~ Tragedy On A Small Island ~
Dr. K. A. Crooks

~ The Hangar ~

After about a half-hour, which can only be a wild guess, I was transported to one of the Cobra Ball hangars. When I got out of the vehicle, the emotional greeting I received stunned me. People I barely knew hugged me and shook my hand. Having been out in the cold and revealing my prior-service Navy background in the process, I merely (and reasonably) asked, "Where's the head around here?" I was, after all, in a hangar I hadn't been in before. Some kind soul went to the other hangar and retrieved my footlocker whose key, unfortunately, I left on the burning aircraft. After my visit to the necessary, I pried open the lock, cutting my hand in the process. After all the events of the evening, I thought this was my only injury. To my strong disappointment, I found I did not have a spare pair of trousers in the locker. Someone with the right waist, but three or so inches shorter, loaned me a pair. However, I found a pair of Air Force-issue prescription sunglasses, which were handy. We were not allowed to call home immediately. Apparently, communications were spotty to begin with and I suspect some organizational damage control was being played out.

Reports began to filter in. In spite of our efforts, Loren didn't make it. A couple of crewmembers initially were not accounted for (as I wasn't earlier on). However, it didn't take too long before all were found. Van Horn and I were assigned a room together. Exhausted, I fell into my rack. Just before I could doze off, Van Horn spoke quietly into the dark, "I think you and I are going to be recognized for what we did." I didn't have a clue what he was talking about and fell asleep. During that night, I had a most vivid dream that I was trying to catch up to Bill Bennett to introduce him to my family. But he continued into a bright, but hazy light and was gone. The dream woke me up in the dark morning of March 16. For the first time, the reality of what had happened fully hit. I just wanted to curl up and sleep for a long, long time.

During that night, crewmember wives back at Eielson were called. One was told in the wee small and dark hours of the morning, "Your husband was in a plane crash. He was injured and will be medically evacuated. Don't call anyone." Click.

~ The Hospital ~

In the morning, the facts became clearer. The list of the dead and seriously wounded was pretty much known. Landing evacuation aircraft on Shemya was a problem due to the continuing poor weather. Finally, they evacuated some others and me on a P-3 Orion to the Air Force base hospital at Anchorage. The Navy crew made the flight as comfortable as possible, but there weren't enough crew seats for everyone. Not willing to enjoy the comfort of a crew rest seat while fellow crewmembers sat on the floor, I called out, "Seat open!" The Ball co-pilot rushed to take me up on my offer. I strapped myself to the floor and keenly felt every movement of every piece of machinery and pockets of turbulence for the remainder of the journey.

Upon arriving at the hospital, they x-rayed us and then lined us up. The injuries to my leg and back seemed to be worse, not better. I hurt something fierce. However, ever since I was a child, I hated hospitals. Bruce Carson gave me an arm to lean on as we stood in our queue. I didn't want to be admitted. I just wanted to go home to Fairbanks. One doctor came up to me with an x-ray in his hand and said, "You should be dead." I was immediately admitted to the hospital for burnt lungs. I figured as long as I was there, I'd fill them in on the pain in the back and right leg. Next thing I knew, I was in a full leg cast and lying on a rack in an open bay hospital room. The damn cast weighed a ton. Somewhere along the way, I also got a replacement pair of clear glasses. My memory of this stay is more anecdotal than complete and chronological (as, probably, is much of this accounting).

One vivid memory was watching a medic take an arterial blood sample from one of the ESC guys across from me. The young sergeant started to howl. They came and told me I was next. I called to Carson to get me out of there. Bruce grabbed a wheelchair, stuffed me in it, and he motored me off the floor and hid me in a deserted room next to a flight surgeon's office. In the meantime, my father, then a just-retired 0-6 from Offutt, called to SAC HQ and asked about my whereabouts and condition. Brother Ken had alerted him that I probably was on the flight that was reported as crashing on Shemya. SAC confirmed I was medevac'ed to Anchorage. When Dad called the hospital, I was nowhere to be found. Dad let them know how impressed he was with their patient control and kindly requested that they find me. Meanwhile, not knowing the trouble we had stirred, Bruce and I sat in the empty room and talked about families and life until our hunger got the better of us. Heading back to our hospital bay, we nearly made it before a very angry nurse captain intercepted us. My needle was coming, she warned. I grabbed a passing light colonel physician and asked if the arterial blood test was really, really necessary. He turned to the nurse and said, "If he's not dead now, he's not going to be. Leave the lad alone." He then left to collect all the rights and privileges deserving of a newly appointed saint.

Sleeping in an open bay hospital room full of physically and mentally tortured aircraft accident survivors is, obviously, difficult. Besides, nurses in hospitals always seem to have a reason to wake you in the middle of the night for some reason or another. I didn't get more than a couple of hours of sleep.

A day or two into our stay, a Catholic chaplain was making his rounds. The typical words of encouragement were made to all the airmen in our bay. He came to my bed and asked, "And what can I do for you, my son?" He seemed earnest enough. So I looked up at him with my equally earnest youthful face and said, quietly, "Father, you can get me the hell out of this hospital." He didn't blink an eye, and replied, "I'll see what I can do".

~ The Return ~

The man must have had friends in very high places. Before I knew it, they packed me like cargo in the back of a C-130 and flew me home to Eielson. The C-130 taxied in, and the crew and passengers got off. All of a sudden, I am alone on the aircraft. I got my crutches and stumbled out of the back of the plane and looked out. There was a whole receiving line of Air Force brass all standing just beyond a nasty stretch of black ice. So, I did the crutch-and-cast version of the Shemya Shuffle (sliding, not walking on ice). Somehow I made it to the line and had to hobble along, shaking each hand. Frankly, I was not terribly impressed with senior officers more concerned about slipping on ice than helping a young lieutenant across.

While I recuperated at home, wheels were turning. Rob Jensik, bless his heart, took Bill Van Horn's account of the actions of the event and wrote it up for an Airman's Medal for Bill and me. His narrative was a work of literary art. I'll confess now, the style and phrasing Rob used for that one page narrative became the template I have used for every piece of similar writing ever since. The ESC folks also put two of their guys in for awards for putting out flames on Loren and unstrapping him from his chair, although the severity of Gerke's injuries probably prevented them from being able to do much more. However, their efforts had the effect of making our job easier. The efforts of the 24th SRS guys on the tanker also were commended. Led by Jim O'Leary, they had bolted from the hangar when they heard the Ball had crashed. O'Leary, in fact, grabbed someone and made it around the burning fuselage and found Van Horn and Ginter where I had left them. When the plane exploded, Jim had just reached the nose of the aircraft and was almost hit by the radome. Considering the weather, the danger and the likelihood he would find no one alive, I consider Jim's actions among the most commendable of the day.

The inevitable descent of Air Force officials upon the wing and squadron scooped up all in their path. I was the last to give my statements to the safety board cast and all. I remember not being too happy I had to be driven in the snow to them when I was quite happy to entertain the lot in my warm living room with a hot coffee and whiskey to see me through the interrogation. Instead, I got to sit at the end of the table while some field grade officer thought he was Sigmund Freud, Jr. "Isn't it true, lieutenant, that you returned the burning aircraft because it represented warmth?" or some idiotic words to the same effect. Trust me, a burning, about-to-explode aircraft was the last place I wanted to be. One light colonel badgered me about where on the airframe the main explosion had originated. From where I was standing, it seemed the whole thing went up. My explanation never satisfied him, and he asked again until I snapped, "Hell, I don't know. It wasn't like I had the time to take a bearing." I gave them my two cents worth on what I thought might help the next poor fellow in a similar situation and was let go. When I look back at this unpleasant episode, I only remember the room getting blackish red as they made me walk through the crash step by step. To this day, I cannot sit at the head of a table without feeling the dread of that event. Oddly, word filtered back that I did all right in my interrogation, and actually made a decent suggestion or two. Don't care. I didn't enjoy it one bit, and sure hope the exercise served a good purpose down the road for someone else.

SAC made several changes to the command personnel and training structure of the wing and squadron. I have never come to any judgment on this. Years later, a retiring Air Force colonel told me his tanker squadron members were surprised this pilot was being assigned to Alaska as they felt he wasn't ready. I'll let those better qualified address this issue. All I am prepared to say is that those who made the decision for the Cobra Ball to land in those conditions did him (and us) no favor. There was an urban myth that sometime during the weeks that followed, one of the enlisted survivors tried to run the pilot down with his car and only the sergeant's wife's quick intervention prevented another casualty. If this actually occurred, the attempt failed and no charges were even hinted at. In the end, so far as I know, the pilot never again flew for the Air Force and disappeared from my life's path. Indeed, most of those injured did not return to flying, or if they did, only for a short while. Replacements came as replacements always do and soon there were fewer and fewer remaining who were at Shemya that night.

K. Crooks

Kingdon R. Hawes (Webmaster)
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