Sunday, July 21, 2013

Plane wreckage reminds us of what it means to serve our country

ELEPHANT MOUNTAIN - The path leading from the logging road into the 50-year-old crash site of the B-52 bomber that went down outside Greenville on Jan. 24, 1963, is well-worn and well-used, especially by snowmobilers in the winter.

Adopted by the Moosehead Riders Snowmobile Club, who have held memorial services here complete with a color guard and bugle players, the crash site is a living museum, a virtual tour teaching about what it means to serve our country.

For forester Matt Miller of Argyle, his first visit to the crash site was moving and meaningful. Miller grew up in western Massachusetts near Westover Air Force Base -- now Westover Air Reserve Base -- where the bomber departed on a routine low-level training mission before the plane's vertical stabilizer came off and the nine crew members crashed into the side of Elephant Mountain, just outside Greenville.

As a child, Miller would watch the big planes taking off and filling up the sky.

"They made a lot of noise. The were monstrous. I was 4 when the crash happened. They were training a lot during the Cold War era," Miller said.

"You could see four engines and they had many wheels. They could get to a high altitude and they could get down low."

The plane was flying low, just 500 feet from the ground, when the malfunction occurred and it crashed into the hillside, according to an account by the Moosehead Region Chamber of Commerce.

Of nine crew members, just two survived -- the pilot, Lt. Col. Dante Bulli, and the navigator, Capt. Gerald Adler, after ejecting from the plane. Bulli broke his ankle landing in a tree while Adler struck the snow, fracturing his skull and three ribs.

The local snowmobile club came into the woods along with first responders to help the two men get out. And for 50 years since, the local snowmobile riders have adopted the site -- it's on paper company property -- and minded it like land stewards.

"It's a spiritual place, it really is," said Bob Meyers, executive of the Maine Snowmobilers Association.

"Some local people got the idea of preserving it. And they never let it go. The first time I went was in 1998 when they put in that granite monument. Gerry Adler was there. He lost a leg in the crash. It was amazing with over 100 snowmobilers who had traveled up there, folks from the military, ministers. They do a memorial ride every year around the crash date."

On the 30th anniversary of the crash, the Moosehead Riders Snowmobile Club held a ceremony and put up a simple monument to honor the crewmen. They held a similar ceremony this Memorial Day.

The club also has Adler's ejection seat and a salvaged engine in their clubhouse museum.

However, it is in the summer that the full breadth of debris can be seen. It impressed and moved Miller a week ago.

It's just a 400-yard hike to the site, where for more than 100 yards large bits of the plane body, parts of engines and 5-foot-high wheels lie scattered through the woods and in the trees -- a lasting memorial in a living place.

"Souvenir hunters have gone up there. Basically after getting the flight recorder, the government decided to just leave it all up here," Meyers said.

"We put the word out about a year ago for people who had taken stuff to return it, no questions asked, to please help us make the place whole. The next week there was a hatch door at our (Augusta) office."

Story and Photos: