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

~ Time and Change ~

I had worked hard to get back on flight status, as I wanted to be ready before '663 came back from the contractors. The Air Force doctors gave me some rehab time, but I took it on my own to work out. By the time '663 showed, I had gone from being barely able to walk to looking about as fit as I had ever been. On the day '663 landed at Eielson, I reported to the flight surgeon. I was not 100%, but easily good enough. He signed me as flight qualified. I was not on the schedule for the first deployment back to Shemya, but made the second. Upon returning there, I was able to trace the steps of the night of March 15th. The burned out fuselage was still in place, now with small red stakes at various locations. I was pleased that my memories seemed to fit the physical evidence with one small exception. The hill going up from the beach to the runway was not as steep as I recalled. What also amazed me was how close Van Horn and I had stood to the burning wreckage. The wind must have been pretty fierce to have kept the flames off us. Otherwise everything was as remembered. I took a number of photographs, which, over the years, and for better or for worse, have kept the memories reasonably intact.

Eventually the safety report was published and I got a look at the document. Naturally, I took a look at anything that mentioned me – and there wasn't much there except a sketchy medical report. Where the report met my memories, both seemed to mesh well. However, it was reading the medical examiner's report on the deceased that left the greatest impact on me. The description of Bill Bennett's mortal injuries took me back to a deployment previous to the crash. Bill and I and one or two other crewdogs were watching some grade-Z horror movie when a scene involving the death of a character caught Bill's attention. He ran it back several times before another crewmember asked him to give it a rest. It was reading that report that really created within me the dread of flying. Bill had died in the same manner as the movie character. Did he sense something, or was this just a cruel coincidence? I know that from that point on, I was never again comfortable in the air.

Nearly a year passed, and I and another squadron mate were assigned to go to Central Flight Instructor's Course at Castle AFB, my birthplace. On the way, we were to stop in and see a California stonecutter who was crafting a squat marble monument to those who perished on the Ball. I found he was using Army abbreviations for rank and didn't have any sense for how '664 looked. I offered some suggestions. Some he took, others he apparently did not. I wasn't there when the monument was dedicated, but there was many a time after that where I just sat next to the stone and thought back.

I still had a three-year sentence to serve at The Rock. During that time, I enjoyed the games of Kingmaker with Jensik, Broad Ocean Area deployments to Hawaii, and the occasional incidents that permanently tag snatches of memories to the passage of time. These included the rescue of the HC-130 crew on Attu (and Brian Bergdahl's "SAR Finger"), the crash of the C-5 that left half the runway closed on Shemya, and the KAL-007 shoot-down tragedy. Mostly, however, Shemya was tunas, poker games and wondering if the flight of March 15 would happen again. When I flew my last flight from the Black Pearl of the Pacific in 1983, I can't say I shed a tear. As one of life's ironies, the replacement Ball, '662, arrived on the very day I left Alaska. I saw it in the hangar, took some pictures, and got in my car and drove off the base. Sadly, in England a year or so later, Jeff Turner, landing on a relay from Offutt, told me about the crash of '121. Given the fates of the Rivet Amber, Rivet Ball and '664, the dangers of flying in Alaska remain ever present.

In 1987, a flight surgeon told me that my medical conditions made any future flying days doubtful, so I left the Air Force and moved on with my life. So, apparently did the 24th SRS and the Cobra Ball presence on Shemya. I understand even the Ball memorial is no longer on The Rock.

During 2003, I was invited back to Alaska to lecture on aviation in the great white north. Twenty years had passed since I had left Alaska, and I was very mindful of the intervening time. I had grown older, put on too much weight, earned a Ph.D., and found myself at a university about as far removed from Shemya as national boundaries allow. However, I have never forgotten for one day the events of March 15, 1981. Indeed that year, the ides of March had come, but have never gone. I feel the physical evidence daily as a recent MRI scan revealed torn tendons and other damage not properly healed from more than 20 years ago. As I prepared my first lecture, I found myself wondering where we go after we die. Is there a true finality, or do we go to a heaven, or do we wander the place of our death? I truly hope the last is not the case. No one deserves to spend eternity on Shemya.

As I end here, the clouds are closing in, the wind is picking up and the sky grows dark and gray. Night is approaching. It's a good time to call my brother, Ken. Tomorrow's his 50th birthday.

Dr. Kerry A. Crooks
March 14, 2004
Gainesville, Florida
©All rights reserved by author

Bruce Carson, a fellow survivor of the accident, who is mentioned prominently in this article, encouraged me to write the piece and have it posted.  Bruce remained close to the Ball program over the years and was the one who eventually found me buried in academia and put me in touch with other Cobra Ball veterans. Sadly, Bruce suddenly passed away this past summer.  The strategic reconnaissance community has lost a true friend and our universe now is without one of its brightest stars.
-K. Crooks, Dec 2008

Web Master Note:
2nd/Lt. Kerry A. Crooks was awarded the Airman's Medal for his heroic rescue efforts. He also played a part in providing a Cobra Ball II monument placed near the scene of the accident. Click Here to view the monument as it was on Shemya near the runway. Click Here to view the monument as it is today in front of the 45th RS (Bldg. 40) at Offutt AFB in Nebraska.

US Army Photo
Hi Res - VHi Res

Dr. K. Crooks (far right), with U.S. Army officers at Exercise Liberty Focus 2008.

Kingdon R. Hawes (Webmaster)
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