Here’s a compelling story from yesteryear about bravery and heroism high in the Talkeetna Mountains, near Hatcher Pass.
On November 15, 1957, about 6:30 p.m., a B-29 bomber from Elmendorf Air Force Base with a crew of 10 was returning to base after a radar-calibrating mission farther north. Weather had deteriorated and the ceiling had dropped to below 4,000 feet as they made their way south past Talkeetna. A routine radio report from the aircraft reported no problems. The plane was scheduled to arrive at Elmendorf at 7 p.m.
Staff Sergeant Calvin Campbell, then 34, was assigned to the right scanner position, about mid-point in the aircraft behind the engines. One of his tasks was to monitor the two engines on the right side. Staff Sergeant Robert McMurray had similar duties on the left side. In the pilot seat was Major Robert Butler.
In a 2001 telephone interview Campbell, now 80, described what happened next. “We were descending toward Elmendorf on IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) at good speed, when we hit real hard with no warning. Everything went black…I mean real black. Then we hit again and it felt so cold. It felt like the wings tore off and when I crawled out, I saw that the fuselage was broken into two. We were on a snowy field—I didn’t know at the time it was a glacier. It was so quiet.
“McMurray was right below me, pinned between the fuselage and the observation post. I pulled him out of there. Navigator Lt. Claire Johnson had dragged himself out of the plane and collapsed in the snow nearby. I wrapped them both in parachutes and put Johnson in a sleeping bag that I found in the cargo hold. “I could hear Sgt. Garza, the flight engineer, yelling from farther up the slope. He was still inside the nose section. It had sheared off and gone up the hill about 500 feet.”
“When I got up to Garza I soon realized he was the only other survivor—it was just the four of us. The pilot, Major Robert A. Butler and the five other officers had all perished. Garza weighed about 140 lbs…it was hard pulling him out. I placed him on a piece of canvas and dragged him down to the others. He had a broken arm and broken leg. I went back to the cargo hold and got more sleeping bags and then got us into the wreckage out of the wind—it felt very cold, but I had extra flight clothing to help cover us up.”
Air Rescue at Elmendorf began its helicopter search at daybreak the following morning, zeroing in on the B-29’s last known position. By 9:30 they found the crash site—on a broad glacial slope at fifty three hundred feet —about a mile northeast of upper Reed Lake. Thanks to Campbell’s decisive actions, the injured men survived the night. They were taken to the hospital at Elmendorf. “I think we were about 17 degrees off course.” Campbell says. “Too far to the east—put us right into those high mountains.”
Campbell said that except for a scratch over his eye, he was unharmed. He later would suffer complications from frostbitten feet, however, and lose the use of several toes.
Calvin K. Campbell received a special commendation from President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Soldier’s Medal, a decoration for valor in a non-combat situation. He retired from the Air Force in 1968.
“I didn’t feel like a hero or anything,” says Campbell. “I just did what I had to do. “The other guys would have done the same thing for me.”
Today, the broken bomber sits on the glacier as a quiet memorial to the six men who died there 46 years ago.
I hiked there with a friend earlier this summer—via upper Reed Lake trail and then over the pass. The wreckage looked surreal, out of place. Here was 50 tons of torn and twisted metal, once with wings stretching about half the length of a football field. The pride of the U.S. Air Force in World War II now lay in ruins on a glacier, bent and buckled, wrenched apart, scattered… exposed to the whims of nature.
We walked around the site awhile, took a few photos, afraid to touch anything. Six men had died here. It was unearthly quiet, as Calvin Campbell described it. A cool gust of wind blew up from the valley below. I felt like it was telling us to move on.
After that visit I vowed to find out more about the incident, and eventually located Calvin K. Campbell, who though not in the best of health, was more than willing to talk about the experience. My special thanks to Calvin and Elmendorf’s Historian for help in researching this unique piece of Alaska history.