JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska — In November 1952, Airman Isaac Anderson sealed the envelope on a letter to his bride. “I will be getting on a plane for Alaska in two hours. I love you, take care of my son,” he wrote.
Airman Anderson and
51 other passengers and crewmembers aboard the C-124 Globemaster II en route to Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, from Washington state would never reach their final destination.
A search party was dispatched to the crash location and a portion of the aircraft’s tail was spotted, but harsh weather conditions and the austere Alaskan environment thwarted efforts and necessitated the suspension of the recovery effort.
The C-124 crashed into Mt. Gannett, less than 40 miles from its final destination. The wreckage then tumbled down the mountain in an avalanche coming to final rest in a glacier, burying all evidence of the crash that had occurred as well as the hope to recover the service members, declared as missing in action.
It would be a month before a letter with details of the crash would be delivered to the next of kin, Airman Anderson’s wife. She always thought he was going to walk back through the door, so she never remarried.
Nearly 60 years later, Airman Anderson’s granddaughter, Tonja Anderson, retells her grandfather’s story, saying it’s always been a family legend. Because her father didn’t grow up with his father, the legacy was carried on in pictures.
“I’ve always held on to the letter; I’m going to find out what happened,” Anderson said.
As a promise to her grandmother before her death in 2001, Anderson picked up her search efforts to find the missing C-124 and answer the question, “how do you land on the glacier and not go back?”
In June 2012, while on a routine training mission, an Alaska Army National Guard UH-60 Blackhawk crew spotted bright yellow debris on the stark white landscape of the ground below.
Low passes of Colony Glacier revealed what seemed to be aircraft debris, including shredded metal, life rafts and possibly a portion of landing gear.
Joint Task Force-Alaska was notified and activated and sent a team out to the glacier to take a closer look. The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command was then contacted and a team was dispatched from their headquarters at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii.
The JPAC team recovered material evidence such as life support equipment from the wreckage and also possible osseous material from the glacier. The team completed its investigation and recovery operation June 26 and the collected evidence was transported to JPAC’s Central Identification Laboratory for further analysis.
Based on the material recovered, a positive correlation between the wreckage and the 1952 crash of Airman Anderson’s C-124 was made.
Tonja Anderson heard about it on the news.
“I screamed, I cried, I called my dad at work and told him ‘they found grandpa’s plane’,” she said.
After learning of the teamwork of the Alaska National Guard, JPAC and JTF-Alaska, Anderson decided to make the trip to Alaska to see for herself all that went into the effort, dubbed Operation Colony Glacier.
“I wanted to see for myself what it took for the 1952 search party to get there, what it was like having to stay the night, and, importantly, why they abandoned the search. You see it on paper, but until you visually see it … I have more respect for it now.
“I just hope I can explain to the families when they have questions,” Anderson worries.
“We don’t understand, because we are just family members, what took place and why the military made the decisions they made. Now that I’m here and I can see it I can get them to understand,” she said. “If it’s hard now, I know it would have been hard back then.”
For Anderson, her visit to Alaska and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson was about closure.
Along with a summer 2012 timeline of Operation Colony Glacier, vintage artifacts recovered from the glacier – including a celestial navigation chart, Morse code card, and survival equipment such as rations, cooking pot and M1950 stove, fishing and desalination kits – as well as personal items such as a boot heel, uniform button, and a hockey puck were on display for Anderson.
“This makes it real for me,” she said. “I can’t believe all that is still intact, it’s just priceless being able to touch some of the stuff that was on the plane with them.”
She thanked the “Alaska National Guard, Joint Task Force, and JPAC, for taking the time to go back to the glacier and bringing it home, so we can finally get closure after 60 years.”
She says she understands now the necessity to abandon the search all those years ago.
“When you are a family member and you are reading about it, you don’t truly understand about it being inaccessible. I wrote letters every day. When I pulled out some of the emails and letters I wrote, I realized I was very mean, and it was just because I couldn’t understand. How do you land on the glacier and not go back?” Anderson said. “Now that I’m here and I can see it; I truly understand.”
In her journey, she’s met 20 to 30 families of the 52.
“At this point in my life, I’m prepared even if they don’t find one piece of my grandfather, I have closure,” Anderson said. “If they can bring something back to the other families, I’ve done my job.”
Airmen Anderson would be proud of his granddaughter’s efforts.
“It’s no longer a family story; it’s real now.”