Sunday, October 08, 2006

A Little Family History From Alaska

My Aunt Nancy was just contacted by this young man, working on an Eagle Scout project of particular interest to my family. Here's the Anchorage Daily News story:

Scout's effort honors bomber crewman

HERO: Plaque placed on wreckage explaining how man saved others.

WASILLA -- Nearly 50 years on, Staff Sgt. Calvin K. Campbell still looks like a hero.

A flight mechanic, Campbell, 34 at the time, of San Antonio, Texas, was awarded the Soldier's Medal for his deeds on Nov. 15, 1957. A TB-29 Superfortress in which he was a crewman crashed in the Talkeetna Mountains 15 miles north of Wasilla that night. The plane had lost its way while southbound over the Susitna Valley and plowed into the mountains in bad weather.

Six of 10 aboard died outright. Campbell, the only crewmen unhurt, pulled the three other survivors to safety, and then wrapped them, some seriously injured, in sleeping bags and parachutes to keep them warm until rescued the following day.

Campbell's crewmen credited his quick response with saving their lives. In the process, Campbell incurred a shoulder sprain and frostbite.

"If it weren't for him, we wouldn't be here," Tech. Sgt. Manuel Garza told the Anchorage Times shortly after the crash.

The aircraft wreckage still rests on what since then has been known as Bomber Glacier. A tough four- or five-hour hike to reach, it gets little casual tourist traffic.

But since July 22, anyone who visits the site will know the story behind the wreckage, and how Campbell became a hero to his surviving crewmates.

An Anchorage Boy Scout working on his Eagle rank service project erected a bronze plaque on the bomber itself. The plaque, placed by Tyler Adams, 17, also lists the names of the bomber crew and backers who made the project possible.

Adams, encouraged by his father, Steven Adams, an accountant with NANA Development Corp., over the past year planned, researched and, with the help of four friends and numerous backers, hauled the 24-by-18-inch, 47-pound plaque to the site. J&T Foundry and Design of North Pole made the plaque, Tyler said.

He plans to deliver a copy of the plaque to the Alaska Veterans Memorial at Byers Lake, 28 miles north of Talkeetna. That way, more people will read the crash story and appreciate Campbell's story, he said.

Adams, who graduates in 2007 from Bartlett High School, said he got the idea for the memorial plaque during a hiking trip to the site, situated on a glacier at 6,600 feet above sea level and just over the northeast ridge above the Reed Creek drainage.

"I was just hiking around ... and thinking of an Eagle Scout project," he said. "It is a really amazing story."

Inspiration proved the easy part, he said.

He set about researching the crash, first on Google, the Internet search engine; then in the archives of the Anchorage Daily News; and in the office of historian at Elmendorf Air Force Base, where the plane was based.

Adams said he learned the surviving crewmen had all died in the intervening years. He still hopes to locate members of their families in time for a service dedicating the second plaque.

Adams and four fellow Scouts from Troop 25, sponsored by the Chugach Foothill Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, rode with the plaque to the bomber, courtesy of a helicopter flight supplied by Security Aviation.

The plaque, said Steven Adams, troop scoutmaster at the time, was "designed so a couple kids could hump it in and take care of business. But by the time everybody got their words in, we were sure glad there was a helicopter."

The Scouts -- Adams, Jordan and Jared Bisby, Dan Novakovich and Nick Bilak -- also hoisted 10 American flags at the site, flags that U.S. Rep. Don Young of Alaska provided. The flags had all flown over the Capitol in Washington, D.C., and Adams would like to present them to the families of the crewmen.

"We're hoping to get word out to the families of these folks," his father said.

The more immediate search, door-to-door and phone-call-by-phone-call, was for backers to underwrite the cost of the plaques, about $2,000.

"That was the hardest and longest part of this project," Adams said.

Success came bit by bit, either in the form of money or services rendered. Everyone he approached, "from a car maintenance shop to Alaska Airlines," gave something.

He said he learned something about the art of persuasion through this project, as well as presentation. "I was learning a whole new degree of professionalism," Adams said.

I spoke with Tyler this evening, and gave him a little relevant family history. My uncle and namesake, 1st Lieutenant William James Schreffler (also an Eagle Scout), was one of the pilots on the flight, but did not survive the crash. A Life magazine story about the crash appeared at the time, because the hero of the affair was a black airman who helped save his fellow crewman, a newsworthy happenstance in 1957.

What a fine young man. God bless the Boy Scouts.

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