The Colony Glacier in Alaska is giving up the dead it has held in a frozen grave for 62 years.
Little by little, the monster slab of ice is grinding out the remnants of an Air Force C-124A Globemaster, a military transport airplane that was Korea-bound on Nov. 22, 1952, when it crashed into the side of Mount Gannett, about 40 miles east of Anchorage.
The wreckage, along with the remains of 52 servicemen, slid into the glacier next to the mountain. Recovery efforts never got into high gear because of a rugged winter that year. It wasn’t long before the glacier claimed the aircraft and its passengers.
Two years ago, the glacier began churning up pieces of the wreckage — 12 miles from the crash site — and the debris was spotted by the crew of an Alaska National Guard Black Hawk helicopter on a training mission.
Now the military has collected some human remains and matched DNA samples with descendants of the killed servicemen. In late April, more than six decades after the crash, the government began sending families notifications of the positive identifications. Long overdue funeral services are being planned.
And yet, Tonja Anderson-Dell, 43, of Tampa, waits. She spearheaded online a social media charge to find and recover the remains and wreckage on behalf of the relatives of the servicemen on that plane. Her grandfather, Isaac Anderson, then 21 and in the Air Force for less than two years, was among the passengers who perished in the crash. He left behind a 20-year-old wife, Dorothy, and an 18-month old son, Isaac Jr., Anderson-Dell’s father.
Though she’s made connections with most of the families of those soldiers, and she’s happy for their closure in this matter, Anderson-Dell is anguished that her grandfather’s remains have not yet been found.
“Oh, yes,” she said. “It’s overwhelming. I’m praying for that day right now. But I’m still focused on a lot of the families. Many have asked me to attend funeral services for their relatives.”
In the beginning, Anderson-Dell thought she was the only relative asking about the plane. She built a Facebook page and began contacting families of other victims. Together, they kept track of progress.
In September 2012, she went to the site where the wreckage emerged and met with the crew who first spotted the aircraft and looked over the containers of recovered aircraft parts.
There was a bin of personal artifacts, including dog tags, Social Security cards and wallets with money still in them. “I got a chance to hold some of the pieces taken from the crash site,” she said.
The military even sent some small pieces of the aircraft to families as keepsakes, including Anderson-Dell, who said her piece of the Globemaster still smelled of diesel fuel after 60-plus years under ice.
She’s been on this mission for a decade and a half, starting out petitioning the military for a flag to be presented to her grandmother. The flag eventually was awarded to the family, but her grandmother died shortly before the ceremony, held at MacDill Air Force Base.
Over the past two years, recovery crews made trips to the crash site whenever pieces of wreckage surfaced and collected whatever they saw. Remains of 19 servicemen were found; DNA tests were conducted. A few weeks ago, the military sent notifications to those families in which remains of their ancestor had been positively identified.
“We are all quite shocked at how emotional it really is,” said Kathy Evans Naughton of Fort Lauderdale, whose uncle, Thomas Lyons, died on that flight. Her family got word two weeks ago that his remains had been identified.
“The picture in our house,” she said, “just became a young boy again.”
Growing up, she said, there were photographs in the house of Lyons in his military uniform.
“We knew there was a plane crash and there were letters to my grandmother from the military,” she said. “We knew all that stuff was in her hope chest.”
Her family submitted a DNA sample a couple of years ago but didn’t think her uncle’s remains would ever be recovered.
“We were not very hopeful it ever would happen, but then the military called out of the blue,” she said.
Though her grandmother lived to be 101, she died three months before they found the plane, Naughton said.
Next week, the family is expecting a knock on the door. Thomas Lyons’ personal effects will be hand-delivered. They include a wallet with everything in it and a notebook.
In a couple of months’ time, Naughton said, a military funeral service will take place in Lake Worth.
“I’m extremely relieved, but it’s bittersweet for my mom (Lyons’ sister),” she said. “She was 14 when he died. He was 19. She’s now reliving the whole experience.”
The job of gathering DNA samples from surviving family members and matching those samples with remains found at the crash site lies with the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, which conducts searches all over the world for missing or unaccounted for servicemen and women.
Lee Tucker, the command’s spokesman, said remains of the 19 bodies were taken to the Hawaii headquarters and tested.
He said search teams have made and will continue to make trips to the glacier when new bits of wreckage surface.
“We went there for an excavation the first year and recovered everything we could from the ice,” he said. “Then, fast forward 11 months later, and there’s more. We sent a team again. And we’re in preparation right now to send a recovery team out there again.”
Tucker said because the remains were under ice for 60 years, they are well preserved. “It definitely helps,” he said. “It makes it favorable for us to do quality testing.”
Last year, Anderson-Dell submitted paperwork with the Alaska Department of Natural Resources to name the unnamed Mount Gannett peak where the plane crashed Globemaster Peak. The proposal successfully made its way through the appropriate state agencies and has been approved by the U.S. Geological Survey.
“The naming of this peak means a lot to me because there is a great possibility that not all our loved ones will return home (my grandfather included),” Anderson-Dell wrote on the website letting the surviving families know about her efforts. “To know that Globemaster Peak will now be forever changed in honor of our 52 servicemen is priceless.”
“I started off just trying to get a flag for my grandmother,” she said in a telephone interview this week, “and now, I’m ending up with the naming of a peak.”