Buried at the Bottom of the World
When people die serving their country, to what lengths must a government go to recover the bodies?
- By Carl Hoffman
- Air & Space magazine, July 2007
Courtesy Lopez Family
(Page 4 of 6)
The Navy sent telegrams to the families of the dead men. Wendell Hendersin’s family held a memorial service in Sparta, Wisconsin, but with no body to bury, they placed no headstone to mark a grave. Fred Williams’ family in Clarksburg, Tennessee, decided against holding a service. “It was just too painful. Nobody talked about it,” says Williams’ niece, Kate Williams Beebe, now 70. “It was like a closed door. Grandma and Granddaddy wanted his body back, but they knew he wouldn’t be returning.” Max Lopez’s family, which held a memorial service in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1947, remained haunted by his loss. “My father was seven years younger than Uncle Max and idolized his older brother,” says Ted Lopez, 42, who has his uncle’s service scrapbook, a collection of clippings about the accident, and the Western Union telegram informing the family of his death. (Lopez is the Air & Space/Smithsonian graphic designer.) “My grandmother held a bit of a grudge and even once called the pilot, blaming him.” According to relatives, Hendersin’s mother asked for a grave at Arlington National Cemetery for her son, but her re-quest was turned down by the Navy.
And the older Robbie Robbins grew, the more agitated he became. He would read about U.S. forensic anthropologists combing the forests of Vietnam and bringing the remains of former MIAs home, while Lopez, Hendersin, and Williams were still out there in a frozen tomb.
One day a retired Navy chief petty officer in Allentown, Pennsylvania, named George Fabik got a computer. Fabik, then 79, had spent his whole career in the Navy. He loved the service and was loyal to it, and, like Robbins, he believed that no one who died serving his country should be left behind. Fabik was surfing the Internet on his new computer when he stumbled upon a Web site on Navy patrol squadrons that mentioned two Navy airplane crashes, both resulting in unrecovered remains: a Lockheed P2V Neptune that had crashed on the Greenland icecap in 1962 and George One. Kenneth Terry, head of the U.S. Navy Casualty Office, had been researching both cases and his memos were posted on the site. In one, Terry wrote that the chances for a successful recovery of the George One remains “would be extremely good if teams from the Department of Defense’s Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command central identification laboratory were employed.” Terry noted that JPAC’s lab maintains 18 recovery teams worldwide, including one specializing in cold-weather recoveries.
Too far and too expensive, the Navy decided for both cases, estimating the P2V Neptune recovery at $2 million to $4 million, according to Terry. And anyway, there was a bureaucratic problem: Neither the P2V nor George One was an accident of war; the crew fatalities were not, technically, missing or killed in action and thus did not fall under the jurisdiction of JPAC. But in August 1995 some exploring geologists stumbled onto the Greenland site and found the remains of at least two crew members on the surface of the snow. The Washington Times and Fox News picked up the story, and an embarrassed Navy hired a British contractor to help JPAC recover the remains, which it did without difficulty in September 2004. The cost: $239,000.
But what about George One? Fabik was both horrified and embarrassed that the Navy was equivocating at all, and he turned his attention to the forgotten airplane and its dead crewmen. Cost and convenience should have nothing to do with the issue, he figured. If the Navy could recover American bodies in Greenland, well, it ought to be able to get the ones in Antarctica.
He got in touch with Robbins, and the sisters of Hendersin and Williams. He got in touch with Ted Lopez, and he started firing off letters to the Navy.
The Navy has recognized the sacrifice of Lopez, Hendersin, and Williams. Seven days after they died, their crewmates buried them in a service presided over by their ship’s commanding officer, as would have been happened had they died during a World War II deployment requiring burial at sea. At the U.S. scientific base at Antarctica’s McMurdo Station is a plaque—designed by veterans of Operation Highjump—honoring the three men as the first Americans to lose their lives in Antarctica; the National Science Foundation, which operates McMurdo, arranged for it to be placed there after the Highjump veterans’ 50th reunion in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1996. The three names are engraved on a wall at the Navy memorial at the Presidio in San Francisco National Cemetery; the wall honors those killed in the Pacific theater. In 1960, at the request of the Navy, the Department of the Interior gave the name “Mount Lopez” to the unmarked and unnamed mountain that was the site of the fatal crash (Lopez was the highest-ranking serviceman killed). Still, the recovery in Greenland and letters from Fabik and Robbins spurred representatives from the Navy, the National Science Foundation, the Army, and the U.S. Geological Survey to meet outside Washington, D.C., in the fall of 2004. The first order of business: After nearly 60 years, could George One be located?
Jerry Mullins, the Geological Survey’s manager of polar programs, found photos of the crash site in the National Archives and used them to narrow the search area to 0.5 square kilometer—124 acres. Satellite maps showed an area without crevasses, close to the ocean.