Operation Colony Glacier: Soldiers recover wreckage and remains 65 years after deadly crash
Operation Colony Glacier is a recovery mission unlike any other.
Every June, about ten Alaska soldiers, spend their days sifting through glacial ice and rock on Colony Glacier, looking for plane wreckage and human remains.
In 1952, an Air Force C-124 Globemaster II crashed into Mt. Gannett just 40 miles from its destination at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage.
All 52 people on board were killed and the wreckage was strewn onto Colony Glacier below the mountain.
The military tried to send recovery teams out, but snow quickly covered any sign of the C-124.
Wreckage remained hidden until an Alaska Army National Guard helicopter spotted debris in 2012. Since then, Operation Colony Glacier has sought to bring the fallen servicemen and their possessions home to their families.
The debris on the glacier provides a snapshot in time and a small glimpse into the people who were on that plane.
“We found the engine at the top of the ridge up here, we found propellers, survival suits completely intact,” Victoria Martinez pointed out. “We found dominoes, wooden dominos. Hockey pucks. There was a bunch of hockey gear on the plane when it crashed, so, every year we find hockey pucks.”
This is Martinez’s first time being a part of the operation. She works with the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Office, AFMAO, bringing closure to families around the country who have lost loved ones in the line of duty.
“I was fortunate enough to escort the remains of one of the pilots, Lt. Moon, from AFMAO to Arlington and meeting the family and being at the service and seeing the reaction to this it really hit home for me,” Martinez said.
In the past five years, the team has recovered and identified 37 of the 52 people using DNA samples taken from family members.
In addition to finding the servicemen, the goal is also to remove as much wreckage as possible as quickly as possible.
“We all know the glacier is moving and at some point in the future perhaps two or three years from now the debris will be in the lake and once it’s in the lake we can no longer recover it,” said Lt. Gen. Ken Wilsbach, 11th Air Force Commander.
It’s tedious, methodical work as the soldiers move up the glacier, a seemingly endless task with a debris field the size of about 900 football fields.
“We keep track of the distance we covered,” Martinez said. “We keep track of what we found where and that’s what we reference the following year.”
She said at Lt. Moon’s funeral, his sister spoke about his life before he got on the plane. For Martinez, it was a firsthand look at what the operation means to the families to have mementos of their loved ones back more than half a century later.
“What an honor, what an opportunity. I can’t explain the emotion that comes with it. It means a lot,” she said.
The soldiers hope to recover the remaining 15 people and want their families to know while their loved ones may be gone they’re not forgotten.
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