All That Remains
Old aircraft crash scenes are littered with story fragments.
- By Howard James Stansfield
- Air & Space magazine, November 2002
(Page 4 of 5)
Once convinced of Brandt’s sincerity, Doris told him about her life after losing Charles. She had moved back to the small town she had grown up in and where she had met Charles at the high school for black students. She went back to teaching, raised her son and daughter, became a grandmother, retired. She never remarried; Charles was her one true love.
In all those years, the question of what had really happened to Charles hovered over her like the old photo of him she kept on her mantel. The Air Force had never produced a body, instead interring the crew’s remains in a single casket at Arlington National Cemetery, outside Washington, D.C. Over the years, Doris often wondered whether Charles might not still be alive somewhere. What if he had bailed out and been injured, perhaps suffering amnesia, wandering the country like some real-life Manchurian Candidate?
Those questions were finally laid to rest a few days after she spoke with Brandt, when an envelope arrived from Phoenix. Inside were Charles’ dog tags. Doris took them out and held them, then hung them from his photo on the mantel. She says she hasn’t felt quite the same since. I ask her whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. “Oh, its a good thing,” she quickly responds. “Now I know.”
Little stands between most wrecks and oblivion. The Air Force washed its hands of the majority of its crashes when a fire destroyed the titles to all aircraft wrecked before 1961. “After that, the Air Force decided any wreckage sites from before that date would be considered formally abandoned,” explains Brad Smith, who heads the Air Force’s disposal and donation program, located at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. Anyone wanting anything from a pre-’61 wreck needs only the permission of whoever owns the land where the wreck resides. As for post-1961 wrecks, Smith’s office reviews salvage requests on a case-by-case basis.
The Navy takes a much more proprietary view of its wrecked craft. “The Navy basically considers all wrecks—both ships and airplanes—to be its property forever,” says Wendy Coble, a Naval archaeologist in Washington, D.C. The Navy takes a dim view of salvagers, she says, because wreck sites often are the last resting places for their crews. (Most everyone who has visited a fair share of sites has come across human remains.) The Navy’s policy is also based on the danger of unexploded ordnance. Then there’s the fact that the aircraft were purchased with taxpayer money: “They should belong to everyone,” Coble says. Some salvagers disagree with the “keep off” policy, pointing out that the Navy itself does not salvage many of its wrecks and thus risks losing valuable artifacts to neglect and exposure (see “Whose Planes Are They Anyway?” Oct./Nov. 1998).
Even though people may have died at them, most wreck sites aren’t considered significant historically, so they are offered no protection under the National Historical Register. The only recognition such sites will ever receive comes from the wreck chasers themselves, some of whom have erected simple memorials. Jim Fusco put one up last year at a site in southeastern Arizona where in 1943 a B-24 exploded in mid-air while being ferried from Texas to Arizona. The Army Air Forces removed the large pieces of the bomber, but small bits are still scattered over the area like shells on a beach. In the middle of the debris field stands a simple aluminum cross listing the aircraft type, the date of the explosion, and the names of the four crew members who died in it. The cross is hidden by thick creosote and ocotillo and set back from the nearby freeway. I ask Fusco why he installed a monument that so few will ever see. “I just felt like I needed to give something back,” he says.
But wreck chasers can also pose a threat to the sites. At Gray Mountain, I sit down on one of the warm rocks to enjoy the remarkable view the clean, dry air affords: Our trucks appear as glinting specks far below. It’s a view that invites reflection—or would invite reflection, were it not for an obnoxious clanging coming from somewhere above me. I swivel around and see one of the members of our party—a retired gentleman, a friend of a friend of Brandt’s—hammering at something on one of the engines with a rock. After several minutes, he finally comes away with his prize: the data plate from the engine’s fuel injection unit.
The sight of a grown man smashing away at a piece of aviation history with such troglodytic abandon galls me, but then who am I to judge? Beside my computer at home sits a .50-caliber shell casing I pocketed at the B-24 mountain crash site, a theft that makes me as guilty as Mr. Dataplate.