JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska — Aboard an Alaska National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk, the team breaks through the clouds and acquires the first glimpse of the beauty Alaskan glaciers offer. For many miles, all that is seen is ice 50 to 100 feet high with crevasses highlighted in a light bluish color.
Upon landing on the glacier and exiting the helicopter, it doesn’t take long to realize a tragedy occurred in this beautiful place — mangled aircraft debris is spread for hundreds of yards.
In November 1952, an Air Force C-124 Globemaster II with 52 passengers and crew members aboard took off from McChord Air Force Base, Washington, en route to Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska. As the aircraft neared its destination, volatile weather caused the C-124 to crash into Mount Gannett, less than 40 miles from Elmendorf AFB.
A search party was dispatched to the crash location, a portion of the aircraft’s tail was spotted, but the harsh weather conditions and the austere Alaskan environment thwarted efforts and necessitated the suspension of the recovery effort.
The wreckage lay at the base of the mountain upon a glacier, burying all evidence of the crash, as well as the hope to recover the service members.
Almost 60 years later, June 9, 2012, an Alaska National Guard Black Hawk crew on a training mission noticed some debris on Colony Glacier. The National Guard sent a team on foot to examine the site, and they retrieved items that were identified as being from the C-124 crash.
Since then, every summer during a small window of opportunity, Alaskan Command and Alaska National Guard personnel have been supporting the joint effort of Operation Colony Glacier. ALCOM coordinates mission planning and performs aircraft debris recovery while the Alaska National Guard provides specialists and transportation.
This year, Operation Colony Glacier started June 8, and was scheduled to continue all month, weather permitting.
Since the discovery a few years ago, 17 of the 52 Airmen aboard the aircraft have been identified and returned home. Providing closure to families is why many raise their hand at the opportunity to help.
“It is an honor and privilege to be part of this mission … to possibly provide closure for all the families involved,” said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Paul Cocker, the ALCOM deputy chief of future operations and Operation Colony Glacier project officer. “We are committed to assisting in the safe recovery of any human remains, personal effects and equipment at the crash site. As with any operation of this nature, great care and consideration for family members will be our first priority in the recovery of remains at the site.
“Our hope and goal is to find and return the remaining 35 service members,” Cocker continued. “Our second priority is maintaining our environmental stewardship and cleaning up the aircraft debris.”
The Alaskan military team is working together to ensure this mission is completed successfully, he said. This has been a team effort the entire way, with ALCOM, Alaska National Guard, active-duty military members and civilians combining their various talents toward this mission.