hours this model last 90 days - 71
  • Co-pilot hours this model last 90 days - 70
  • Total 1st pilot instrument weather hours - 170
  • Total 1st pilot instrument hood hours - 9
  • 1st pilot instrument (weather & hood) hours last 6 months - 19
  • 1st pilot instrument (weather & hood) hours last 60 days - 1
  • Total pilot night hours last 6 months - 16
  • Co-pilot night hours last 6 months - 37
  • Total pilot night hours this model last 60 days - 15
  • 1st pilot night hours this model last 60 days -
  • Co-pilot night hours this model last 60 days - 8

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Weather Information

Ceiling - P500X
Visibility - 2 miles
Wind direction & velocity - N13
Temperature - 33
Dew point - 31
Other weather conditions - light now


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Eye-Witness Testimonies

Riggenbach, Frank, 1st Lt., USAF
21 December 1952

The following statement was taken on 21 December 1952 at 1500 from 1st Lt. Frank Riggenbach by 1st Lt. John Olsen.  Lt. Riggenbach is a navigator on flying status and a recent returnee from a Korean tour.  He was flying as a passenger.

Statement as follows:

The time between starting and takeoff seemed long.  It amounted to about 45 minutes.  I remember one time after we had started engines running that we let another man in.  Then we taxied out.  It seemed like the takeoff roll was awfully long.  After leaving the ground and the wheels were retracted, I had the sensation that we were settling.  A very short time and then we started to climb again although the engines sounded the same.  That is, there did not seem to be any power change.  The climbing sensation may have been a turn but I did not realize it at the time.  Next there was the firs jolt like hitting a bird but imagine it was the ground.  Then just a fraction of a second and we hit.

Welker, Charles B., S/Sgt., USAF, AF 14385696
21 December 1952

Statement as follows:

I, S/Sgt Charles B. Welker, AF 14 385696, 62nd Food Service Squadron, Larson Air Force Base, Washington was a passenger on the C-124 that crashed at Larson Air Force Base December 20, 1952.  This was my first ride in a large aircraft.  We seemed to make a good takeoff, after which we went down a little, then came back up and seemed to have leveled off.  The ship swung to one side, then crashed into the ground.  I guess I blacked out but came to immediately, for I was the second or third man to get clear of wreckage.

Read, Marion J. Jr., A/2C, USAF, AF 14385682
21 December 1952

Statement as follows:

I, Marion J. Read, Jr., A/2C, AF14385 682, 62nd Food Service Squadron, Larson Air Force Base, Washington, was a passenger on a C-124, AF #0100 which crashed on 20 December 1952.  I boarded the plane at 0500 and took the next to the last seat on the bottom right hand side of the deck.  I put on my parachute and fastened my safety belt.  The pilot then briefed us on what to do in event of an emergency or accident. 

We started the takeoff and left the ground very smoothly.  Shortly after becoming airborne, the plane appeared to drop about twenty feet.  Then it seemed to continue climbing normally.  At this time the wings started to rock and the left wing hit the ground.  The plane then seemed to bounce and start coming apart.  I was fully conscious throughout the accident.  I recollect hanging from my safety belt and being pinned against the wall of a large box.  I then released my belt and fell to the bottom of the ship right next to a large hole in the fuselage.  I immediately escaped from the ship through the hole.

I then returned to the aircraft with several other passengers to help remove other men from the crash.  We had removed all but three when the fire and crash crews arrived.  I was then brought to the hospital in a pickup truck.

Bolden, David, A/3C, AF14434108, USAF
21 December 1952

Statement as follows:

I, A/3C David Bolden, AF14434108, Food Service Squadron, Larson Air Force Base, Washington, was a passenger on a C-124, AF #0100, which crashed on 20 December 1952.  I got on the plane at 0500 and went to the rear of the plane, sat down and put on my parachute and fastened my safety belt.  We all were briefed.  We taxied down the runway at 0600.  The takeoff was good, then the ship began to rock and we went down.  I blacked out for a moment.  My safety belt was still fastened.  I got out as quickly as possible and began to help get the men out that were trapped in the plane.

Miller, Ralf M., 2nd Lt, USA, 01931408
21 December 1952

Statement as follows:

I arrived at Larson AFB about 3:30 Saturday morning and went directly to Base Operations to see about the flight to Kelly Field.  I was on the manifest and about 0500 hours, the Sergeant in Operations announced roll call.  After getting a box lunch, I listened for my name and then, when it was called, I took my luggage and went directly aboard the plane.  I went towards the rear of the plane and sat down about 6 or 7 seats from the rear.  I got into my parachute, sat down and listened to the pilot's instructions over the speaker.  The safety instructions and abandon ship procedures were covered thoroughly by the pilot and also printed instructions were handed out to everyone aboard.  One of the crew members went around to see that everyone had his chute on correctly.  A crew member sat by each emergency door in the rear and then we waited for takeoff. 

To my knowledge, everyone around me had their safety belt fastened.  The pilot warmed the motors up for a few minutes and then we taxied to the runway.  There, the motors were gunned up fast for quite a while before takeoff.  Then we started our takeoff.  I was sitting near a window and watched the lights go by until I couldn't see them anymore.  My ears started popping then and I knew we were airborne and thought we were pretty high.

I was looking to the front of the plane and felt the plane turn right because of the way I leaned and saw other guys leaning.  Then the nose slowly went down and I thought we were just straightening out to gain speed.  Then we hit the ground.  Besides the noise, the first thing I saw were sparks and flames.  The fire was all over everywhere and it was awfully dusty and smoky when the plane stopped moving.  I got out of a hole in the right side of the plane and dragged another guy with me.  I then helped with the injured inside the plane and took out all I could find.  Then about 0730 I rode in with Chaplain Rumney to the hospital.

Diemas, George, Captain, USAF
21 December 1952

The following statement was taken on 21 December 1952 at 1430 hours from Captain George Diemas by 1st Lt. John Olsen.  Captain Diemas is a recent Korean returnee where he flew a tour in B-26's as pilot.  Captain George Diemas was flying as a passenger.

Statement as follows:

As we started down the runway, this being my first ride in a C-124, I was very conscious of everything going on.  The first thing, it seemed to me the plane stayed a long time on the runway.  It seemed like it used the whole runway.  Then it felt like the pilot ranked it off the runway as it got in a steep altitude and I felt a floating sensation as if mushing.  By then I looked out the window and could see lights below.  I judge we were about 75 feet in the air.  Right then the pilot decided to make a steep bank to the left and I could feel pulling.  Then he seemed to change his mind like he was going the wrong way and then changed it again trying to level the plane.  Then we hit.

Gallarda, William J., Engineering Officer, 7th TC Sq
20 December 1952

Statement as follows:

Reported to flight line at 0525 on the 20th of December 1952 to see aircraft 50-100 department as scheduled.  MSgt. Shulte reported two (2) exhaust brackets were broken and replaced.  The fire-guard and alert crew were standing by waiting the arrival of the pilot, 1st Lt O'Connell, who had left instructions to start the engines.

Lt. O'Connell arrived at approximately 0535 and I asked him if he was also ready and what he thought of the light snow on the aircraft.  His reply was, "I think it's OK, but what do you think?"  I was also of the opinion that it was not a dangerous factor and that it would blow off.  He said he would have liked a 5 gallon can of water and some paper cups, but didn't have anymore time to look for them.  I informed him of a check list we are putting into use in the near future to ensure flights departing, they would have every item, even to including cups and napkins.  He then turned to leave and said, "Good, we are in fine shape."

He then taxied out behind Aircraft 51-903 and started his runup check.  He stood by in Base Operations in case he needed any assistance. 

I heard him go to full power for takeoff.  Then climbing out I turned to go to the Officers' Mess for breakfast.  I turned to say something to the Base Operations' Clerk, when I saw a large fire.  at the same time the Base Operations' clerk said, "My Lord, what's that?"  I knew it was a fuel fire, but I could still hear the noise from engines and couldn't quite believe it was our aircraft.  I said, "It's an aircraft, sound the crash alarm."  Then the noise of the engines faded and a dull thud was heard. 

After the crash alarm was put into effect, I called Major Mayland, Operations Officer, 7th Troop Carier Squadron and then stood by to assist in dispatching crash crews.

DeGarmo, Leon B., Ground Crew Member
20 December 1952

Statement as follows:

Reported to the line at 0500 to see Aircraft 0100 off on Operation sleigh Ride.  The aircraft was parked in front of Base Operations loading the passengers and luggage.  Sgt. Shulte and Sgt. Foreman were replacing an A clamp on #1 engine, and Sgt. Jones and Sgt Sine were replacing one on #4 engine.  After the necessary maintenance was done, the pilot briefed the passengers and engines were started at 0600.  Sgt. Foreman and myself stood fire-guard.

The engines were all started and everything was normal from the ground.  The engines were warmed up and A/C proceeded to taxi out to take-off position.  Myself and the rest of the ground crew went into Operations to wait until the aircraft was airborne.

About 0615 the aircraft started down the runway.  Just as I was about to leave Operations, I saw the flash.  The day before the accident I helped Sgt Foreman clear up some minor write ups.

I changed the landing gear safety switch crystals, cleaned the struts and gassed the aircraft to 35,00 lbs of gasoline.  After I finished, Sgt Shults came over with a climb indicator to install in my own aircraft and I left Sgt Foreman to work on my own aircraft.  I did not see Sgt Foreman or his aircraft until 0500 the morning of December 20th.

Jones, James L., S/Sgt USAF, AF19362429
20 December 1952

Statement as follows:

I, S/Sgt. J.L. Jones, S/Sgt. Sine and S/Sgt. DeGramo, were told upon completion of work December 19, by M/Sgt Shults to report to Aircraft 50-100 at 0400 on the 20th December for the purpose of readying Aircraft 50-100 for 0600 take-off.

Shortly after my arrival, I was told by M/Sgt. Shults to remove the "A" clamp on exhaust collector on #4 engine.  The clamp was broken.  After removing clamp, S/Sgt. Sine and myself replaced it with a clamp removed from Aircraft 49-252.  Upon completion of replacing clamp, we removed the stand and waited for Lt O'Connell before starting engines.

An airman from Base Operations came out and asked for some member of the crew to answer a phone call in operations.  The crew was busy on the aircraft so I took the call.  Lt O'Connell was calling, he told me to have them start the engines and to brief the passengers.  He was getting water and paper cups for the trip.  I told Lt Maple and TSgt Foreman of the phone conversation and TSgt Foreman went into the aircraft.

The scanner wasn't there at the time so I put on the scanner headsets and MSgt Burton and I started the engines.  TSgt Foreman stood fire guard.  We had some trouble starting #1 and #2 engines, it was nothing unusual.  after the engines were running, SSgt Skrayniarz (scanner on the aircraft) took over.  We then stood by waiting for Lt O'Connell.  He arrived in a few minutes and entered the aircraft.  Shortly after this, another man came out and entered the aircraft, then they taxied out.

S/Sgt DeGramo and myself went in Operations.  The rest of the ground crew followed.  We all waited in Operations for the aircraft to take off.  When the aircraft started its take-off, TSgt Foreman and myself went out the door on the line side of Operations.  When I got outside, I began to look for the aircraft again which was airborne by then.  I saw a flash of fire and heard two explosions and then the engines quit.

Sine, Benjamin E., S/Sgt, USAF AF15060516
20 December 1952

Statement as follows:

Reporting to MSgt Shuts at 0400 as instructed, we heard the C-21B back-firing and were going down to replace it.  Before we left the engineering office, MSgt Burton came in and told us that two spider brackets were cracked.

MSgt Shults and myself left the office, went to the hangar and pulled another C-21B down to the aircraft with the tug.  MSgt Shults sent TSgt Foreman, SSgt Skrzyniarz, and myself, over to Aircraft 49-252 to get two spider brackets to replace the ones on #1 and #1 engines.  We spent about 15 minutes getting the brackets off.  Returning to Aircraft 100, TSgt Foreman and MSgt Shults had changed the one on #1 engine and SSgt Jones and myself changed the one on #4 engine.  As soon as we were through on #4, we took the tug and pulled the stands back to the hangar.

While we were in the hangar (MSgt Shulte and myself), SSgt Skrzyniarz came after his tool box.  We hauled him and his tool box over to the aircraft.  While we were on the way over, the engines were being started.  After the engines were started, TSgt Foreman told me to take the tug and park it under the aircraft parked in front of 100, so I could clear the wing on Aircraft 100 as it taxied out.  After this was done I stood in the light from the headlights of the tug and guided him out to the center of the taxiway.  After that I drove the tug down in front of Operations and went inside.  We waited in Operations (the whole crew), until the aircraft had run up and started its take-off run.  We watched the aircraft go down the runway until it was airborne.  We then started home.  I had just got to the front door and turned around to say something to SSgt DeGarmo and saw the explosion. 

Before the runup, MSgt Shults and myself noticed a light covering of snow on the aircraft wings.  After the engines were started, the prop wash blew the snow off the wings except for the outboard of the nacelles.  After we found out that Aircraft 100 had crashed we stood by in Operations until relieved by Captain Gallarda.


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Redeeming Cousin Billy: An Elegy for Memorial Day

Written by Jock O'Connell
theclarkstreetgroup@email.com

[This is the author's text of an article published in the Sacramento Bee on Sunday, May 30, 1999.  It is reprinted on the Korean War Educator with the permission of Mr. O'Connell.)]

By all accounts, the crash of the C-124 Globemaster near Moses Lake, Washington, just before dawn on December 20, 1952, was horrific. Survivors told of a leftward lurch seconds after take-off, a sinking descent until the wing clipped the ground and sent the plane into a cartwheel. An instant later, the impact gave way to a gruesome inferno as the fuel tanks ruptured, spilling 32,000 pounds of aviation fuel and spewing fire on nearly everything and everyone. Intense flames burned for more than two hours, consuming much of the aircraft and melting metal parts into shapeless lumps of steel and aluminum. In the end, 86 of the 115 men on board were dead or dying in what remained of the big, double-decked Air Force transport.

The crash was quite literally a disaster of the first magnitude. It was the worst mishap in aviation history up to that date, as radio news bulletins and newspaper headlines around the country announced. Compounding the sense of national tragedy was the fact that many of those on board were servicemen en route home from the war in Korea.

Several days later, our family gathered in Maine to bury one of those who had perished in the crash, Lt. William N. O'Connell, my uncle Norbert's son. Though I was just five years old at the time, I carry memories of my cousin's funeral that are as crisp as the mid-winter air. The occasion was replete with the mnemonic events that captivate a small boy: the resplendent honor guard the Air Force had sent from Pease AFB in Portsmouth; the crack of rifles fired in salute; the somber ritual of the folded flag. What I was much too callow to appreciate that day was how perversely our family's grief had been defiled by the news, delivered only days earlier, that we were burying the 27-year-old pilot the Air Force had deemed responsible for the entire disaster.

Today, we are accustomed to lengthy investigations into airplane crashes. We've grown familiar with the exhaustive and expensive efforts made to collect and reassemble plane wreckage -- even if it requires diving to the ocean floor or plunging into malarial swamps or impenetrable jungles. But such extensive, meticulous inquiries are not merely products of our peculiarly litigious age. An Associated Press story that ran in the Los Angeles Times following the Moses Lake disaster warned that "crash investigations often take months" as investigators gingerly sift through the wreckage and question witnesses and survivors (if there are any) looking for clues.

In this instance, though, the Air Force was uncommonly swift to judgment. Within hours of the Saturday morning crash, an Accident Investigation Board had been formally impaneled and dispatched to the crash site at Larson AFB in Washington State. By the following Wednesday, the panel had wrapped up its work and officially closed the book on the inquiry.

Then, with an appallingly lack of grace, the Air Force did something unconscionable. It promptly released the panel's conclusions to a callous press. As a result, the entire nation awoke the next morning -- Christmas Day -- to newspaper accounts much like the one that appeared in the New York Herald Tribune under the headline: "Take-Off With Locked Controls Blamed For Crash Killing 86." The damnation of Cousin Billy was lodged in the second paragraph: "By implication, the world's worst flying disaster was attributed to the failure of the plane's chief pilot, 1st Lt. William N. O'Connell, to make a prescribed check of the craft's controls before attempting to leave the ground."

So there it was right under the Christmas tree -- the unwrapped gift proclaiming that Billy's negligence had made him the next worst thing to a mass murderer. Apart from that, Mr. & Mrs. O'Connell, how were your holidays?

What little evidence the Air Force chose to share with the public looked sufficiently conclusive. Billy, the Air Force said, had failed to insure that a mechanism which locked the plane's rudders and flaps while on the ground had been properly unlocked prior to take-off. With the plane's critical surface controls locked, he had taken off in a heavy piece of machinery that, once airborne, was incapable of sustained flight.

The Air Force's account went unchallenged. It was, it must be remembered, an era in which few were inclined to argue with the established order. Vietnam and Watergate were well in the future. In 1952, there was a shooting war in Korea, Josef Stalin was still in the Kremlin, and at home the House Un- American Activities Committee, Sen. Joe McCarthy and others were on the prowl for malcontents. Besides, not to indulge ethnic stereotypes, my aunts and uncles were generally of the sort more apt to ask for another round of Bushmills than for an independent inquiry.

And that proved too bad for Billy. For a closer examination of the Air Force inquiry raises many more questions than it put to rest. Indeed, what happened in those predawn minutes nearly 47 years ago still remains far from evident.

I'm not sure what it was that, in the fullness of time, prompted me to re-examine this painful chapter of family history. But a couple of years ago I began by reading contemporary newspaper accounts of the accident. From the outset, there were aspects of the Air Force inquiry that struck me as quite odd -- not the least of which was the remarkable speed with which it had been concluded.

The plain truth was that by the time of the Moses Lake disaster, neither the Air Force nor the plane's builder, the Douglas Aircraft Corporation, could afford the luxury of a long, exhaustive inquiry. For the Air Force had a very serious problem: Its big transport planes had been falling out of the sky with disturbing frequency.

In the six weeks leading up to the Moses Lake crash, the Air Force had lost ten transport planes along the North Pacific rim between Korea to Montana. Just four weeks earlier, a virtually identical C-124 with fifty-two servicemen on board had vanished on a flight in Alaska. Another 91 lives had been claimed in the crashes of four C-119 Flying Boxcars, manufactured by Fairchild. In all, nearly 300 men had died in accidents involving Air Force transports since November 7.

Disturbed at such an appalling waste of lives, Congress was threatening to hold public hearings, something neither the Pentagon nor Douglas Aircraft welcomed. In particular, serious questions were being raised as to whether the C-124 was a safe aircraft. Noting that a third C-124 had disappeared in 1951 on a flight over the Atlantic, Sen. Richard Russell, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters after Billy's crash: "I think the Air Force should ground these Globemaster's until it can definitely be determined whether they are mechanically defective." The head of the House Veterans Affairs Committee voiced exactly the same recommendation.

Under the threat of further unfavorable publicity, did the Air Force exhaust all possible explanations for the crash of the C-124 at Moses Lake? Or did it merely embrace the most convenient explanation -- the one that seemingly accounted for what happened without pointing any accusing fingers at Air Force procedures or aircraft design?

To learn more of what had happened at Moses Lake, I obtained a copy of the report filed by The Accident Investigation Board. It makes for some exceptionally troubling reading. "The C-124," the report notes, "has one mechanical control handle which locks four separate controls -- the throttles, elevators, ailerons and rudder -- when the plane is parked on the ground. All of these controls are unlocked by moving the control handle through its complete traverse area." Then came the report's principal allegation. "Indications are that in this case the control handle was moved partly but not completely through its full traverse before the take-off and, as a result, the throttle was unlocked, permitting power to be applied, while the surface control locks remained in a locked position. The investigation established that the elevator and rudder control surfaces were in the locked position prior to impact."

This conclusion rests, however, on a liberal dose of supposition. For one thing, the crucial physical evidence was simply lacking. For another, the conclusion was contradicted by most of the eyewitness testimony. But what seemed most extraordinary was that at least one senior participant in the accident inquiry, Major General Victor E. Bertrandias, the Deputy Inspector General of the Air Force, appears to have made up his mind about what had happened even before he arrived on scene to consider the factual evidence.

As for the physical evidence, the full report conceded: "A very intensive search was made in the crash area in an attempt to recover the cockpit control surface lock handle and mechanism. This search was negative." The fire damage on the aircraft itself was very intense and concentrated around the cockpit and forward fuselage. "There was little that could be readily discernible of these parts in the wreckage itself due to the melting down of the structure. There were large solidified parts of melted aluminum alloy."

As for the witnesses -- not only survivors but Air Force ground personnel who helped ready the aircraft prior to take-off -- no one reported anything but a routine, by-the-book operation almost up to the point the plane veered out of control. The C-124's flight engineers, Master Sgt. Wendell L. Burton, lived long enough to tell investigators that "the C-124's instruments indicated the plane's operation was normal in the takeoff." He did, however, reveal that the pilot had said his gyro had gone out.

Q. Were the controls locked?
A. No, the controls didn't seem to be.
Q. Do you recall who unlocked the controls?
A. Yes, sir. It was the Assistant Engineer.
Q. You're pretty sure it was unlocked before your taxiing down?
A. Yes, sir, I know it was.
Q. No warning horns or lights?
A. No warning horns.

Another crew member, S/Sgt. Joseph Skrzyniarz, was seated in the rear of the aircraft but had a communications link with the flight crew in the cockpit. According to a transcript of his testimony, Skrzyniarz attested that all procedures with respect to the surface controls locking mechanism had been followed. He, too, stated he had heard the pilot saying that "the gyro was out" but was unsure whether this was before or after take-off. At the conclusion of his testimony, Skrzyniarz was asked: "Other than the comments you have already made, do you feel that this take-off was other than normal?" Answer: "I felt that it was normal procedure. Everything was normal."

Of course, there had to be something that was not normal about this flight. Normally functioning airplanes do not crash and explode after take-off. So what was abnormal about this flight, and why didn't anyone -- the pilot, the co-pilot or the flight engineer -- recognize they had a problem until it was too late?

According to the accident report, the pre-flight checklist required the C-124's co-pilot to ascertain that the locking mechanism had been fully disengaged. The report further notes that the actual unlocking was typically performed by a flight engineer. (In this case, Sgt. Burton evidently delegated the chore to one of two student engineers who were accompanying him on the training flight.)

Could it be that Sgt. Burton's last act before succumbing to his injuries was to cover up his own failure to properly supervise a trainee? After all, it would have been his responsibility not only to insure the lock was fully disengaged but also to assure the co-pilot he had done so. Gen. Bertrandias certainly did not disguise his belief that Burton's word could not be trusted. But even if Burton were lying or simply confused, why hadn't anyone else noticed the surface controls remained locked? What about those horns and lights? What about the pilot's statement that the plane's gyroscopes -- so essential in an instrument take-off -- had failed? Had equipment the crew had grown to trust malfunctioned at a very inopportune moment?

Among those questioned by accident investigators was Major Milton W. Byrn, the pilot of a C-124 that took off just 11 minutes before the ill-fated flight rolled down the runway. Byrn was asked about the procedures for disengaging the locking mechanism.

Q. It is our understanding from looking at this system that if the [surface control] locks are on, there is a safety feature in the throttles where you cannot move two of them forward to full open position which precludes the pilot from taking off with the locks on. Do you know that?
A. Yes, sir, you can't move both throttles up on the same side with the locks on.
Q. In this checklist before taxiing...it is required that the controls and tabs be visually checked after the controls are unlocked. How do you do this in the airplane you fly? How do you obtain the check on the controls?
A. I don't do it.
Q. It is not accomplished?
A. No, sir.

As it turned out, Byrn was far from the only C-124 pilot who had been less than completely fastidious about pre-flight safety procedures. In a nasty bit of irony, the C-124 pilots (at least those attached to the 62nd Troop Carrier Wing at Larson AFB) appear to have trusted in built-in mechanical safeguards to such an extent they routinely dispensed with a check of the surface controls which, in the case of the C-124, could only be accomplished by positioning a crew member (known as the scanner) outside the aircraft while the pilot moved the flaps and rudder.

Such confidence likely proved unfortunate. Buried deep in the investigation team's report is clear evidence to indicate that the controls locking mechanism was poorly designed and badly maintained. "Examinations were made on quite a number of C-124 aircraft at this base to determine the operational sequence and functions of the cockpit control surface lock mechanism. Various inadequacies and malfunctionings and inconsistencies were noted in this apparatus." (Emphasis added.) While it would appear that both the Air Force and Douglas Aircraft had some explaining to do, neither understandably had any interest in resolving questions of possible culpability in public. But in fact, as the accident team's report indicates, the crash did hasten steps already underway for a major redesign of the locking mechanism in later models of the C-124 and a similarly major overhaul of pertinent Air Force training manuals.

In retrospect, Gen. Bertrandias' prejudgment of the evidence suggests he may have had prior knowledge that the locking mechanism was subject to malfunction and that he just may have expected a malfunction could cause the very disaster that befell the C-124 at Moses Lake. His successful efforts to shift blame for the accident from the machinery to the men operating it bore the hallmarks of a classic bureaucratic maneuver. But was he guilty of more than a garden-variety institutional cover-up? On this point, there is no hard evidence. Still, let the record show that, no doubt by sheer coincidence, the general found employment upon his subsequent retirement from the Air Force as a corporate vice president at Douglas Aircraft.

The title of world's worse aircraft disaster did not belong to the Moses Lake crash for very long. Just six months later, on June 18, 1953, an Air Force transport crashed just after taking-off from an airport near Tokyo, killing 129 servicemen. The aircraft involved? Another C-124.

The day of the Moses Lake crash, an Associated Press reporter asked Billy's sister her reaction to word her brother had been among those killed. "Somehow we've been expecting it to happen for a long time," she said. "With all those other crashes we thought he'd have to get it sooner or later. That's just the way it is with those fellows. If he was [the pilot], then this thing hangs on his neck. We'd like to know."

What we now know, but what the Air Force did not chose to share with the public at the time, was that there was ample blame to be apportioned all around. A fairer, more conscientious investigation into the accident might have doled out responsibility to numerous parties -- Douglas Aircraft, for designing and building a flawed instrument for controlling the aircraft's ability to stay aloft; the Air Force, for not sharing with its pilots and crews growing suspicions over the integrity of the locking mechanism; and, yes, the crew of this particular C-124 for likely ignoring some vital safety procedures.

Too bad that only one individual, having already lost his life, was alone in forfeiting his good name in the tragedy at Moses Lake.

Copyright 1999 by J. A. O'Connell


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D.L. Lovingood on the Crash Anniversary

I was in the U S Air Force and stationed at the 637th AC&W Squadron near Othello, WA at the time of the crash. There was approximately 150 to 175 airmen stationed at the Othello radar station that is located about eight miles South of town, and five of them were killed in that crash 50 years ago on December 20, 1952.

They are as follows:

  • Airman 3/ C Teddy G. Reynolds Alcoa, Tennessee
  • Airman 2/ C James P. Guidry Port Arthur, Texas
  • Staff Sgt Thomas Eugene Robertson Little Rock, Arkansas
  • Airman 1/ C Paul Kenneth Donahoe LaPorte, Texas
  • Airman 3/C Walter E. Smith, Unknown by me

As a Christmas moral booster for the military that year, the Air Force offered a free flight from Larson AFB to various bases across the United States. A drawing was held from the entrees submitted, and the airmen that had been away from home for the longest period of time were offered a free trip to a base closest to their hometown. There would be two C-124’s departing from Larson in the early morning of December 20th and a return flight would be made after Christmas.

One of the airmen that was killed from our base was Teddy G Reynolds. I did not know Teddy personally, but he was from Alcoa, TN where I now live. Teddy was going home for Christmas on the flight, and was to be married while he was at home.

Another airman that was killed in the crash was Paul Donahoe from LaPorte, TX. Paul's wife was living in Othello when he got killed, but she had taken their new baby boy and gone back to Texas by train. Paul was to follow on the free flight. That "new baby boy" would be about 50 years old now.

Paul also had a younger brother, Martel Donahoe, that was also stationed at the 637th. They were both members of a Texas Air National Guard unit that had been activated for the Korean War. About one third of the airman stationed at the 637th IN Othello were from the Texas National Guard unit.

Martel Donahoe, the brother of Paul, was an alternate for the winners of the free trip. If one of the five airmen from our base could not make the flight for any reason, Martel would have taken the flight. Martel was assigned the job of driving his brother and our four other airmen from the 637th to Larson AFB the morning of the crash.

Very early in the morning on Saturday, December 20, 1952, Martel took his brother, Paul Donahoe and the other four Airmen from the 637th to Larson AFB in an Air Force carry-all. Martel told me it was snowing real hard when they got up to Larson, so our guys unloaded and told Martel to head back to Othello so he wouldn't get caught in the snowstorm. As he drove out of the front gate at Larson, he heard the first C-124 take off. His brother Paul was going on the second C-124, and Martel had not even heard it start up prior to leaving the Larson front gate.

It was a 37 mile trip back to Othello on two lane roads, so Martel headed out to beat the snow. He drove directly back to the Radar Station and when he went through the main gate, the Air Police told him to report to the orderly room immediately. The base commander was there, a Colonel, and he told Martel that there had been a plane crash at Larson, and his brother Paul was aboard. They didn’t know any details about the crash, or if there were any survivors.

The base commander gave Martel orders that he was not to leave the base or go to the site of the plane crash. Martel and Paul were very close, and he was all torn up and probably in shock when he came back to the barracks and told us about the crash of the plane that his brother was on.

I told Martel that I would take him to the crash site in my car. I had Martel to lie down in the back seat of my car and I drove out the main gate without being stopped by the Air Police. I took him to Larson AFB at Moses Lake and we could see the smoke from the crash. I drove around trying to find the closest road to where the crash was. We finally found a spot where we could see the crash site but we were about half to three quarters of a mile from the site. We could see from the fire and smoke that the wreckage was strung out some distance. We could see the flames and black smoke boiling up from the wreckage but could not see anything on the ground because of the smoke.

We had found a road that ran parallel to the runway and take-off path so we just followed it until we could see the crash site. We knew that we had gotten as close as we were going to get so we just sat there and watched the plane burn for a good while. I don’t remember actually seeing any of the plane wreckage but we knew it was Paul’s plane.

I don’t know how long after the crash that we arrived at our lookout point, but it was before the firefighters could put out the flames from the crash. I don’t remember how long we watched but we could still see the smoke boiling up from the crash when we left. As we left, we drove along the road looking over at the crash site, but could not find a way to get any closer to the crash site.

Martel told me that Paul had four or five rolls of Silver Dollars with him on the plane that he had been saving to spend in Texas while he was home for Christmas. The Air Force paid us in cash, and some of each months pay was paid in Silver Dollars. Paul also had a pistol with him, and Martel said he could identify it, and also had the serial number of the pistol, but none of Paul's personal property was ever returned to the family. Martel had bought Paul's car from him so he would have more money for his leave, and the Air Force took the car away from him, even though he had a bill-of sale for the car. It was later returned to Paul’s family. Paul and Martel's mother and father are now deceased.

It has been 50 years but I can still close my eyes and visualize the flames and smoke from that crash site.

D. L. Lovingood. Jr., 917 N Linden Drive, Alcoa, TN 37701-1815


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Rescue/Recovery Efforts

S/Sgt Calvin C. Lawson, AF12343478, Keyport, NJ

"I was an auto mechanic in the motor vehicle squadron stationed at Larson AFB, Moses Lake, Washington 1951-53.  On the morning of December 20, 1952, I was taken to the crash site of the C-124 Globemaster.  It was my job to put the bodies on stretchers and load them on trucks.  I was to pick up any items near a body and set the item on the stretchers to help identify the body.

When I arrived at the site I saw big body standing tall, leaning against the tail section.  His uniform was clean, net, and ready for inspection, but he had no head.  I walked away in another direction because I thought he might be my work partner.  I found out later he was not my partner.

My work partner was on the plane when it went down.  He was a big guy from Texas who weighed bout 220-230 pounds.  We were both auto mechanics in the motor vehicle squadron.  I was told his sister wanted to know why the casket was so light.  I don't know what they told her, but if he was in the fire, losing all of his liquids would have caused a large weight loss.

M/Sgt. Ellis was in charge of the squadron we were in.  He survived the crash but the other three airmen in squadron died.

As I started removing bodies, I came to one that was almost glowing.  I could see all of his arteries and muscle.  He was very muscular.  It was like he had no skin and was not hurt.  It looked like he was made for doctors to study.

The next place I stopped, there were three or four bodies burnt together.  They had no hands or feet.  They were burnt off.  I don't remember about the heads.  No one wanted to help me with these bodies until an officer made them.  They had no clothes on and it was hard to pull them apart.

I don't remember finding anything to help identify the bodies.  Almost everything was burnt up.

I went back to the barracks and sat on my bed alone.  It was hard to see what I had just witnessed and now be alone with my thoughts.

I was called to the orderly room and told to call my mother.  She had called to see if I was on the plane.

It was Christmas and I went to the NCO club with a few of my friends.  I was not a drinking person, but that night I drank too much.  When we left the club it was foggy and dreary and you could smell death over the base.  There was a man-made Santa outside.  One of the guys took a stick and beat the Santa until there was nothing left of it.  It was the saddest time of my life.  When I got to my room my head started spinning around and I threw up on my floor.  When I cleaned it up it left a large shining spot on the floor.  When I had to stand for room inspection, I would always stand behind the spot so my shining shoes would help the area look better.  The spot was a daily reminder of the crash site until I left the base.

A week or so after the crash I was told an Air Policeman had picked up some silver dollars from the crash site and had put them in his pocket.  He was locked up and lost his stripes.  When he was released from the stockade he was transferred to the motor vehicle squadron.  I asked him why he did it.  He said that he just wanted something to remember that day.  I just found out about the silver dollars that Paul Donahoe had and I wondered if the ones the AP picked up were some of Paul's and could have been near or at Paul's body and used to identify him and sent home to his family.  Since they were stolen, they should still be in the evidence locker and his family should be able to get them.

I never took a furlough at Christmas time.  When I married in 1957, I could not celebrate Christmas with my wife.  I can buy gifts, but I still can't decorate.  I know that I will always think of the crash every Christmas.


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Tribute to CB

The Christmas Special

Author: Terry Welker, Kettering, Ohio

Dateline: Larson AFB, Moses Lake, Washington
December 20, 1952

Heroes don’t look for heroism. But, sometimes - bravery finds them anyway.

A little over a half a century ago, December 20, 1952, "Operation Santa Clause" was in full swing. The "Christmas Special", a C-124 Globemaster military transport, was fully loaded with fuel and happy servicemen headed for home from all over the Pacific.

Seconds after take-off, the huge triple-decked transport plane became victim to the largest aviation disaster in the history of the world at that time. The lumbering C-124, disabled by malfunctioning flaps, never achieved enough lift to stay more than a few hundred feet in the air. The struggling Globemaster groaned to a stall and fell quickly toward the earth. There were 116 GI’s on board, most of them less than 25 years old. Eighty-six died, and the rest were injured.

Among the survivors was a young, single, 22-year-old Air Force Staff Sergeant from Clarksville, Tennessee, named Charles Burch--"CB" his friends and family called him. The usually punctual CB was too busy picking up friends to get preferred seating aboard the "Christmas Special." As luck would have it, the Loadmaster directed CB and one of his friends to the rear of the airplane in the swept tail section. Another friend took an ill-fated seat on the top deck. Crammed into canvas sling "seats", no one complained - they were going home!

The only recognizable part left of the burning C-124 scattered over a half mile of rocky desert was the tail section. Alive, but hanging upside down and unconscious for several minutes, CB freed himself and fell to the ground. Escaping the inferno in a rage of terror, he heard voices and stopped, when suddenly, bravery found him. CB and a few others that could still walk turned and rushed back into the disaster to rescue as many men as they could from the flames. Tragically late for most, they pulled 15 more men out of the fire. Some critically injured, 30 servicemen lived to see Christmas.

It was a bittersweet holiday for CB as he ventured home by train. Taking time to visit with a few of the families who had lost their sons, he shared their last moments. He also shared in the blessing of his own thankful family whose son had lived by some miracle.

The U.S. Armed Forces personnel serving today all over the world are just like the brave young servicemen of "Operation Santa Clause." Christmas for them is often bittersweet. Half a century later we can still be reminded by a visit to the U.S. Air Force Museum and actually walk through a C-124 Globemaster--just like the one where bravery found my father, "CB" Welker, on that fateful "Christmas Special" morning.

CB Welker, USAF Master Sergeant Ret., served for 23 years before retiring at WPAFB. Today, he lives at Lake Cumberland, KY with his wife, Virginia.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Operation Sleigh Ride

[KWE Note: The following tribute to Van B. Nickens Jr. and Paul Eugene Vaden was authored by Ken Hal, Cultural Administrator and Curator of the Monterey (Tennessee) Central Transportation Museum.]

Van B. Nickens, Jr. and Paul Eugene Vaden were best of friends. Both boys had grown up in Monterey playing together and had even attended church together at the Monterey Baptist Church. Soon after graduation from Monterey High School, the two enlisted in the United States Air Force under the “buddy system” and were assigned to the same unit.

During the Christmas holiday, 1952, the Air Force was trying to bring as many airmen as possible home from the Korean War and the Far East Command through a program nicknamed “Operation Sleigh Ride”. The lucky service personnel were chosen by lot number and were flown to the States by military aircraft. Nickens and Vaden were going to travel home on a special flight which was leaving Larson Air Force Base (AFB), Moses Lake, Washington, on December 22, 1952.

The two young men were excited to be returning home after a long stint away and eagerly boarded the C-124A Globemaster #50-100 (tail #100). There were two flights leaving Larson AFB that morning and both were traveling across the United States landing at various air force bases. Their flight was scheduled to head non-stop to Kelly AFB near San Antonio, Texas and then would eventually land at Seward AFB in Smyrna, Tennessee, where the boys would catch a Trailways bus home.

The 1.8 million dollar Globemaster (nicknamed “Old Shaky”) was a very large transport plane capable of carrying 200 fully armed troops. It was built by the Douglas Aircraft Corporation and was a double-decked plane with four 3,500 horsepower propeller engines. You entered the large cargo-hold through the nose of the plane. This particular flight carried a crew of 10 and was loaded with 105 souls and their baggage. It also carried 32,000 pounds of highly flammable aviation fuel.

At the controls was 27 year old Air Force First Lieutenant William N. O’Connell, a seasoned pilot with 2775 hours air time. Lt. O’Connell did the pre-flight run-up check list and briefed the passengers over the plane’s public address system on what to do in case of an emergency. A pamphlet with emergency procedures was also handed out to each serviceman. Nickens and Vaden were in their parachutes and seated in canvas sling seats eagerly looking forward to seeing their family and friends for Christmas.

The plane sat on the tarmac for 45 minutes, then just before dawn at 6:27 am, it traveled at full throttle down the long 13,500 foot runway. The large aircraft lifted from the runway, climbed to 100 feet and banked left sharply. Within two minutes of takeoff, the plane began to lose altitude and came down with its left wing striking the ground sending the aircraft into a cartwheel across the snow-laden field at the end of the airstrip. The tanks ruptured and the wreckage became a fiery inferno.

There were 82 airmen and 5 crewmen killed in the crash, 29 airmen survived along with 2 crewmen. Many of the survivors were seated in the tail section of the plane. The victims were rushed to the base hospital which was about four miles from the crash. Some of the injured needed as much as 12 pints of blood. By 9:00 am, 81 donors had given blood and 48 pints of whole blood and 100 units of plasma were sent to the base hospital. By noon, more doctors and nurses as well as volunteers had gone to the hospital to care for the injured.

Airman First Class Van Nickens, Jr. and Airman First Class Paul Vaden did not survive. The two Monterey boys who had spent their lives together had perished together.

Later that evening, Ezra Wilson sat at the Trailways bus station located at Walker’s Service Station on Commercial Avenue in Monterey. Ezra was waiting on his good friend, Paul “Boob” Vaden to arrive. Ezra and “Boob” had kept in touch and had plans to visit and catch up during this furlough. The bus pulled into the service station but no servicemen got off. Ezra was at a loss as to where his friend could be but it was just about that time that Jerry Hall (who would later die in an Air Force transport plane crash) had gotten the message at the Monterey Depot by telegraph of the disaster in Washington state and had gone to find Paul’s parents. Paul’s brother, Kenneth, went to the bus station and told Ezra of the tragedy. Ezra still tears up when he talks about that day 60 years ago.

Nickens and Vaden were returned to Monterey in January, 1953. Their funerals were held jointly in the auditorium of their alma mater, Monterey High School. The auditorium was packed to overflow and a cloud of sadness hung heavily over the town. The two life-long friends were buried side-by-side in Monterey’s Welch Cemetery.

This crash was the worst air disaster in the world. Unfortunately, just six months later, that distinction was lost as another C-124 crashed just after take-off in Tokyo killing 129 servicemen. In fact, in the six weeks prior to the fatal flight that took the lives of Nickens and Vaden, the Air Force had lost ten transport planes along the North Pacific rim between Korea and Montana. Just four weeks earlier, an identical C-124 had disappeared on a flight in Alaska taking 52 lives (this plane was finally located sixty years later on June 10, 2012, as a glacier melted and revealed the wreckage). Another 91 souls had been lost in the crashes of four C-119 “Flying Boxcars” (Jerry Hall, who had delivered the sad news of the tragic Washington crash, would die a few years later in an Air Force C-119 crash in Alabama).

Vaden and Nickens were two of the 36,516 American service personnel killed during the Korean War. The sadness and sense of loss felt by this tiny mountain community was felt all across the United States on other days and under other circumstances. The names of the dead are inscribed on tombs and memorials in every state, territory and province.

“My anguish, my anguish! I am pained at my very heart; my heart is disquieted in me; I cannot hold my peace; because thou hast heard, O my soul, the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war.”


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Obituaries

Johnny McBride


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The name and information about one of the crash victims was located on the Internet on the Southern Standard newspaper website.  The victim was Johnny McBride of McMinnville, TN.  The names of five more victims from the 637th AC&W Squadron were supplied by Dee Lovingood of Alcoa, TN.  He also supplied the names of almost all of the other deceased military personnel, and the rest of the names were found in a report from Maxwell Air Force Base.

Rites Held Sunday For Crash Victim

Johnny McBride - Funeral rites for S/Sgt. Johnny F. McBride, 23-year-old Air Force soldier who was one of the 86 victims of the worst airplane crash in history on December 20 at Moses Lake, Wash., were conducted Sunday afternoon at 2 o'clock at Liberty Cumberland Presbyterian Church. John W. High officiated and burial was in Liberty cemetery. An honor guard of members of the American Legion and VFW posts escorted the body in the last rites. Pallbearers were Joe Buckner, Phillip Buckner, Donald Smith, Gene Woodlee, Dalton Hoover, T.C. Andes and Clifton O'Neal. Sgt. McBride, a veteran of two tours of duty with the Air Force and 2 years of recent service in Korea, was en route home to spend the Christmas holidays with his family when the Air Force's giant C-124 Globemaster "Christmas Special" crashed and burned shortly after taking off from Larson Air Force Base about 6:30 a.m. on the December 20 date.

The McMinnville airman's body arrived at Tullahoma Saturday afternoon at 12:55 o'clock and was brought here by High Funeral Home. It was escorted by S/Sgt. William F. Walsh of the Washington base. A native of McMinnville, Sgt McBride was born October 23, 1929, the son of the late Fulton and Emma Louella Bolt McBride. He attended the public schools and completed two years at Central high school before volunteering for duty with the Air Force. During his grammar and high school days he was employed at the Serv-all and Travis, local restaurants, during after-school hours. Entering the service in November 1946, the airman received his basic training at Keesler Field, Miss., and was stationed in New Hampshire prior to an assignment in Alaska, where he was on duty at Grennier Air Force Base. Completing his first tour of duty, Sgt. McBride was at home for a period of three months before re-enlisting. In his second enlistment period he was stationed at Stewart Air Force Base, near Nashville, for five months prior to his recent assignment. As a hydraulic specialist with the Air Force in the Far East, the deceased airman made frequent trips over the front lines as elements of his unit hauled supplies to the combat troops. Sgt. McBride returned to the states in late November and had been stationed at the Larson base, pending completion of his second tour of duty, which have expired in March. The Airman is survived by two brothers, Dewey and Edwin McBride, McMinnville, and four sisters, Mrs. Gladys Keel and Mrs. Nan Cantrell, McMinnville, Mrs. Lola Stanton, Oak Ridge, and Miss Dora McBride, Nashville. High Funeral Home was in charge of arrangements.

Southern Standard newspaper, McMinnville, TN, Thursday, January 1, 1953
[Contributor: Maxine Reggio, 2000]

My Uncle Johnny McBride

"I have been researching my mother’s family genealogy and in doing so I ran across this website about the Korean War and the information on the Moses Lake plane crash in December of 1952. I saw the obituary of my uncle, Johnny McBride, from McMinnville Tennessee, on your pages.  He was the second from the youngest of seven children born to Fulton and Ella McBride. They both preceded him in death.

I was almost four years old when this happened, but I have vivid memories of that painful Christmas and of my mother receiving the phone call and waiting for his remains to be returned for burial. This family of seven children was very close since they lost both parents at an early age and were kept together through the years with the help of friends and their oldest sister. This tragedy hit especially hard for a family that had already suffered extreme loss in their short years. From what I know from aunts still living, they said he was not expected home on leave that Christmas, but received a call from him only a few days before, that he had gotten a spot to come home by lottery or draw at the last minute. He was planning on arriving into Smyrna, Tennessee air force base. They went from extreme, unexpected excitement to despair in a few short days. Holidays were always difficult and he was remembered often by family. He was not married.

Thanks for this website and remembering the many lives that were lost on that day."

[Contributor: Gayle Croyle, Plano, Texas.  Posted 1/17/10]

Wall, A-2C Jerry N.

From: January 11, 1953 Winn Parish, PA Enterprise
Funeral Dec. 31 For Victim of Plane Tragedy

Funeral services for A-2c Jerry N. Wall are scheduled Wednesday, December 31 at 3 p.m. in the Tioga Baptist Church. Wall, brother of A. D. Wall of Dodson, was killed in the tragic crash of the C124 Globemaster in Washington last Saturday.

A telegram sent to his parents said his body was shipped at 4 a.m. Monday and was due in Tioga at 8 a.m. In addition to his parents he is survived by three brothers, A. D. of Dodson, Joseph M. of Tioga, and Charles L. of Port Arthur, Texas. A2c Wall, 21, was a veteran of almost two years with the Air Force. He was aboard the huge transport from the base in Washington Kelley AFB in San Antonio, Texas, for the Christmas holidays. A total of 86 were killed.


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Swift Boating the Crash Investigation of C-124A, Serial Number 50-100

Author - Jacques Evans
Posted 5/16/08

"Now well into my eighties, memories of the airplanes and crews I flew with during World War II, Korea and Vietnam occasionally enter my mind. I have lots of pleasant memories, some that aren’t so pleasant, and others I’d rather forget.

Until a few days ago, I haven’t thought about the C-124 crash at Moses Lake, Washington in over fifty years. The crash killed over eighty people and occurred on December 20, 1952. For some reason the name of the flight engineer, Wendell Burton, popped into my mind. As I had known and thought highly of Burton, I fired up my computer and googled him. When I perused the http://www.thekwe.org/topics/airplane_crashes/globemaster_larson/p_globemaster.htm web site, I learned that the dead crew members were blamed for the crash because they didn’t unlock the flight controls and it made me mad as hell. There aren’t many people who care about a crash that happened over fifty years ago---but there are a few and I’m one of them.

In December 1952, I was a C-124 flight engineer assigned to the 8th Troop Carrier Squadron based at Larson Air Force Base that was located five miles northwest of Moses Lake. At the time, I had 8,000 hours of flight time with over eleven years of service and held the rank of master sergeant. Only years later were grades higher than master sergeant authorized for the armed forces.

The cable operated, C-124 flight control locking mechanism was completely internal to the aircraft; there were no pins or other devices installed externally to lock the control surfaces. The design was flawed and nothing the crew did, didn’t do, or should have done would have prevented the crash---the faulty design was the cause of the crash. As I recall, no one that had any extensive technical knowledge of the C-124 disagreed. Intensive flight training and a thorough knowledge of the aircraft systems was required of all C-124 flight engineers. M/Sgt. Burton was well thought of and an experienced flight engineer---he also held an instructor’s rating.

But I digress; the C-124’s rudder, elevator and ailerons were cable operated as were their respective trim tabs. Only the ailerons had hydraulic assist through an electrically operated pump. When the controls were locked, a micro switch prevented the aileron boost pump from operating. The first inkling that the controls were locked came when the aileron boost motor was recovered. When the damaged brush cover was removed, only a few of the cooling fan blades were bent. Had the pump been running when the crash occurred all, or nearly all, of the fan blades would have been bent.

Suspecting that the controls were locked, the theoretical flight path of the aircraft with locked controls, twenty degrees of flaps and full power was calculated and it coincided closely with the actual flight path. There was no doubt that the controls were locked and that engine operation was normal for a ‘wet’ take-off. Wet refers to using the water injection system to get the full 3,500 horsepower from each engine. Only 3,250 horsepower was available for a ‘dry’ take-off.

The handle to lock and unlock the flight controls was located behind the pilot’s seat in plain view of anyone on the flight deck. While the flight control locking mechanism was not recovered, there is no doubt that the crew placed the handle in the unlock position before take-off. There were other interlocks designed into the system that would have prevented the throttles from going to full power plus a warning horn.

The C-124 had what we called flying (trim) tabs. You could move the yoke when the controls were locked and the trim tabs would move giving the pilot a false indication that the controls were unlocked. A well designed locking system would have assured that the yoke could not be moved when the controls were locked. Another design flaw was that the locking mechanism should have been coerced into a fail safe (unlocked) position as soon as the handle was moved. Spring loading the mechanism could have achieved this result. These are the most serious design flaws that doomed the crew and passengers of tail number 100 and inspired the cover up by those who knew better."

From other posts on your site, some viewers are under the impression that the C-124 preflight check (at the time of the crash) required that a scanner verify the position of the flight controls visually.  This requirement was added after the Moses Lake crash; before then, pilots checked that the controls were unlocked by moving the yoke and rudder pedals through their entire range.

As I pointed out earlier, the flawed lock design gave the pilot an artificial indication that the controls were unlocked.  Scanners were not required to visually check the controls until after the Moses Lake crash.  In fact, on some occasions we flew with a three-man crew and didn't have a scanner.  Again I have to repeat, nothing the crew did, didn't do, or should have done would have prevented the crash--the faulty design was the cause of the crash.

The author’s web site is at: http://JacquesEvans.com.


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Forgotten Heroes Memorial Under Construction

A memorial in honor of the victims of the C-124A Globemaster crash at Larson Air Force base in Moses Lake is under construction.  On April 24, 2012, the Job Corps poured the cement to the footings of the memorial.  The construction is on schedule.

Committee member Calvin Sylvester made two dog tags with the names of A1C Van Buren Nickens, Jr. and A1C Paul Eugene Vaden on them and the dog tags were placed into the cement of the memorial yesterday (April 24).

The memorial will be dedicated on June 9, 2012 at 1 pm at the Grant County International Airport in Moses Lake. There will be a Honor Guard, Taps, and 21-gun salute. The committee requested a fly-over by the Air Force, but it is yet to be approved.


(Click picture for a larger view)

(Click picture for a larger view)

(Click picture for a larger view)

If anyone has any questions or comments about the memorial, e-mail committee chairman Mike Bellgardt at:

87forgottenheroes@gmail.com


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Reader Comments

Raymond J. Schoffstall Jr., SMSgt., USAF (Ret.)

Just finished reading the web site on the crash at Larson AFB, Washington. I was the shop chief and part of the investigating board.  Brought back many memories as I was also on the C-124 project at McChord when we got the first two aircraft.  Know it like the back of my hand.  Also lost some of my men from the Maintenance shop. When the incident happened, I was awakened by a loud noise as if there was an explosion.  A little later our Maintenance officer came and got me and said I had to go to the shop as there was an emergency.  I saw and walked the crash site and served on the board.  The most glaring fault was poor or no pre-flight physical check of the tail surface controls.  Also, the tail was intact on the ground and yielded partial engagement of the locked mechanism. I knew the Flight Engineer, having been on the Korean Airlift at McChord with the 8th TC. I was an electrician arriving there in 1950. Hard to believe it was so long ago.  I loved the C-124 "old shaky."  We flew all the Radar equipment into Tule with the project. It was Top Secret until workers there blabbed about it. Lots of memories.

I believe that aircraft was the first one of two we received for evaluation, 100 and 102. I disagree with the idea the fault of the crash was found too quick.  Being on the investigating board and having worked with Douglas tech reps on the C-124 project all of us worked long hours to unravel the cause. Sometimes one small thing can lead to a major disaster, such as the scanner arriving late and not asking the pilot to move the tail controls for confirmation--just one of many things at the last moment.  Who knows.  Flight crews must be well disciplined in their responsibilities.

Harry C. Nickens (brother to Airman 1/C Van Buren Nickens

I was an eight-year old living with my family in Monterey, Tennessee (population 2,000) when my brother, Airman 1/C Van Buren Nickens (Hq Sq AB GP), or “Bud”, as we called him, boarded the “Operation Santa Claus” ill-fated C-124 A at Larson Air Force Base, Washington. He and his best friend, Airman 1/C Paul E. Vaden (Hq Sq AB GP), or “Boob”, as we referred to him, had entered the Air Force earlier that year under what I recall was ‘the buddy plan’. They were best of friends throughout their boyhood and schooling years and entered the Air Force under a plan that would keep them together throughout their basic training and beyond, so they hoped. Their planning for being home at Christmas, 1952 found them seated side-by-side on the C-124 A.

After a joint memorial service in the high school auditorium, their remains were interred in Welch Cemetery, Monterey, Tennessee in side-by-side graves. They were afforded the highest honor of a military funeral. I can still recall the impression made on me by the playing of Taps, the 21-gun salute and the presentation of the folded American flag to my mother. Even today, when I see remains of an American service person being returned home through Dover, Delaware or hear Taps being played, my mind reflects immediately to that December day in 1952.

Bud was the first of four sons born to Martha Jane and Van Buren Nickens. He also had four sisters. All other than Bud survive at this time.

Our mother was a saintly soul that cared for a household of ten. All eight children were raised with an appropriate portion of love and caring, were well-founded in our religious faith and felt a commitment toward success. For a coal mining and timber community, Monterey offered little opportunity beyond high school. For many, the military was an opportunity to see the world and secure job skills for future employment. Once Bud entered the Air Force, his younger brother volunteered for the Navy. This left a 12-year old sister, a 6-year old brother, a toddler sister and me at home with my mother and gravely ill father, Van Buren Nickens.

We knew Bud and Boob would be traveling home together for Christmas. Their original plans were to travel by train, taking a northern route coming home and a southern route returning. That train ride would afford them the opportunity to ‘see the whole country’; however, because they had so few leave days, they opted to board the Operation Santa Claus plane.

My mother was one that admonished all of the children: “Don’t tell your dream before breakfast or it will come true.” Early on Sunday morning, December 21, 1951, my mother revealed that she had had a terrible dream the night before but would not share it when prompted to do so. You see, we had not yet had breakfast.

There was snow in our home town that morning. This resulted in the Sunday morning paper not being delivered timely. There was no CNN, Fox News or even television in our home. We all looked forward to the Sunday paper for an update on the Korean War, world news and the comic strips. After breakfast and when the paper finally arrived, my mother went out to retrieve it. She returned to the house distraught and in tears, for you see, the headlines in the paper reflected what she had dreamed that Saturday night, December 20, 1951. She saw in her dream a plane had crashed into the Monterey lumber yard. She recounted seeing flames and ‘molten lava’ everywhere, and men in blue uniforms that kept her from getting close the site. She knew then the molten lava was the metal from the plane, the men in blue were Air Force personnel and that her son was on that plane. We were not officially informed of that fact until the following Tuesday. To add to the tragic experiences that be-felled my mother, if losing her 20-year old son in a plane crash was not enough, two months later my dad passed.

Bud, by all accounts, was a genteel, loveable young adult that had much potential. He was a gifted carver of wood, had a church solo quality voice and a great work ethic. The experience of my family was no different than that of 86 others—a tragic loss.

It is with gratitude that I and others within my family commend your efforts and that of the Forgotten Heroes Memorial group. We are not certain if anyone from our family will attend the dedication of the memorial on June 2. That is still being debated. In any case, you are commended.

Blessings,
Harry C. Nickens, Ed.D.
Dean of Health and Human Sciences
St. Catharine College
St. Catharine, KY 40061

 

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