An Alaska Army National Guard UH-60L Black Hawk helicopter takes off after dropping off Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations and Armed Forces Medical Examiner System recovery team members supporting Operation Colony Glacier at Colony Glacier, Alaska, on June 16, 2023. (Don Hudson/U.S. Air Force)
(Tribune News Service) — It took more than seven decades but the uncle of an Alma man has finally been officially identified after he was killed in the crash of a military transport plane in Alaska on Nov. 22, 1952.
U.S. Air Force Capt. William Nelson Coombs, a Detroit native who was 31 at the time, was among the 41 passengers and 11 crew members who perished when their C-124 Globemaster aircraft struck Mount Gannett while returning to Elmendorf Air Force Base near Anchorage.
Jeff Barker, 75, the retired president and CEO of Commercial Bank, vaguely recalls the last time he saw his uncle. He was 4-years-old and living with his family in Greenville.
“He had ferried another airplane from Alaska to the States and came by to visit us,” Barker said. “I was pretty young so I really don’t remember much about it.”
Air Force Capt. William Nelson Coombs. ()
Coombs, who was assigned to the Tenth Air Rescue Group, was a decorated WWII fighter pilot but on the return flight he was a passenger flying back to the base where he had been stationed for the prior two-and-a-half years.
However, he and the others never made it after the aircraft encountered severe weather over Middleton Island in the Gulf of Alaska.
“They were flying without any visual reference using only an altimeter, stopwatch and a radio beacon,” Barker said. “The weather was horrible with 80 mile-per-hour winds.”
The transport plane struck the mountain at full speed, he added.
“It basically disintegrated,” Barker explained.
A massive rescue effort was launched but the poor weather condition hampered the search.
Only a small portion of the tail section was found three days later at an elevation of 8,100 feet.
According to reports at the time, debris had been scattered over several acres on the north-flowing Colony Glacier. Making matters even worse was that eight feet of fresh snow had fallen and drifts were up to 100 feet deep. In addition, the crash had also triggered avalanches making any attempts at recovery impossible.
The site was buried in ice and snow and no remains of the crew and passengers were ever found.
U.S. Army Sgt. Nathaniel Smith, 2nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 11th Airborne Division, Glacier Mountaineering Team advanced military mountaineer, scales a crevasse wall after recovering human remains, personal effects and equipment between glacier ridges at Colony Glacier, Alaska, June 16, 2023. (Don Hudson/U.S. Air Force)
That is until 2012, when the crew of an Alaska Army National Guard helicopter on a training mission noticed a large yellow survival raft on the surface of the Colony Glacier, nearly 14 miles from the original crash site.
A team was sent on foot to investigate and later announced the discovery of the wreckage of the C-124 transport.
Since then a recovery operation has taken place each summer in an attempt to identify the deceased.
Although it took another decade, Barker was notified in late 2022 that his uncle, Capt. Coombs had finally been identified.
“They found his wallet and a piece of his hand,” Barker said. “He was identified by his fingerprints and DNA that my brother had supplied.”
Since Coombs and his wife, Elva, had no children the Barker siblings are his closest surviving relatives.
To give the family closure the U.S. Air Force is providing a military escort of Coombs’ remains back to Detroit where he will be buried with full military honors, Barker said.
The public ceremony will take place at 11 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 5 at Acacia Park Cemetery in Beverly Hills, MI.
Various military organizations are expected to send representatives to pay their final respects.
“We’ve been told there could be more than 200 people there,” Barker said. “His wife purchased the gravesite in 1953 shortly after (he was declared dead). She is also buried there.”
Over the years the crash has been the subject of several books and numerous newspaper and magazine articles.
An Operation Colony Glacier recovery team member climbs out of a crevasse after searching the bottom for possible human remains, personal effects and equipment at Colony Glacier, Alaska, June 16, 2023. (Don Hudson/U.S. Air Force)
U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Earl, 2nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 11th Airborne Division, Glacier Mountaineering Team lead mountaineer, peers into a deep crevasse in search of possible human remains, personal effects and equipment between glacier ridges at Colony Glacier, Alaska, June 16, (Don Hudson/U.S. Air Force)
Thanks to the continued recovery efforts, dubbed “Operation Colony Glacier” by the military, all but six or seven of the 52 passengers and crew members have been identified.
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