Military accidents often claim heroes

It was 38 years ago this week, but for George Bowen the memory couldn’t be clearer.

“I was awakened at 1 a.m. by a call from the Mason County Sheriff’s Office,” said Bowen, a retired Olympic National Park ranger. “They had received a call that an Air Force plane had crashed in the eastern Olympics. That was all they knew.”

Bowen, 75, was part of the search and recovery team after the C-141A Starlifter carrying 16 servicemen crashed into a peak on the northwest face of 7,756-foot Mount Constance. There were no survivors. The crash happened March 20, 1975, not long before midnight.

With Navy passengers, the plane had left Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines. After stopping in Japan, it was bound for McChord Air Force Base near Tacoma when it hit the snowy ridge. Investigators found the cause was a misunderstanding and faulty instructions by an air traffic controller.

It was with two recent tragedies in mind that I tracked down Bowen, who lives in Hoodsport. Like the 1975 crash that killed 16, the recent accidents also took the lives of Americans serving in the armed forces. And they happened far, far from war zones.

At Naval Air Station Whidbey Island Tuesday, more than 1,200 family members, friends and others attended a memorial service for Lt. Cmdr. Alan Patterson, Lt. j.g. Valerie Delaney and Lt. j.g. William McIlvaine III.

The three officers, all U.S. Naval Academy graduates, died March 11 when their Whidbey-based EA-6B Prowler crashed in a field in Lincoln County, about 50 miles west of Spokane.

“History is filled with heroes,” Cmdr. Chris Middleton, commanding officer of Electronic Attack Squadron 129, told mourners at the Whidbey base. “But we need not look to the past for greatness. It is in front of us today.”

We also need not look to battlefields to witness sacrifice. One more terrible incident came Monday night, when seven Marines were killed in a training accident at the Hawthorne Army Depot in western Nevada. The victims were from the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp LeJeune, N.C.

The facility stores and disposes of ammunition. And according to news reports, its desert terrain is an ideal training site for special forces preparing to go to Afghanistan.

Each of these examples of sacrifice — the 1975 crash in a national park, the Prowler that went down in Eastern Washington, and the accident in Nevada — happened in places known for peace and quiet, solitude and beauty.

My family has farmland in Lincoln County, a place of big blue skies and endless wheat fields. If you’ve been to Reno, Nev., you know that area’s rugged landscapes. And with its snow-capped peaks, Olympic National Park is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful places on earth.

That these are also places where U.S. military members lost their lives is a real reminder: As they prepare to protect our country, wherever they are, people in the armed services are often in peril.

Bowen recalled that when the C-141A crash happened there had been heavy, wet snowfall. There was confusion at first as to whether the plane had gone down in Olympic National Park or on other land. It was inside the park.

After a break in the weather, it was discovered that the plane crash created an avalanche.

“When the snow quit and the slope stabilized, we set up a base camp at Home Lake,” Bowen said. With an Air Force rescue crew, he and another ranger served on the recovery team. It took months to recover all the victims’ bodies, he said.

It wasn’t the worst such crash in Washington. In 1946, 32 U.S. Marines were killed when a Curtis Commando R5C transport plane crashed into Mount Rainier.

Bowen still thinks of the people lost in the Mount Constance crash.

“Working in that environment, you couldn’t help but be impacted. One of the people we recovered was a warrant officer who had retired from the Navy. It was his last trip. We found his personnel papers,” Bowen said. “He had enrolled in community college, and had a family of five. He had finished his military career and was starting a new one. I still remember that.

“These people were just trying to come home,” he said.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; muhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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