Buried at the Bottom of the World

When people die serving their country, to what lengths must a government go to recover the bodies?

James Robbins (front row, right) poses with some of his shipmates. Behind him are Lopez (to the left) and Hendersin (to the right). (Courtesy Lopez Family)
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“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.

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