GREENVILLE, Maine — A community effort is under way to protect the memorial site of a B-52 bomber that crashed Jan. 24, 1963 on Elephant Mountain. The crash killed seven airmen and left two survivors.
The B-52 had left Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts at about noon and was on a routine training mission when a malfunction caused the unarmed plane to go down in the Greenville area.
While thousands of people annually visit the memorial crash site, it is Mother Nature that is causing problems for the preservation of a piece of history.
Groundwater from the side of the mountain is eroding the trail that works up through the debris field and to a bulletin board that provides history on the crash. And the weather is damaging the tail section of the plane that is in another location on the mountain and is not part of the memorial site. The tail fell off the bomber before the plane crashed.
“It’s one of the very few sites in the whole nation that have a crash site like this that they memorialize like the people of Greenville do,” Lt. Col. Scott Higgins of the Civil Air Patrol told Greenville selectmen, Wednesday.
According to Bob Hamer, executive director of the Moosehead Lake Region Chamber of Commerce, a minimum of 6,000 to 7,000 people a year visit the site and seven out of 10 people who visit the chamber inquire about it.
Selectmen learned Wednesday that the Moosehead Riders Snowmobile Club, the Air National Guard, the American Legion, Civil Air Patrol and the Maine Warden Service want to relocate the B-52’s tail section from the eastern side of Elephant Mountain to a shelter where it could be permanently displayed at the snowmobile clubhouse with other crash artifacts, such a jet engine and an ejection seat from the plane. The crash site, where parts of the airplane are visible, would continue to remain a memorial site.
“We want to make this a community project,” Pete Pratt of the snowmobile club said. On Wednesday, he asked and received the board’s support for the project. He said a meeting will be held at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 13, at the clubhouse, to further plan the project.
Organizers initially had planned the improvements in two phases with the trail improvements planned later. However, when landowner Plum Creek Timber Co. heard about the water damage, the company quickly stepped to the plate, according to Pratt.
Higgins said Saturday that Plum Creek already has an easement in place so no harvesting can be done near the crash site. To help further preserve the site, the company will soon dig a large conversion trench above the crash site and install several culverts to divert the groundwater and redo the trail at company cost.
Phase one hinges on getting help from the Army National Guard, according to Pratt. He said a helicopter was needed to lift the tail from its mountain bed and to fly it to a woods road where it would be placed on a flatbed truck. The tail would then be taken to Jack Whittier’s garage in Greenville where it would be examined by a structural engineer. That work would determine how the tail could be mounted for display, he explained.
Organizers are working with Dr. Ken Woodbury of the Piscataquis County Economic Development Council to secure some foundation grants to help with the costs which are currently unknown, according to Pratt.
Pratt said the organizers hope to have the project completed by May 2013 which is the 50th anniversary of the crash. He personally is hoping that the project is done by 2012 when the lone living survivor of the plane crash, Retired Capt. Gerald Adler of Davis, Calif., who was the ill-fated aircraft’s commander, makes a return visit to Greenville.
Adler and Dan Bulli of Nebraska, both ejected from the plane seconds before it crashed.
Killed in the crash were: Lt. Col. Joe R. Simpson Jr., Maj. William W. Gabriel, Maj. Robert J. Morrison, Maj. Robert J. Hill, Capt. Herbert L. Hansen, Capt. Charles G. Leuchter and Tech. Sgt. Michael F. O’Keefe.
“I think it’s really important, also as a veteran, that we memorialize this place,” Higgins said. Moving the tail section to a more secure location and diverting the water from the crash scene will help toward that end, he said.