Belinda Davis’ uncle died more than half a century ago on a remote Alaska mountaintop. His body was never recovered. But five years ago, a new possibility emerged that her family may find some closure.
Edmond W. “Eddie” Mize was one of 52 people who died on Nov. 22, 1952, when a C-124 Globemaster airplane traveling from Washington state to Elmendorf Air Force Base crashed into Mount Gannett in the Chugach range, about 50 miles east of Anchorage.
The wreckage was quickly lost beneath snowfall in the ice field above Colony Glacier. No bodies were recovered for decades.
“It’s like waiting for a funeral for 60 years,” Davis said.
Davis never met Mize, but she remembers his picture hanging over her grandparents’ bed when she was a child. Her father is now 79. Two of his sisters are also still alive.
“They’re all kind of getting up in age, and we’re really just praying that we can bring him home before, you know, it’s too late for them to have the closure,” Davis said from Florida, where she lives.
Just six days after the crash, the plane wreckage was found by Terris Moore, a lieutenant in the Fairbanks chapter of the Civil Air Patrol who was also serving as the second president of the University of Alaska, wrote Michael Rocereta in his 2015 book, “Letters From the Globemaster Families.”
Moore and an Elmendorf official landed on the glacier in a ski-equipped Piper Super Cub. He verified its Air Force number and took note of the scene. Most of the wreckage was unrecognizable, with only the tail intact, but he did find a charred parka and blanket with blood on it, Rocereta wrote.
Telegrams to the families, informing them that their loved ones had perished in the accident, went out soon after.
The plane was miles off course when it crashed. The Air Force would later say pilot navigational error was the likely cause, due to bad weather and instrumentation that was not nearly as sophisticated as today’s technology.
Explosion and avalanche
Annabelle Bohlmann was 16 years old when her brother, Edwin Henry Loeffer, died in the crash. She remembers the call her family received that day in late 1952. Her father was told he had to pick up a telegram.
Loeffer, a second lieutenant, was 22 when he died. A Princeton graduate, he was smart and talented, Bohlmann said from her home in New York state.
Soon after the crash, two subsequent recovery missions came up empty. The force of the crash and fuel explosion had obliterated the airplane and triggered a massive avalanche.
Bohlmann is comforted knowing Loeffer likely did not suffer in his passing. She imagines that, affable as he was, he was likely chatting with someone before the crash.
At the top of the mountain, the avalanche and snowfall quickly stalled recovery efforts.
By August 1953, the time of the Air Force’s second and final recovery attempt for 60 years, the plane was already likely buried under 50 feet of snow, Rocereta wrote.
Wayne Dean Jackson was 21, an airman 3rd class, when he died in the crash. Vicki Dodson was 7 years old at the time. Although not blood relatives, Dodson calls Jackson her brother. He lived across the street in a small Missouri town. His family took care of her, Dodson said.
After his death, Dodson and his mother spoke about Jackson every day.
“Not too long before she died, she said, ‘I really think they’ll go back in there,’ ” Dodson recounted from her home in Wisconsin. “Here she was. She was right.”
On June 10, 2012, debris from the plane was spotted by an Alaska Army National Guard Black Hawk helicopter pilot on a routine training flight.
At first, officials thought it was a crash that hadn’t yet been reported, said John Gordinier, public affairs officer for the 11th Air Force, Alaskan Command and Alaskan NORAD Region at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.
But a ground recovery mission confirmed: It was the Globemaster.
“When they found that plane, it was unbelievable to me,” Dodson said.
Over the decades, the wreckage had traveled 13 miles down Colony Glacier, emerging from the ice near the glacier’s terminus, which empties into Lake George, Rocereta wrote.
Since then, the military has returned each June, in a roughly one-month window during which it’s safe enough to undertake the recovery.
The crew members begin collecting debris at the toe of the glacier, near the water, and work their way back, said Capt. Victoria Martinez, a lead on the project with the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations.
There’s no way to know how much, if any, of the wreckage has already tumbled into the lake. And estimating how much time they have to recover it is difficult, because the glacier doesn’t always move at the same speed.
On Wednesday, volunteers worked on a debris field a few thousand yards from the edge, in a grid about 35 yards across and 200 yards wide.
The work is painstaking. A small crew assembled from within Alaska military organizations takes the job every summer. They hack at the glacier with ice picks and comb it with trowels, often on their knees, looking for the tiniest pieces of debris.
This year they’ve found hockey pucks. Propellers. Survival suits. Wooden dominoes.
The people on board the Globemaster were moving to Alaska, Martinez said. Now, workers are finding all the items one might pack, along with all the parts and pieces of an airplane.
“Anything from as big as an airplane engine to as small as a button,” Martinez said, citing things they’ve found this summer.
Most important, they’ve found human remains this summer. Those will be sent to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations is based.
It takes about six months to identify remains, according to Allen Cronin, chief of the Past Conflicts Branch of the Air Force Mortuary Affairs.
Family members have given DNA samples for matching. But of the 52 people on board, two did not have living relatives. So if those remains are found, there will be no way to know which of the two they belonged to, Cronin said.
Cronin, a funeral services director by trade, works closely with the families throughout the process of identifying and returning remains. All of them are given a burial with full military honors, he said.
Cronin said those first phone calls to families are a “double-edged sword.” There’s relief in getting that call, but it also opens 60-year-old wounds.
Wallet, dog tags, class ring
Annabelle Bohlmann is 82 now. She said she had always imagined that the debris was sitting at the bottom of the ocean somewhere in Alaska.
“I think it’s an amazing project. I can’t believe what these people are going through,” she said of the recovery mission.
Loeffer’s remains have been found but not yet returned, she said. He’ll be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
But in advance of his burial, the family has received Loeffer’s wallet, his dog tags, even his Princeton class ring from 1952, which emerged from the ice and debris intact.
“I thought, ‘How in the world?’ ” Bohlmann said of the ring’s recovery.
Belinda Davis has also been given remnants of the crash — two small pieces of the plane, sent with a letter from Cronin.
“It’s hard to hold that in your hand and not feel something,” she said, choking up.
Davis’ family also has Mize’s shaving kit, recovered from the glacier, now kept in a sealed bag to preserve it.
Thirty-seven of the people on board have been found; 15 are still missing. Davis’ uncle is one of those missing.
Tonja Anderson’s grandfather is another. Anderson lives in Florida. Her grandfather, Isaac Anderson, was an airman basic with the Air Force.
For 16 years, Anderson has been searching for answers about the crash. Her name is well known to officials working on recovery efforts. And she has created a community, some of whom, like Dodson, say that Anderson has become family.
She says she won’t stop until the servicemen are all brought to rest.
“My drive, I think, is to bring them all home,” Anderson said.
As Davis hopes for news of her uncle’s return, she says the most important part of her family’s story is about her grandmother, Dortha Forrester Mize.
Mize’s last wish was to see the mountain that took her son, Davis said.
In June 1995, she did it. Mize traveled from Florida to Alaska and saw Mount Gannett. She died six months later.
Correction: An earlier version of this story listed an incorrect name for Dortha Mize. It also said Belinda Davis remembered her uncle’s picture hanging over her parents’ bed; it was actually her grandparents’ bed.