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
The year was 1946 and James “Robbie” Robbins was living large. He was 19 years old, tall and dark-haired, and already a World War II veteran with 1,500 hours in Martin PBM Mariner seaplanes. During the war he had patrolled the Atlantic Ocean, from the Caribbean to Greenland; now his territory was the North Atlantic. Though one war had ended, another—the cold war—was beginning, and the U.S. military was fanning out to all corners of the globe to prepare for wherever the next conflict might erupt.
Robbins flew as part of Project Nanook to establish Thule Air Base, scouting Greenland’s North Star Bay one day, and the next flying a mail run back to Goose Bay, Labrador, and flirting with the nurses at the base there.
Late in the year, he went with the Navy to the opposite pole for Rear Admiral Richard Byrd, 13 ships, 23 aircraft, and 4,700 men were sent to photograph, map, and perhaps even claim the Antarctic continent for the United States. And there was Robbie Robbins, a radar man suddenly ordered to Panama to join the seaplane tender USS Pine Island, loaded with three PBMs and bound for the last continent. It was the start of a tragic adventure that would leave three men dead and six others stranded in the coldest, most inhospitable place on Earth for 13 days.
Now, six decades later, Robbins and relatives of the crewmen who died are trying to get the Navy to recover the bodies that were left behind.
As Robbins remembers it, on December 30, 1946, the Pine Island hove to in the lee of a giant iceberg not far from Thurston Island, about 40 miles from the Antarctic mainland and some 1,500 miles south of Punte Arenas, Chile, and went to work. The expedition had only the two months of the austral summer before weather would make photography and mapping impossible. With a hard blue sky and the weather cold and crisp, George One, as the first of the Pine Island’s three PBM-5 Mariners was code-named, was dropped in the water, fueled, and towed clear. It took off on a 10-hour mission, following the coast westward and photographing the shore. By the time Robbins’ commander, Ralph “Frenchie” LeBlanc, had gathered his crew for the airplane’s second flight, the weather had deteriorated slightly. But weather in that part of the world was always iffy. The crew believed that the weather inland was clear; they figured they had a window and they’d better take it. The Pine Island’s captain, Henry Caldwell, anxious to get a sense of the place, wanted to ride along.
By the time crew members were readying George One for the second flight, the waves were thrashing, yanking the airplane against the lines that tethered it to the assisting boats and roughly jostling the guys inside. Robbins and Caldwell managed to attach four jet-assisted takeoff bottles to the seaplane, but the mooring lines were literally shredding the craft’s aluminum skin. LeBlanc, another World War II veteran with thousands of hours in PBMs, was unperturbed by the conditions. The Pine Island laid a fuel slick to calm the waters and George One cast off and started its run. After what seemed like five miles, the longest run Robbins had ever experienced, LeBlanc fired the JATO bottles and George
One took wing—into a blinding snowstorm.
Robbins says he wasn’t worried, though. He had once received a commendation for a nine-hour flight through fog and clouds in Greenland, and he felt confident in his skills as a radar operator. As Captain Caldwell strapped into the seat in the forward gun turret—now just an observer’s seat—Robbins checked his radarscope. Icebergs below registered strong returns.
As they approached the coast, Robbins reported to the flight deck: “Mountain range 20 miles ahead and scattered icebergs.” The radar return was clear and strong; the terrain matched the charts. But the weather ahead wasn’t clearing. LeBlanc and copilot William Kearns decided to abort the flight and began a long, slow 180-degree turn.
Robbins, standing between the pilots on the airplane’s flight deck, felt a slight bump. He heard LeBlanc and Kearns pour on full power.
And then, nothing. He felt like he was floating. He felt a shaking. His shoulder. He looked up; he was kneeling in snow 20 yards from the cockpit, and the flight engineer, Bill Warr, was standing over him. “We’re all screwed up, Robbie,” Warr said. “I think we’re the only ones alive.”
Robbins looked around, dazed. Snow was blowing and whipping. To his right he saw the navigator, Ensign Max Lopez. In front of them was radioman Wendell Hendersin. Both men were dead. Much of the airplane was burning, the flames crackling and popping in the wind and snow. Robbins stood up—he seemed okay—and he and Warr made their way toward the burning remains of the flight deck. Kearns was crawling in the snow, his shoulder dislocated, his arm fractured.
Suddenly, a voice: “Get me out of here!” Kearns leapt up and ran into the flames, where he tried to unbuckle LeBlanc, who was hanging upside down in his seat, but couldn’t get him out. Warr and Robbins rushed in, pushed Kearns aside, and dragged the burning LeBlanc from the wreckage.
Over the next few minutes, the rest of the crew showed up. Caldwell was uninjured but disoriented. Fred Williams, another flight engineer, was lying by the fire, his back broken, blood oozing from his mouth and nose. Owen McCarty, the airplane’s photographer, crawled from the largely intact aft section with a severe gash on his head.
A lifetime later, Robbins is at a loss to explain how they coped. But they were young and strong, and they had been through a lot already. They went to work.
The airplane was mostly in three main pieces. The wings had come off almost intact. Twenty feet from the wings lay the burning flight deck. Forty feet from that lay most of the fuselage and tail section. The men weren’t sure what had happened, but in a 1950 account in Flying magazine, Kearns wrote that they “decided that the plane’s light impact on a ridge had ruptured one of the fuel cells. Fumes from the leaking gasoline must have been ignited by an electrical charge or by hot exhaust gases,” causing George One to explode in flight.
The crew slid Williams onto a piece of decking, erected a lean-to, and made him as comfortable as possible without moving him. They tucked LeBlanc into a sleeping bag in the tail section and hunkered down with him. Caldwell, Warr, and Robbins shared a single blanket; they rotated, each one getting some time in the warmth of the center position. Time passed. When the snowfall eased, Caldwell, Warr, and Robbins ventured out. Williams was dead. Who would be the next?
In some ways, they were lucky. George One had been stocked like a pantry before a party, so food was not a concern. After three days, the weather cleared. The sky was cloudless and the sun blazed. The men were perched on the edge of a hill, with the ocean shimmering below. Looking around, they found more sleeping bags, boxes of cigarettes, a Brownie camera with film, and other supplies, including a sled and a nine-man life raft.
Days passed; the sun never set. Robbins snapped photos with the Brownie, and when he ran out of film, tucked the camera in his tent. He painted “Williams, Hendersin, Lopez DEAD” in big yellow letters on the PBM’s wings. On the seventh day, according to Kearns’ account, the survivors placed the dead men into graves near the wingtip. Caldwell conducted the burial service.
Finally, on the 13th day, a PBM appeared. Everyone shouted, waved, and set off smoke grenades, but the airplane continued on its way. Two hours later it returned; Robbins threw a bucket of avgas on the raft, piled high with flammable material, and struck a match. The thing blew so hard it singed his eyebrows. This time the airplane turned and headed toward the cheering men. There wasn’t a more beautiful sight, Robbins says, than that big Mariner, wagging its wings. The pilot dropped a weighted note, which Caldwell read aloud: “If you can make it to the lake, form a circle. If not, form a straight line.” The lake was 10 miles away.
Robbins remembers Caldwell asking “What do you think?”
“What other choice do we have?” said Robbins. The men formed a circle.
Then they bent to the task. They piled sleeping bags on the sled and laid LeBlanc on top. Robbins mounted the compass from George One on the sled’s handlebars. With three men pulling the sled and one walking behind to guide it, they struggled toward the shore. They frequently stepped through the crust and sank in snow up to their waists. Not until they hit firm ground did the going get easier. Walking the 10 miles took them 24 hours.
As they neared the shore, a bank of fog rolled in, hiding the rescue craft. The PBM pilot revved the engines, and the men headed toward the sound. Soon two crewmen from the rescue plane, who had come ashore on a raft, joined them. Everyone got into the raft and they paddled out to the PBM, boarded, and flew off to the Pine Island, where Caldwell was piped aboard with tears in his eyes. Robbins (who had forgotten the Brownie camera with its treasure of undeveloped photos) and the rest of the survivors were soon transferred to the aircraft carrier USS Philippine Sea and returned to Panama, then to Washington, D.C.
For six of the nine men who crashed on Thurston Island, life went on. Because of complications from his burns, LeBlanc had both legs amputated below the knee and lost the use of one arm. Robbins married his sweetheart and was transferred to San Diego. He retired in 1965 as a chief petty officer. Caldwell, who had been in the Navy 24 years at the time of the crash, eventually made rear admiral.
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.
As it happened, a University of Kansas radar specialist named Prassad Ghogenini was in the midst of a project, under the aegis of the NSF and NASA, that used Chilean navy P-3 Orions to map ice thickness. The NSF asked a P-3 crew to investigate during one of its flights. The airplane’s radars registered strong returns over George One’s coordinates, suggesting metal. Ghogenini estimated the objects were buried under 150 feet of snow and ice.
In December 2004, Vice Admiral G.E. Hoewing, the Navy’s chief of personnel, sent Robbins a letter. “Planning and coordination is currently underway for a recovery attempt from the George One crash site,” Hoewing wrote. “If a plan is found achievable and approved, and funding is allocated, the initial phase…could be conducted late next year.” In a personal note, Hoewing wrote: “Chief, we will do our best to recover your shipmates.”
About this time, Bob Cardin, who had led the 1992 recovery of the World War II-era Lockheed P-38 Lightning Glacier Girl from beneath 265 feet of ice in Greenland, got a call from a Navy lieutenant commander whose name he can’t remember. “I told ’em what kind of equipment they’d need, but they had no money,” Cardin says. He never heard from the Navy again.
Unlike Glacier Girl, which was restored and flown in 2002 (see “Glacier Girl,” Feb./Mar. 2004), George One is in pieces. And Antarctica is not Greenland. Greenland has U.S. military bases and commercial airports; any place on the massive island is a few hours’ flight from anywhere else. Antarctica, on the other hand, remains the loneliest, most isolated place on Earth. Aircraft can fly in and out only two months of the year. Even then, as the doomed 1946 flight demonstrated, pilots can be flying in clear and windless weather one moment, only to find themselves in whiteout conditions a moment later. The only American fuel in Antarctica is controlled by the NSF, and its base at McMurdo Station is 1,250 miles from Thurston Island; Palmer Station, which the NSF also operates, is 1,005 miles away. The British base, Rothera, is closer, but it’s still 799 miles off. The closest fuel cache on the continent—at a base known as Patriot Hills, 629 miles from Thurston Island—is owned by a private firm, Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions.
As for transportation options, there aren’t many. The U.S. government operates two kinds of aircraft in Antarctica: ski-equipped C-130s belonging to the 109th Air Guard, out of Schenectady, New York, and privately owned deHavilland Twin Otters—operated by Kenn Borek Air, based in Calgary, Canada—which migrate south every Antarctic summer. With auxiliary fuel tanks, a Twin Otter’s maximum range is 780 miles. Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions operates Otters and a Basler BT-67, a DC-3 modified with PT-6 turboprop engines.
Despite the challenges, the NSF operates in Antarctica throughout the year, using assets of the Navy, the Air National Guard, and private contractors. Scientists comb the continent, tourists fly in and out, explorers hike and ski its length and breadth. Recovering the men of George One, says Eric Chiang, the NSF’s director of polar research and support, “is possible, and it could probably be done safely. It’s just a matter of where one wants to put resources.”
Chiang believes the weather around Thurston Island is too mercurial to fly a C-130 in. The job would require Twin Otters, which would need to lay a succession of fuel caches to reach the site. “You’re talking about $30 a kilo out of Patriot Hills in an Otter,” says Mike Sharp, owner and operations manager for Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions, “so that’s $145,000 in and $145,000 out, for just one flight. You need a lot of fuel, a lot of people, hot water drills, a big camp, so it’s a big, expensive operation.” And, he says, if there’s been any glacial shifting over the years, there’s no guarantee the bodies will be intact. “If it were my tax dollars,” says Sharp, an Englishman, “I’d say don’t do it.”
But the waters around Thurston Island can be relatively ice-free, and U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers make yearly runs opening channels for freighters supplying U.S. stations, then ferry scientists up and down the coast. The crash site was 10 miles inland in 1946, but as the island’s ice shelf has receded, the site has slipped more than two-thirds of the way toward the sea. Theoretically, an icebreaker could sail close to shore, then deploy helicopters to haul equipment to the site. But again, the Navy would have to pay for the icebreakers, and they cost $23,000 a day. That’s what Ken Terry proposed: a two-year plan to survey the site, take core samples, then return to recover the remains, estimating a total cost of $1.5 million to $2.1 million.
The Navy studied the options and decided against a recovery attempt. In July 2005, Admiral H. Denby Starling II, commander of the naval air force at U.S. Atlantic Fleet, informed Fabik of his decision. “We are fairly certain,” Starling wrote, “that the radar reflection from the P-3 is George One, buried under 150 feet of ice. While technologies are available to dig to this depth, the mounting and execution of a mission of this type carries significant risk and would require technical expertise not available on my staff. Consequently, I recommended against my organization executing this mission.”
“We just decided it was a physical impossibility,” explains Commander Mike Maus, deputy chief of public affairs at Atlantic Fleet. “There’s a greater risk going after it than [there is] getting it. If it’s reasonable to do, we’ll do it. But if it’s not feasible, you’re better off just leaving it where it is.” The Navy estimated the operation would cost $32 million. Ken Terry calls the estimate “ridiculous.”
And so, 60 years after Max Lopez, Wendell Hendersin, and Fred Williams died in service to the United States, it seems to come down to this: How much is a body worth? Must the Navy try to satisfy every family’s deep cultural and emotional need to bid farewell to the remains of a loved one? Or can the service with a long tradition of burial at sea decide that recovery is just too costly? Lieutenant Colonel Rumi Nielson-Green, a spokeswoman at JPAC, says, “We have 80,000 still MIA from World War II and we have a budget. Do you spend all your money on one site and forgo hundreds of others?”
Fabik and Robbins, now 80, feel betrayed by Admiral Hoewing and the Navy they served for so many years. “He told me he was going to do it and then he retired,” Robbins says. And the relatives of the dead men aren’t giving up. Betty Jean Spencer, Hendersin’s 80-year-old sister, recalls that during the 2004 presidential campaign, what were thought to be the remains of Democratic candidate Howard Dean’s younger brother were recovered from Laos; why not her brother? Says Kate Beebe, Fred Williams’ niece: “Somebody should try to get them. We go everywhere in the world looking for oil, but we can’t retrieve those bodies? I think this should be one of the Navy’s priorities, to bring back the remains.”
Beebe, Spencer, Fabik, and Robbins are writing letters to the White House, their senators, the Navy. “I’m not going to stop until those men are home,” says Fabik.
All of this is unsettling to Ken Terry, of the Navy’s casualty office. “We know where the wreckage is,” he says. “Recovering those men would be feasible. It’s expensive, but it’s the right thing to do. When that plane crashed, it was 10 miles from the coast. Now it’s three, so the wreckage and the remains are slowly sliding to the coast and soon will fall off. I leave you with that.”