Plane crash victims, survivors, memorialized by Boy Scout plaques

Wednesday, May 27, 2015 - 23:00
1957 Air Force B-29 crash claimed lives of six military personnel
A B-29 aircraft crashed into a glacier near Reed Lakes Trail in 1957, killing six military personnel on board.

Note: Portions of this article were originally written by the author for a radio broadcast on his former program, “Conversations Continued,” on KLEF several years ago.

 

On November 15, 1957, about 6:20 p.m., a B-29 training aircraft from Elmendorf Air Force Base with a crew of 10 was returning to base after a radar-calibrating mission farther north. Weather had deteriorated and the ceiling had dropped to below 5,000 feet as they made their way south past Talkeetna. A routine radio report from the aircraft reported no problems. The plane was scheduled to arrive at Elmendorf about 7 p.m.

Staff Sergeant Calvin Campbell, then 34, was assigned to the right scanner position, about mid-point in the aircraft behind the engines. One of his tasks was to monitor the two engines on the right side. Staff Sergeant Robert McMurray had similar duties on the left side. In the pilot seat was 1st Lt. William J. Schreffler.

In the co-pilot seat was Capt. Erwin Stolfich. The ranking officer aboard was pilot Major Robert A. Butler, then 41 years of age. Other officers aboard were Capt. Edward Valiant, Captain Oliver Johnson, and Capt. Richard Seaman.

In a telephone interview in 2000, Campbell, then 77 and living in California, described what happened next:

“We were descending toward Elmendorf at full speed, when we hit real hard with no warning. Everything went black…I mean real black. Then we hit again and it felt so cold. It felt like the wings tore off and when I crawled out, I saw that the fuselage was broken into two. We were on a snowy field — I didn’t know at the time it was a glacier. It was so quiet.

“Staff Sergeant Bob McMurray was right below me, pinned between the fuselage and the observation post. I pulled him out of there. Navigator Lt. Claire Johnson had dragged himself out of the plane and collapsed in the snow nearby. I wrapped them both in parachutes and put Johnson in a sleeping bag that I found in the cargo hold.

“I could hear Sgt. Samuel Garza, the flight engineer, yelling from farther up the slope. He was still inside the nose section. It had sheared off and gone up the hill about 500 feet.

“When I got up to Garza I soon realized he was the only other survivor — it was just the four of us. The pilot, co-pilot and three other officers perished instantly — I believe the sixth officer, Major Butler, survived the crash but died later that night.

“Garza weighed about 140 lbs… it was hard pulling him out. I placed him on a piece of canvas and dragged him down the slope to the others. He had a broken arm and broken leg. I went back to the cargo hold and got more sleeping bags and then got us into the wreckage out of the wind — it felt very cold, but I had extra flight clothing to help cover us up.”

According to the Air Force’s accident report, the aircraft broke apart on impact, but there was no fire or explosion—a key factor in the four airmen’s survival.

Another survivor, Lt. Claire Johnson, provided these details: “I was back with Campbell and McMurray having some coffee. When we hit it bounced me around the cargo netting pretty good. I was flying all over the place.”

Johnson affirmed that that Calvin Campbell’s quick actions saved him and his fellow crew mates.

“He was scurrying around in the dark taking care of us like a mother hen,” Johnson recalled. “He wrapped us up, got us out of the wind. We owe our lives to him.”

Air Rescue at Elmendorf assembled a search that evening (Nov. 15, 1957), immediately after the B-29 disappeared from radar--but weather turned that first effort back. A search at daybreak the following morning zeroed in on the B-29’s last known position. By 9:30 they found the crash site — on a broad glacial slope at 5,600 feet — about a mile northeast of upper Reed Lake.

Lieutenant Jack A. Wolf, flying a Grumman SA-16 Albatross amphibian, was the first to spot the downed aircraft. Captain Melvin Swendels and 1st Lieutenant Thomas Seebo piloted the Piasecki SH-21 helicopters from 10th Air Rescue Group that rescued the survivors.

Thanks to Campbell’s decisive actions, the injured men survived the night. They were taken to the hospital at Elmendorf.

“I think we were about 17 degrees off course.” Campbell recalled. “Too far to the east — put us right into those high mountains.”

Radar data would later indicate that the aircraft was about 27 miles east of its planned course into Elmendorf. A report indicated that the aircraft had strayed off course due to a combination of factors, including deteriorating weather and the possibility of pilot error.

Campbell said that except for a scratch over his eye, he was unharmed. He later would suffer complications from frostbitten feet, however, and lose the use of several toes.

Not long after the accident Calvin K. Campbell received a special commendation from President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Soldier’s Medal, a decoration for valor in a non-combat situation. He retired from the Air Force in 1968.

“I didn’t feel like a hero or anything,” said Campbell. “I just did what I had to do. “The other guys would have done the same thing for me.”

Today, the broken bomber sits on the glacier as a quiet memorial to the six men who died there half a century ago.

I hiked there with friends several times over the years — via upper Reed Lake trail and then over the pass. The wreckage looked surreal, out of place. Here was 50 tons of torn and twisted metal, once with wings stretching about half the length of football field. The pride of the U.S. Air Force in World War II now lay in ruins on a glacier, bent and buckled, wrenched apart, scattered, exposed to the whims of nature.

We walked around the site awhile, took a few photos, afraid to touch anything. Six men had died here. It was unearthly quiet, as Calvin Campbell described it. A cool gust of wind blew up from the valley below. I felt like it was telling us to move on. On another hike we found parts of the wreckage scattered far down the glacier, now part of an endlessly shifting ocean of ice.

After that initial visit, I vowed to find out more about the incident, and through an internet search eventually located Calvin K. Campbell, who though not in the best of health, was more than willing to talk about the experience.

Six crew members killed in the crash:

• Major Robert A. Butler

• Captain Richard O. Seaman

• Captain Erwin Stolfich

• Captain Edward A. Valiant

• 1st Lieutenant William J. Schreffler

• Airman Basic James R. Roberson

 

Staff Sergeant Calvin K. Campbell was credited with saving the lives of the three other survivors:

• Staff Sergeant Robert J. McMurray

• Technical Sergeant Manuel Garza

• 1st Lieutenant Claire W. Johnson

 

A Boy Scout service project initiated by Tyler Adams in 2005 and supported by the other members of Troop 25 as well as several companies, Rep. Don Young and the Alaska State Parks, resulted in two memorial plaques being forged in 2006. One of the plaques was placed at the Alaska Veterans Memorial at Mile 147.2 of the Parks Highway. The other was placed 70 miles south in the Talkeetna Mountains at the crash site.

The crash site is accessed from the Reed Lakes Trail via the Hatcher Pass Road. The trail is nine miles round trip and takes six-eight hours. Poor weather is the problem most associated with this moderately-difficult trail. July through September is the most popular hiking season. The climb from Upper Reed Lake to what is now known informally as “Bomber Glacier” is much more difficult and is definitely not for people inexperienced in steep, off-trail hiking.

 

To contact Frank Baker, email him at [email protected], or like his page on Facebook, www.facebook.com/MountainEchoesAlaskaStar.

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