Wednesday, August 30, 2006
COLUMN: Bill Nemitz
Crash site tells of Cold War tragedy
Copyright © 2006 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.
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GREENVILLE - Little did they know. One minute Ken and Jennifer Morrell and their three daughters were turning off the main road by the small sign that says "B-52 Crash Site - 6.9 miles." Next they found themselves frozen in time.
"This isn't what we expected," Jennifer said with a church-like whisper as a light rain descended through the trees on Elephant Mountain. "This is incredible."
That it is. All over this wooded site 12 miles northeast of downtown Greenville, pieces of wreckage beckon back to a frigid winter day in 1963 when a U.S. Air Force B-52C Stratofortress came careening around the side of the mountain and crashed into the snow-covered woods.
Two airmen survived by ejecting seconds before impact. Seven others died. And that is why Pete Pratt sees this place as much more than just another local tourist attraction.
"To me, this whole thing up here is like an Indian burial ground," Pratt told the Morrells on Sunday as they stared in awe at the twisted chunks of aluminum, the huge sections of landing gear with rubber wheels still attached, the tail-gunner's bay tilted on its side against a tree trunk, the small American flags inserted by past visitors into the metal cracks and crevices.
Pratt, the unofficial caretaker of the crash site, knows the story of the B-52 by heart. And whenever he comes here from his home on nearby Sawyer Pond, he finds himself telling it to strangers who can't quite believe that after 43 years, so much of that story still awaits them.
"Every time I come up here, I meet other people," Pratt said. "I've come up in the pouring rain and still there are six or eight cars lined up on the road."
From there, visitors exit their vehicles and start up the 400-foot walking trail. Past the Strategic Air Command sign proclaiming "Peace is Our Profession." Past the first shard of twisted fuselage then another and then another. And finally to the black slate marker, surrounded on all sides by the debris field.
The stone reads: "In Memory of Those Who Lost Their Lives in the B-52 Crash on Jan. 24, 1963."
The massive B-52 bomber, 156 feet long by 185 feet wide, took off from Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts just after noon that day for an afternoon of treetop-level flying over the mountains of western Maine.
The crew, all specialists in their fields, had been hand-picked to see just how low a B-52 could fly and thus avoid the Soviet Union's ever-improving radar systems.
Roaring along only 100 feet above the ground, the eight-engine aircraft suddenly hit heavy turbulence as it approached Elephant Mountain just before 3 p.m. The pilot, Lt. Col. Dante Bulli, tried to climb out of it. But as the B-52 lurched skyward, a loud noise and vibration rocked the tail section.
"The stabilizer shaft broke," said Pratt, forming a 6-inch circle with his fingers to show the shaft's thickness. "The stabilizer is still over on the northeast side of the mountain."
Unable to control the aircraft, Bulli ordered the crew to eject. But because the B-52 was so low, only Bulli and Capt. Gerald Adler, the navigator, got out alive.
That night, with temperatures well below minus 20 degrees, the people of Greenville watched helplessly as the fire from the crash lit up the distant mountainside.
Only when the first search planes flew over the next morning would word spread that two survivors, wrapped in their parachutes, had somehow made it through the frigid night.
Working side by side, townsfolk and military rescue crews used dog sleds, snowmobiles and a new Scott Paper Co. bulldozer to claw their way up through 5 feet of snow to the crash site.Bulli and Adler, who would lose one leg and several toes on the other foot to frostbite, had been evacuated by helicopter. But the seven other crew members were still entombed in the wreckage.
"All of the fire was behind them because the wings sheared off and that's where the fuel was," Pratt said. "This area (where the fuselage landed) didn't burn."
Nor, 43 years later, has much of it moved.
Investigators carted off the most sensitive pieces of wreckage. Then two salvage companies bought the rights to take what metal they wanted. But even after they finished their work, countless remnants of the B-52 remained.
Enter Fred Worster, a retired military pilot and head of the Moosehead Riders Snowmobile Club.
Twenty-five years ago, both to honor the B-52's dead and give the club something to rally around, Worster and the Moosehead Riders became the keepers of the tragic legacy.
Each January since, they've gathered with military representatives at the site to commemorate what happened here. The land's current owner, Plum Creek Timber Co., has improved the foot trail so more people can make the short trek up from the nearby logging road and see this graphic slice of Cold War history.
The timber company has also declared the site off-limits to any future salvage efforts.
"Someone still took a piece and sold it on e-Bay awhile back," Pratt said. "They got $20.50 for it."
"If I could have gotten a hold of them," he said, "I'd have shot them."
Pratt, who retired here from Jefferson with his wife, Cally, in 1995, was a close friend and fellow snowmobiler of Worster's. So when Worster died in 1999, Pratt took over the club's mission.
He keeps in touch with survivor Adler, now 74, who returned here from his home in California for the 30th anniversary memorial service in January 1993. (Pilot Bulli, who went on to fly combat missions in Vietnam, is still living but has suffered several strokes.)
Pratt never knows what he might find when he comes up here. Members of the military have taken unit patches from their uniforms and tacked them to the trees.
Arriving one morning around 8 a.m., he found a bouquet of wildflowers so fresh that they must have been picked and left there just after sunrise.
But mostly what he finds are people. Old and young. Wealthy and just getting by. Some who know what they're getting themselves into. Others who don't.
Ken and Jennifer Morrell, along with their 10-year-old twins, Katelyn and Nicole, and 12-year-old Amanda, are up from Standish this week for the start of bear-hunting season.
Out for a drive Sunday afternoon, they saw the yellow signs erected by the Maine Air National Guard and figured what the heck, they had nothing else to do.
Now they stood in stunned silence like so many of the 2,500 or so passers-by who find their way here each year.
"Unbelievable," said Ken, shaking his head as he looked from one cluster of mangled aluminum to another.
"I expected it to be a little park with a sign," said Jennifer. "But not this."
As they spoke, the girls wandered here and there, silently absorbing it all. Katelyn picked up a small piece of wire harness, staring at it as if it had just fallen from the sky. Nicole found herself torn between looking around and wanting to go back to the car.
Pratt, ever present, quietly wove the wreckage into a story about nine young airmen who one day followed their orders and took their massive bomber daringly close to the treetops.
Then he told the Morrells what they already knew. What anyone who comes here figures out in a heartbeat.
"This," Pratt said, "is sacred ground."
Columnist Bill Nemitz can be reached at 7911-6323 or at