60 years after military airplane crashed in Alaska . . . a mountain of sorrow revealed

BY ANDY TAYLOR

chronicle@taylornews.org

 

The final chapter in the life of Pvt. Leonard Kittle appears close to being written — albeit buried for almost 60 years under the cruel cold of Mother Nature, forgotten in the midst of warfare, and seemingly forever lost in the world’s most impenetrable terrain.

 

Kittle, a Caney native and a 1949 graduate of Caney High School, was among the 52 servicemen aboard a massive C-124 Globemaster military transport when it slammed into a frozen mountaintop outside of Anchorage, Ala., on Nov. 22, 1952. There were no survivors.

He was aprivate in Uncle Sam’s Army, serving in the Military Police at a time when the United States was at war in Korea. He was en route back to his station in Alaska after spending four weeks in Caney to get acquainted with his newborn daughter, Linda, as well as his youthful wife, Saundra.

 

Because of the mountain’s steep sides and craggy, ice-filled crevices that covered Mount Gannett, rescuers were unable to reach the wreckage site to retrieve the remains.

 

News reports from that incident claim the airplane likely collided into a massive glacier, where it was impaled into the frozen mountainside. Only the tail section of the airplane could be viewed sticking out from the mountain.

 

Fifty-two families were left to grieve. Memorial services were held in towns across the nation. And, tombstones were placed in cemeteries, including in Caney’s Sunnyside Cemetery, to honor the 52 presumed dead servicemen, even though their remains were forever entombed in a frozen Alaskan glacier.

 

Almost 60 years after the tragic crash, the stories of those 52 servicemen unfolded this summer when the slow-moving glacier subsided enough to reveal the shattered airplane. Members of the Alaskan Air National Guard spotted the remains while on a routine mission near Mount Gannett. The remains were found 12 miles from the original crash site — giving indication of the incredibly slow movement of the glacial mass.

 

Members of the U.S. military’s Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command were summoned to begin a search for any human remains. Family members of the victims were notified to gather DNA samples in hopes that they can make positive identification of the remains, including those of Caney’s Leonard Kittle.

 

The crash of that military transport plane, which, at the time, was the largest aircraft in the U.S. military’s arsenal, made national news, but its headlines were soon lost as America moved into a busy Thanksgiving holiday. The nation’s collective attention moved away from the craggy glaciers of Alaska and onto the approaching Christmas season.

 

The wreckage site was nearly impossible to reach, resting only 1,000 feet from the summit of the 9,100-foot Mount Gannett. It appeared that the airplane, which carried the nickname “Old Shaky,” slammed into the mountain at full speed.

 

Compounding the recovery of the 52 victims wasn’t just a matter of topographical challenges but also because of bad luck that befell the U.S. military. During the final seven weeks of 1952, the U.S. military was hampered by as many as nine crashes of military transport airplanes, killing more than 152 people. Most of those crashes were in the Alaskan-West Coast sector, which prompted a Pentagon investigation into the navigational and radio systems of the entire U.S. military in the Pacific Command.

 

News of the recent discovery of the C-124 Globemaster exposed a history of an airplane tragedy that had become lost to the ages. News reporters quickly pored over yellowing news accounts in newspaper archives to reveal one of the single-largest, non-combat tragedies during the Korean War.

 

The C-124 Globemaster, with a yawning fuselage that would carry as many as 200 troops, several Army tanks or even a bulldozer, was nearing its destination at Elmsendorf Air Force Base near Anchorage after an uneventful trip from McChord Air Force Base in Washington state. The military transport was carrying a total of 52 people, most of which were servicemen who had been in the lower 48 to enjoy several days of rest and relaxation before continuing their duties for Uncle Sam in the era of the Korean War.

 

News accounts reveal that a captain of a passenger airplane picked up a distress call from the C-124 Globemaster, where a pilot could be heard saying, “As long as we have to land, we might as well land here.” No other messages were heard from the pilot of that Globemaster.

 

Silence followed.

 

Nobody heard from the airplane again.

 

Several aircraft reconnaissance planes went aloft to find signs of a possible wreckage site. It was discovered six days later. Ironically, it was found a few hours after another military transport crashed in Tacoma, Wash., killing 36 of the 39 persons aboard.

 

When the aircraft debris was positively identified in June, some of the family members of the victims began attempts to remember their family members and also seek DNA samples for positive identification. A Facebook page has been established to assist the Joint Command with the location of surviving family members. The Facebook page can be found at http://www.facebook.com/MissingC124?ref_hl#1MissingC124.

 

“It’s my hope that that they will — in all of that ice and wreckage — find remains and positively identify either my grandfather or someone else from that airplane,” said C124 Facebook organizer Tonja Anderson, whose grandfather, Airman Isaac Anderson, died in the crash. “It’s almost closure for the family if we can just hear that telephone call that says ‘Isaac is coming home.’”

 

* * * * * *

 

 

Leonard Kittle’s family reliving heartbreak once again

BY RUDY TAYLOR

rudy@taylornews.org

 

Family members of Pvt. Leonard Kittle hope to bring his remains back to Caney for a military service, as soon as DNA tests are finished.

 

DNA test kits have been sent to family members in hopes of identifying specific pieces of equipment such as dog tags or helmets, or possible bone fragments.

 

 

Kittle’s wife, Saundra Kozak of East Troy, Wis., said being brought back home to Caney is what the soldier would have wanted.

 

“Caney meant so much to him,” she said. “He grew up there, and I also lived there. We think he would have liked being buried beside his mother at Sunnyside Cemetery.”

 

She said Army officials are already talking about flying to Caney for a service, and it may take some time to get all the DNA testing completed.

 

Kozak said she was shocked to get the telephone call from an Army official last week, informing her of the news.

 

“We always knew about the crash, how many were killed and which mountain the airplane hit,” she said. “And, once we learned details, there was no doubt that everyone on board died.”

 

Still, she said his parents never gave up.

 

“They always held out hope that he would be found alive,” she said.

 

Kozak said Pvt. Kittle had spent four weeks in Caney — just before the plane crash on Nov. 22, 1952.

“He got a 30-day leave so he could come home to see our little daughter who had just been born,” said Kozak. “We had a special time together, and it gave him a chance to get to know the baby, whom we named Linda.”

 

She said Kittle called her on the telephone when he arrived at McChord Air Field, Wash., before departing for Alaska.

 

“He was nervous about flying on to Alaska where he was stationed,” she said. “I gave him the assurance that everything would be OK, but he had a sense of foreboding — he seemed to know.”

 

His wife was a Caney girl, too (her father’s name was Earl Sanders).

 

“I loved dating, then marrying Leonard,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many miles I rode on the back of his motorcyle. He also loved fast cars. We had so much fun.”

 

She and her aunt Beatrice Crawford both spoke of Leonard’s zest for life, how popular he was among his friends, and how he enjoyed playing basketball and football for Caney High School.

 

He and his cousin, J.C. Young, were the best of friends, and he also was good friends with Don Whittington (both of whom are deceased), she said.

 

“He died way too young,” she said, “and getting this news about the plane on that mountain has reopened our grief. We’re all in shock, yet we’re so glad that we might be bringing him home soon.”

“It would make him very happy — I can tell you that for sure.”

 

Family members of Army Pvt. Leonard Kittle say their recent contacts by the U.S. Army has revived their grieving.

 

“It has always been sad, just because none of those men’s remains were ever found,” said Kittle’s sister, Beatrice Crawford of Bartlesville. “I must admit, I’ve shed some tears since getting that call last week.”

 

Crawford said she gladly sent her DNA sample kit back to the U.S. Army, hoping it will help identify any remains or property belonging to Kittle.

 

But after 60 years, there probably won’t be much to find, Army officials have told the family.

“Even if we only get his dog tags, it would give us some closure,” said Crawford who is the lone surviving sibling of the Caney soldier. Brothers James and Augusta Kittle did not live to receive last week’s news that the C-124 Globemaster had been located.

 

Crawford said her parents, Hazard and Betty Kittle, took the news of their son’s airplane crash in a hard way.

 

“My mother and dad would turn on the radio to see if the news had anything on survivors,” she said. “Then my dad would turn off the radio — wouldn’t listen to entertainment of any kind. We didn’t even have Christmas for several years after that.”

 

The elder Kittle bought a headstone for his son, and it still stands in the Caney Sunnyside Cemetery, in the space beside his mother.

 

That’s where family members hope to place any remains of Pvt. Kittle that might be found.

 

“All these years, nothing but a stone,” his sister said. “It’s so sad.”

 

The little baby who was born to Leonard and Saundra Kittle in 1952 now lives in the same town where her mother lives — East Troy, Wis.

 

Linda Erickson  can’t remember her father, but she has become quite involved over the past week in trying to locate old photos and other personal items belong to her father.

 

“It is giving all of us some closure on a man who has always been my hero,” she said. “My mother talks about him sometimes, but here recently we’ve really talked a lot and I’ve learned so much about him.

 

“I wish I could remember him, but I’m glad that he got to know me, even if only for a few weeks.”

 

In November 1952, the Caney Daily Chronicle carried news stories of the disappearance of the airplane that carried Caney’s Leonard Kittle. In a story printed on Nov. 25, 1952, editor H.K. “Skeet” George penned these thoughts as he reported on the trauma and tragedy befalling the family of a fallen Caney soldier.

 

“The terrible moments of anxiety and heartache that drag into hours . . . and hours into days . . . are being experienced by members of the H.A. Kittle household, 519 N. Wood, where the youthful wife, the father, mother, brothers and sisters await word of the fate of a loved one, listed as missing in action in one of the armed forces’ largest transport planes . . .

 

“At such a time as this, the only thing possible to do is wait and pray. Friends of the family, sharing in the ordeal of grief and anxiety, can do little else.

 

“They can reflect, however, that as a Caney High School athlete from 1945 to 1949, Leonard Kittle was a wiry, capable, resourceful boy with a lot of initiative and a lot of determination. If that plane landed with the Caney soldier still having a fighting chance for survival, the Caney boy is the type who would come through.

 

“Leonard Kittle was that kind of boy. As the emotions of the community run the full scale from despair to hope — and always to prayer — the people who watched this boy perform in athletics cling to the memories of this ability in that phase of life as a hope that he will come safely home.”

 

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