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CLOSURE ON A GLACIER: Families still haunted by plane crash nearly 70 years later

WZZM-TV Grand Rapids-Kalamazoo-Battle Creek logo WZZM-TV Grand Rapids-Kalamazoo-Battle Creek 8/25/2020 Brent Ashcroft
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A well-known Bible verse has been quoted by many through the centuries.

It's Matthew 7:7. A portion of it reads, "Seek, and ye shall find;"

For 68 years, two West Michigan families have been waiting for the acts of 'seeking' and 'finding' to happen, in connection to a 1952 Alaskan military plane crash that took the lives of their loved ones, Gail Daugherty and Raymond Housler, along with 17 other servicemen.

Even though the debris field was discovered scattered on the surface of a glacier four years ago, the U.S. government has not been able to perform a comprehensive search and recovery to look for human remains, straining hope for generations of surviving family members while triggering a debate over whether government officials consider American servicemen and women who perish in 'Operational Losses' are valued less than those who are 'Casualties of Combat.'

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On November 7, 1952, U.S. Air Force Corporal Gail Daugherty and Private First Class Raymond Housler were among 19 servicemen who boarded a twin-engine C-119 Boxcar troop transport plane in Anchorage, AK, for what was supposed to be a two-hour flight to Fairbanks, where they'd continue their training mission.

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'Gamble Chalk 1' was the plane's call letters.

Once Gamble Chalk 1 was airborne, the pilot was unaware he had a navigational map with a radio frequency mislabeled for the beacon that they were flying outbound from. 

The plane was flying dead reckoning 30 miles off course and began encountering heavy icing conditions. 

Gamble Chalk 1 was unknowingly heading toward a series of mountain peaks that where at a higher elevation than the altitude at which they were flying.

One of them was Mount Silverthrone.

a snow covered mountain © Provided by WZZM-TV Grand Rapids-Kalamazoo-Battle Creek

Right around 3 a.m., the plane crashed into the ridge below the peak of Mount Silverthrone and disintegrated on impact.

All 19 servicemen died.

A few days later, reconnaissance aircraft were sent to search for the lost plane. They identified bits of it strewn across a snow field just north of the ridge, and noticed that the crash had triggered a series of avalanches. Highly experienced U.S. Air Force recovery experts would eventually deem it too difficult to go in and perform a recovery operation because, had they done that, they believed more avalanches would likely have been triggered.

By the summer of 1953, recovery attempts ceased and as the days after turned into decades, the incident became lost in time.

The remains of the 19 servicemen were left behind.

Word of the accident made it back to Muskegon and Ravenna, Mi, where Cpl. Daugherty and PFC Housler were from, respectively, causing immediate family members to become grief-stricken.

"My mom got the phone call and we couldn't even sit down and finish supper," said Carlyle Daugherty, 93, Gail's brother. "They told her a telegram was coming.

"I remember I was shaking all over when I heard the news."

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Gail's other surviving brother, Charles Daugherty remembers "being stunned, and thinking about him all the time."

a wooden table

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The only tangible proof the Daugherty family has that Gail once lived are a few photos and his shaving kit.

"There's a throwing knife, a couple of hats, some pins off his uniforms, a belt and his Bible," Charles, 78, said, describing the kit's contents. "I hope [a search and recovery] happens before I lose any more of my brothers and sisters, or myself."

Claudette Bethke, Gail's younger sister, was 12 when the telegram came.

"My mother never accepted what happened," Claudette, 79, said. "She died thinking that he was going to come home."

Mary Judd, another one of Gail's sisters, who unfortunately passed away since being interviewed for this story, recalled the plane crash news coming around the same time as her wedding.

"Gail told me he would be home for my wedding, no matter what," Mary, 84, said. "He didn't make it."

Mary continued to say, "I can't believe the military would let their own be forgotten like that. Because they were non-combat, does that mean they were nothing?"

Donna Rieckmann is Raymond Housler's sister and the last surviving member of his immediate family. Several years ago, she purchased a plot in Ravenna Cemetery and placed a headstone there with Raymond's name on it.

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"My folks just accepted that was his burial place even though nothing is buried there," said Donna. "Otherwise, there was no proof that he ever existed."

For years, several members of the Daugherty family, including younger generations who weren't born at the time, have been writing letters to congressman, hoping to trigger some interest and get results, but not much has developed. 

It wouldn't be until 2014 - 52 years after Gamble Chalk 1 met its fate - that hope for finding the wreckage was renewed and serious momentum for it truly began.

Michael Rocereta, a retired glaciologist and pilot from Alaska, decided he wanted to put his means, knowledge and skills to the test and find Gamble Chalk 1.

"Back in those days, people didn't really understand glacial velocities very well," said Rocereta, who authored a book about another Alaskan plane crash, Letters from the Globemaster Families

Rocereta's research included collecting several 1952 photos the U.S. Air Force took of the impact point on Mount Silverthrone.

a snow covered mountain © Provided by WZZM-TV Grand Rapids-Kalamazoo-Battle Creek

Directly below that point is the Eldridge Glacier. 

"Obviously, the impact point hasn't moved, but you have to make sure that the longitude and latitude that they gave in 1952 is the same longitude and latitude of the point at which I'm beginning my search," added Rocereta. "That was the real detective work."

In 2015, Rocereta flew his plane up to the Eldridge Glacier and took some photos. He would use the images to determine which ice lobe might contain plane debris from the original impact.

"After that, I needed to follow the glacier down slope, utilizing an ice form called an ogive," Rocereta said.

Ogives are bands that form on some glaciers. Darker bands form through increased melt and refreezing in the summer, when sediment collects on the glacier surface. 

a map of the snow

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Rocereta says ogives can also be used to determine the age of a glacier.

"They're like rings on a tree," he said. "My job was to identify the ogive that I thought contained the plane debris from 1952, and if I was right, that ogive had moved 3.8 to 4.2 miles down glacier in 64 years."

After lengthy research, Rocereta believed he'd found the ogive where debris from the crash would be, so in August 2016, he chartered a helicopter and flew up to Mount Silverthrone to investigate.

"We flew to where my data told me was the high probability search area," said Rocereta. "There was a cloud ceiling that had formed above it, almost as though divine intervention was pointing us to that spot."

As Rocereta got closer to the glacier's surface, he saw pieces of debris scattered all over.

He knew he'd discovered something, but was it Gamble Chalk 1?

"It was an amazing feeling to see it, when you take into consideration all the research I'd done for over three years," added Rocereta. "We weren't allowed to land on the glacier's surface, because it's on Denali National Park's land, but we hovered low enough to take photos of several pieces of the debris."

Rocereta decided to share his photos with members of both the Denali National Park Service and the U.S. Department of Defense.

"A couple weeks later, the chief ranger of Denali National Park flew to the debris field, landed, stepped onto the glacier and within 5 or 10 minutes, located a piece of debris that still had the identification plate attached to it," said Rocereta. "We knew then, for sure, that it was the debris field of Gamble Chalk 1."

Rocereta felt he'd done all he could do. It was now up to the authorities to decide whether or not they wanted to dedicate the time, money and resources to put together a search and recovery program.

"That's what hasn't happened yet," Rocereta said. "My concern is that in some of the [Park official's] preliminary recon flights, they looked at it and saw the debris and concluded perhaps there wasn't enough to justify any future search for human remains.

"I know they've never done a comprehensive evaluation or walked the debris field."

Soon after his discovery, Rocereta wanted to inform the families. He created a private Gamble Chalk 1 Facebook page and invited family members of the lost servicemen to join. 

The page quickly became a clearinghouse for families from all over the country to connect and stay updated on any developments, most importantly news of any potential searches.

Gail Daugherty's sisters were thrilled when they heard that the plane wreckage had been found.

"They can land there; they can search; there's pieces," said Claudette Bethke. "We want them to search."

"A dog tag; a ring; a tooth," Mary Judd said, emphatically. "Anything they could find would be good."

Family members weren't the only people Rocereta invited to join the Facebook community. He also invited somebody who had experience in dealing with the government when it came to Alaskan plane crashes. She's gotten results before. He knew she'd be a fierce advocate for the families.

Her name is Tonja Anderson-Dell.

Her interest was fueled by the fact that her grandfather, Airman Isaac W. Anderson Sr., was among 52 servicemen who died after their a C-124 Globemaster plane crashed in the Alaskan mountain range on November 22, 1952 - just two weeks after the Gamble Chalk 1 disaster.

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Much like the surviving family members of Gamble Chalk 1, Anderson-Dell wanted to know why none of the servicemen's remains from the Globemaster incident had never been recovered. 

Copious amounts of research done by her led to questions, phone calls and letters to government officials.

Her fight ultimately landed her in Washington D.C. where she forced face-to-face meetings with high-ranking officials.

"I wrote the President; I wrote the Secretary of Defense - anybody who would listen to me," said Anderson-Dell, who authored the book, Gifts from a Glacier: The Quest for an American Flag and 52 Souls. "The constant red tape inability to get real answers just made me push even harder.

"I just keep telling all of them, 'I'm not going away.'"

In 2012, Anderson-Dell's fight paid off. A Blackhawk team was doing a training mission near the Colony Glacier in Alaska, and spotted a debris field.

"They were able to positively identify it as the C-124 Globemaster because of all the research I had done and given to them," said Anderson-Dell. "They've sent search and recovery crews to the debris field every year since and have recovered human remains of 43 of the 52 lost servicemen, including my grandfather."

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In 2017, a tooth was recovered on the glacial ice surface. After cross-referencing it with DNA tests, it was found to belong to Airman Anderson.

"During the 2018 recovery mission, they found his dog tag," added Anderson-Dell. "I wear it every day."

a group of people standing around a plane

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In May 2019, Anderson's remains were flown from Alaska back to his hometown of Tampa, Fl. A flag-draped coffin was removed from the aircraft and placed inside a hearse.

Isaac Anderson Sr. was buried in a nearby cemetery with full military honors.

"It was very emotional for me," said Anderson-Dell. "It was a bittersweet moment, actually, because I know there's still some more [lost servicemen] out there."

That's when 100% of her focus shifted to fighting for the the same results for the families of Gamble Chalk 1

It's already at that level of anger," Anderson-Dell said. "I've written and called everybody involved asking, 'Where is this at?'"

One of her first acts was reaching out to Alaska's Denali National Park, which works in conjunction with the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations. AFMAO is the branch of the U.S. Air Force which orchestrates and handles the search and recovery programs at the Alaskan crash sites.

"A simple flyover isn't going to work for this," said Anderson-Dell. "How can you see a tooth from being in the air? They need to get boots on the ground."

While Anderson-Dell has continued her relentless pursuit of getting AFMAO to do a recovery mission, she's encouraged the families to continue expressing their concerns and frustrations by writing to their Congressmen and women, and by reaching out to the media.

"I know it's a lot to ask, but there's another group of families out there just like me who want closure," said Anderson-Dell. "The plane's been found. [Michael Rocereta] already did that work for the government.

"I won't go away until AFMAO put boots on the surface of Eldridge Glacier and they complete a comprehensive and thorough search."

Anderson-Dell understands that weather is a major issue in Alaska, even during the summer months, but she also believes that lack of budget and government priority also plays into it.

"When a serviceman or woman goes missing in action, there's an agency within our government called the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, that looks for them," said Anderson-Dell. "They receive grant dollars every year to search for servicemembers who are considered to be Combat Losses.

"But, if you're an Operational Loss, or a non-war loss, there's no government agency that looks for you.

"I'm very angry. Explain it to me. Call me on the phone. Look me in the eye and tell me why [our country] doesn't have an agency for Operational Loss search and recoveries.

"Our country always says, 'We never leave our fallen behind.' In my opinion, you're leaving your fallen behind."

AFMAO officials say they understand the frustrations being experienced by Anderson-Dell, Rocereta and the families of the victims. They say that their inability to perform a comprehensive search of the glacier's surface is more about safety rather than the issue of 'Operational' versus 'Combat' losses.

"Our organization can't really speak to that," said Christin Michaud, who is the Chief Public Affairs Officer of AFMAO. "[That's a question] for the Department of Defense."

What AFMAO officials can speak about in detail is all of the attempts they've made to search since the wreckage was discovered.

"High elevation and frequent weather changes have inhibited our ability to get boots on the ground," said Capt. Shelby Yoakum, who is AFMAO's Glacier Ground Forces Commander. "It's not for lack of trying."

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Capt. Yoakum says there was a weather window in the summer of 2017 which allowed the National Park Service to land on the Eldridge Glacier to do an assessment. 

"They spotted debris but no human remains or clothing were found," Capt. Yoakum said.

She added that in the summer of 2018, along with help from the National Park Service, an AFMAO search & recovery crew attempted to make another landing, but the weather didn't allow for it.

A little more than a year later, in September 2019, Capt. Yoakum said a crew from National Park Service was able to land on the glacier for an assessment, but reported back to AFMAO that only debris was found.

"In June 2020, another effort was made, but the glacier was still covered in snow, so we weren't able to land," Capt. Yoakum said. "We're hoping for another weather window that will allow for us to try again in either late August or early September [of 2020]."

Capt. Yoakum adds that the elevation of where the debris field sits on the glacier is likely their biggest constraint.

"One of the main reasons we've had success with search & recovery at the Globemaster crash site is because it sits at an elevation of around 1,000 feet," Capt. Yoakum said. "It's basically at sea level and the snow melt there happens early in the summer, allowing us the ability to do what needs to be done.

"The debris field on the Eldridge Glacier sits at 6,000 feet [above sea level]," said Capt. Yoakum. "Snow doesn't melt fast at that elevation.

"It's impossible for the pilots to land on the glacier if there's snow cover because they have no idea how deep the snow is. There are also crevasses in the glacier that are hundreds of feet deep and you can't see those if they're covered in snow."

Even though AFMAO has yet to perform a comprehensive search and recovery of the Gamble Chalk 1 debris field, Capt. Yoakum says they're encouraged going forward because they've recently partnered with the University of Alaska, which will provide them with real-time satellite imagery of the glacier's surface so they can constantly monitor the snow cover and weather conditions.

"Being able to pull that satellite data will give us a better understanding of what the site looks like at all times," said Capt. Yoakum. "It will tell us when the best window is for us to get out there and potentially get boots on the ground."

As time passes, the Eldridge Glacier will continue to move to a lower elevation where it may become more feasible for AFMAO to get personnel to it. But, for many of the family members who lived through the tragedy nearly 70 years ago, they don't have that kind of time.

Most are now in their 80's and 90's.

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"What I would like to say to the families is we're trying," said Allen Cronin, who is the AFMAO Mortuary Affairs Division Chief. "We're working very hard at it to get there and get the results that they would like to have. We want those results as well.

"We would like to bring our servicemembers back."

Michael Rocereta and Tonja Anderson-Dell say they will continue to work hard for the same results. They want closure to finally come to the families of Gail Daugherty and Raymond Housler, as well as the relatives of the other 17 lost servicemen.

"There are literally hundreds of accidents in the United States that involved aircraft that were lost in operational losses in which there are still missing servicemembers," said Rocereta. "We owe it to those servicemembers and to their families to see that they're found.

"If they get out there and don't find anything, that's important, too."

"As long as I'm out here and as long as I have a voice, I will keep fighting," said Anderson-Dell. "I will keep pushing until somebody gets boots on the ground and brings the men of Gamble Chalk 1, home."

Mary Judd waited nearly 68 years for closure to come for her brother Gail and the rest of her family, but illness didn't allow her to live along enough to experience it. She passed away on August 1, 2020. 

Mary may be gone, but her passion for results will continue to live on through all of the family members who hold out hope that one day the remains of their lost loved ones can finally be found.

"Get those guys home," Mary said, emphatically, during her December 2019 interview. "It's been too long; It's their job. Get them home!"

The fallen servicemen of Gamble Chalk 1:

  1. Daniel Blasi - Pfc Army
  2. Gene Wood - USAF Crew Chief
  3. Gail Daugherty - CPL Army
  4. Frank Mates - USAF Co-Pilot
  5. Enoch C. Crowe - 2nd Lt USAF Navigator
  6. Raymond Housler - Pfc Army
  7. Fred B. McGee - M/Sgt Army
  8. Noble E. Williams - 1st Lieutenant
  9. Alphonse J. Grzelka - Pfc Army
  10. Judith Statler - CPL Army
  11. Walter Baumeister - Capt. Army
  12. William J. Newton - CPL Army
  13. John W. Salmon - Pvt Army
  14. Leo C. Block - Pvt Army
  15. Donald L. Ehnat - M/Sgt Army
  16. William H. Moore - M/Sgt Army
  17. Isham C. Pope - S/Sgt
  18. Glen W. Wall - Capt/Pilot USAF
  19. Thomas B. Keen - 2nd Lt

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