Tahoma Glacier Ghost Story

This is an improbable story from a summit climb of Mt. Rainier in 1992.  I will start off with the fact that I don’t particularly believe in ghosts, but something wildly peculiar happened high on that mountain that I have no logical explanation for.  With this account, I will focus on this mysterious side story and leave the tale of the epic climb for another time, as it is my favorite route of all the paths I have stumbled up Mt. Rainier on.  First, I will set the stage with what occurred on our climb in 1992, then I will follow it up with a news account of what actually happened along our climbing route back in 1946.

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We started our hike in to high camp on Westside road in Mt Rainier National Park by parking at the road closure gate. This road is notorious for being eternally closed off due to the mountain streams causing washouts along the way and making it impassible for all but someone on foot.  This makes it one of the longest and most remote ways to get to the top of Rainier, so we had set aside a full five days to make sure we had plenty of time.

I had used this exact starting point when I was in the Army in 1978 to begin my solo hike around Mt Rainier on the Wonderland Trail.  I had a buddy at Ft. Lewis drop me off at the gated road closure, circled the entire mountain and hitch hiked back after almost two weeks alone on the mountain.  It was on that long, lonely trek that I had decided solo adventuring was not really my thing.  While I had enjoyed high adventure along the way, it was tempered by the fact that no one had experienced it with me to share these stories with.

One of the memories I had from that past solo trip was the feeling of being watched or shadowed by something every time a twig snapped or a few pebbles rolled down a slope.  When alone, your mind, at least my mind, after a few run-ins with small critters, deer, and even a bear, very easily wanders to improbable scenarios like it’s a cougar stalking me, or after a few more isolated days, even Sasquatch or Bigfoot playing games.

This trip however, I had my partner in crime of many adventures, Rick, and some friends of his from work that we had been training for a few months to get ready for this remote accent.  We took off quickly with our heavy climbing packs loaded with gear and supplies to last the week we expected to be on the mountain.  We worked our way along the road in the foggy, misty morning, working on the occasional blisters and settling our individual loads.

Blister break along West Side Road

The path I had walked almost 20 years before was still familiar, but altogether different at the same time.  With four men full of testosterone there is much more noise… grunting, laughing and storytelling, so there was much less navel-gazing even as I passed places that I remembered where rocks had rolled down a road cut or bushes moved with an imagined adversary skulking in the shadows.

Our route on the Tahoma Glacier running up the center of Mt Rainier.

We worked our way along the west flank of the mountain, breathing in the rich dampness of the old growth forest.  Everything was green and earthy, with the undergrowth and streams encroaching into the road bed, even removing it in places. We paused at the Marine Memorial and glanced up towards the Sunset Amphitheater where the plane had crashed into the mountain.  Our route went just to the left of this massive cliff after traversing underneath the headwall where the crash debris would have fallen.

Marine Memorial along West Side Road. Our route runs just to the right of the rock spur in the center of the photo. The Marine plane ran into the big headwall to the right.

We moved ever upwards, noticing the plant life getting more stunted and sparse as we neared the timberline.

As we wandered up along the glacier moraine and onto the foot of the wildly fractured Tahoma Glacier, we watched a family of mountain goats climbing up and over the hump of St. Andrews Rock as we made our way up. I wondered what would possess them to take such a steep overland route.  I later discovered that many climbers also take this route when the glacier is so fractured with crevasses it is almost impossible to travel on.  We climbed up to around 9500’ to stake out our high camp, almost even with Andrews Rock to the north.

Trekking along the glacial moraine

I picked a spot that looked to be free of any crevasses and not in a potential avalanche path, as we had seen several big ones coming off the massive headwalls all day long.  Or site was fairly flat as glaciers go, and we settled in pitching our tents and getting camp set up. Rick and I were in one tent, and Jonathan and his friend were in another. We had been at it for some time through the heat of the day, into early evening, so I decided we would spend the next day resting, melting snow for water and recovering from the strenuous climb up to be better prepared for a summit bid.  We were pretty trashed and would only have a few hours to recover if we were to head out on a summit climb very early in the morning.

Our high camp on the Tahoma Glacier

As on many routes, an early start was mandatory to ensure the steepest part of the route, known as the “Sickle”, was frozen solid so we could crampon up the 40 degree sloop without being beaten to death with falling ice and rock.  As the name implies, the narrow blade of the Sickle curved around to the left, funneling everything released from the side of the mountain right down the middle like a bowling alley, with us as the pins.

sickle
The Sickle is the narrow bob sled chute curving left around the cliff.

So we spent a pleasant day high up on the mountain, kicking back in perfect weather, eating, napping and melting snow to replenish our water supply. Off in the distance, we watched the goats climbing up and back down the hump of St Andrews Rock again, undertaking some endless Sisyphean task only they understood.  Well rested, we turned in early in order to be off at the crack of dawn.

As a rule, I am a very light sleeper to begin with.  Put me on a mountain on a sheet of ice, with others depending on me to make sound decisions and get them back down safely and sleep is just an idea that sounds like a fantasy.  My mind goes over the intended route endlessly, creating mental checkpoints for “what ifs” for turnaround milestones, creating checklists for who is carrying required safety gear and performing other various risk management tasks the others are blissfully unware of as they snore away.

I eventually passed out for a few hours rest, until a sudden loud snap and was heard and felt.  I jerked up suddenly and pressed my face to the netting on the tent door.  We had left the flap open with just the netting zipped for ventilation. It was a very bright, moonlit night, especially out in the middle of the glacier.  I sat there motionless, wondering if I had dreamed the snap or if it actually happened.  All my senses were on alert from the odd incident and I was keyed up again, listening to Rick snoring away.  I laid back down, but couldn’t doze back off, my mind running through possible scenarios for what the noise might have been.

Maybe 10 minutes went by as I lay there…and then I heard what sounded like footsteps crunching in the snow.  The steps got louder and it was apparent that it was not a single person, such as Jonathan in the other tent going to relieve himself.  It sounded like multiple people, or more likely as I though further, the goats had come over to investigate the camp.   Goats are drawn to the salt in human urine and it is very common to find them wandering up to camps and licking the snow or ground like a salt lick.

I though, boy, those goats must have made a beeline from that ridge so far away to get here this soon.  I attached my flash to my camera to see if I could get a shot of the goats around camp.  I slowly pressed my face against the open door netting to look off to the side of the tent where the sound was coming from. Nothing there.  I looked out the back window of the tent and again, nothing in sight.  The steps now sounded like the goats were marching around in a circle around the tent…multiple footsteps stamping around crunching in the snow.

I unzipped the netting and stuck my head out to get a better look around. Our camp is hundreds of yards from the nearest place where anything could be hiding.  The moon was shining bright, reflecting off the snow, creating an amazing bright field with nothing showing but our two tents.  I wake Rick up and tell him to listen…he is woozy with sleep and is mumbling back “what the hell Profitt, go back to sleep”… I keep shaking him and he finally comes around and listens… “what the hell is that” he says.  “I don’t know, I don’t see anything out there” I replied.

The marching continues for a while longer, I’m not sure exactly how long as we sat there just staring at each other in the tent or pressing our faces to the netting to see outside.  He decides he has to pee bad enough to venture out no matter what is out there, as he always did, and starts fumbling for his frozen boots. As he is rustling around getting dressed the marching faded away.  This had to be over a period of 15-20 minutes.

He went out, did his business and came back in and said “there’s nothing out there”.  I said “I told you that already”.  “Then what the hell was that?”  “I have no fucking idea, but it was something.”  I then told him about the loud snap I had heard and felt just before the steps.  Our train of thought eventually decided it had simply been the glacier fracturing or popping as glaciers do all the time.  We fell back in our sleeping bags and he was soon passed back out.

For me, sleep was done for the night.  No way was I going to fall back asleep with what had just happened and so I started going over the facts.  Bright, moonlit night.  Complete calm, not a hint of breeze.  Tents are out in the middle of the glacier, no way for anything to hide for hundreds of yards as close as the steps sounded. The stepping sound was there.  I heard it.  Rick heard it.  I was wide awake, not even slightly drowsy.

I laid there for a bit longer and then roused everyone to get ready for the summit attempt.  As everyone else prepared their gear I looked around for tracks with my head lamp.  We had pretty well pounded the immediate area flat with our tracks as we had been there   for a full day, but I didn’t see any goat tracks or human tracks that we didn’t make.  I started relating the story to the others which got everyone coming up with wild theories.

We eventually headed out of camp and into the Sickle, staggering up the mountain the crisp morning air.  We all got to the summit and slogged our way back down the Sickle in horrifying conditions, but eventually safely back to camp.

Taking a break at the top of the Sickle

There in the heat of the day a few inches of snow had melted off and there was now an obvious open crack, several inches wide in places and many yards long, right under the center of our tent.  OK, well, that explains the loud snap and vibration.

You can see the fracture in the glacier running right under the tent.

Conversation then turned to the notion that it was the ghosts of the 32 marines that had perished in the plane crash on the headwall just above us.  I explained that their bodies had never been removed from the wreckage as it had been deemed too dangerous for a rescue team and they had been buried in the glacier for nearly 50 years.  With a bit more whiskey, this became the tale of choice:  The glacier had snapped open right under our tent, releasing the spirits of some of the fallen Marines who then marched, in step, around our tent, for what reason only they understood.

As I mentioned at the beginning, I do not believe in ghosts…but something freaky happened up there that I have no real explanation for. A squad of ghost Marines finding it endlessly amusing to go fuck with an old Army dude high on a mountain is as good an explanation as any.

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Historylink.com Article:

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A Curtis Commando C-46 transport plane crashes into Mount Rainier, killing 32 U.S. Marines, on December 10, 1946.

By Daryl C. McClary          Posted 7/29/2006             HistoryLink.org Essay 7820

On December 10, 1946, six Curtis Commando R5C transport planes carrying more than 200 U.S. Marines leave San Diego en route to Seattle. The aircraft, flying entirely by instruments at an altitude of 9,000 feet, encounter heavy weather over southwestern Washington. Four turn back, landing at the Portland Airport; one manages to land safely in Seattle, but the sixth plane, carrying 32 Marines, vanishes. Search-and-rescue aircraft, hampered by continuing bad weather, are unable to fly for a week and ground searches prove fruitless. After two weeks, the search for the missing aircraft is suspended. The Navy determines that the plane was blown off course by high winds and flew into the side of Mount Rainier (14,410 feet). In July 1947, a ranger at Mount Rainier National Park spots wreckage on South Tahoma Glacier. Search parties examine the debris and confirm that it came from the missing plane. Four weeks later, the bodies are found high on the face of the glacier, but hazardous conditions force authorities to abandon plans to remove them for burial. The 32 U.S. Marines remain entombed forever on Mount Rainier. In 1946, it was the worst accident, in numbers killed aboard an aircraft, in United States aviation history and remains Mount Rainier’s greatest tragedy.

Marine Plane
Curtis Commando C-46/R5C transport plane

The Tragedy

The Curtis Commando (C-46/R5C) was the largest and heaviest twin-engine transport aircraft used by the U.S. military during World War II (1941-1945). Originally developed as a 36-seat commercial airliner, it was used to haul cargo and personnel and for towing gliders. Although the plane had a service ceiling of 24,500 feet, it was restricted to flying at lower altitudes when hauling passengers because the cabin was unpressurized.

At 10:36 a.m. on Tuesday, December 10, 1946, six Curtis Commando R5C transport planes carrying more than 200 U.S. Marines departed El Toro Marine Air Station near San Diego on a six-and-a-half hour, nonstop flight to Naval Air Station Sand Point in Seattle. The flight encountered extremely bad weather over southwestern Washington and four of the planes turned back, landing at the Portland Airport. The two remaining aircraft, flying entirely by instruments (IFR), pressed onward toward Seattle.

At 4:13 p.m., Major Robert V. Reilly, pilot of aircraft No. 39528, radioed the Civil Aeronautics Administration (now the Federal Aviation Administration) radio range station at Toledo, Washington, that he was flying IFR at 9,000 feet and, with ice forming on the leading edges of the wings, requested permission to fly above the cloud cover. The plane was estimated to be approximately 30 miles south of Toledo, the midpoint between Seattle and Portland. When Major Reilly failed to contact Toledo, establishing his new altitude, air traffic controllers became concerned. Although buffeted by the storm, the fifth Curtis R5C flew through the weather without major difficulty, landing at Sand Point shortly after 5 p.m.

Under normal circumstances, the powerful Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) radio range station at Everett should have been able to receive transmissions from Major Reilly’s aircraft by 4:30 p.m., but heard none. Frantic efforts by the CAA, as well as the Army and Navy, to contact the plane were fruitless. The CAA’s ground transmission network queried other airfields around Western Washington, but there was no trace of the missing transport. All of the Curtis R5C’s had sufficient fuel to fly for 10 hours, giving officials hope that Major Reilly had landed his plane safely at some remote location.

The Search

At dawn on Wednesday, December 11, 1946, Army, Navy, and Coast Guard search planes were poised to start an intensive search of the area where the aircraft was presumed to have disappeared. But poor visibility and bad weather throughout southwestern Washington kept the search planes grounded. Air rescue units remained on alert, waiting for a break in the weather. Another concern was the missing aircraft’s color, black, making the wreckage extremely difficult to spot from the air. Most search activity was limited to investigating leads provided by local citizens who reported hearing airplane engines around the time the Curtis R5C disappeared.

Although it was well off Major Reilly’s designated flight plan, the search for the aircraft was concentrated around Randle, Longmire, and Paradise in the southern foothills and slopes of Mount Rainier. John Preston, superintendent of Mount Rainier National Park, and other park rangers reported hearing a plane fly over the area about 4:15 p.m. on Tuesday afternoon, just minutes after Major Reilly’s last transmission to Toledo. Many of the rangers thought the aircraft might have crashed into the Nisqually Glacier on the south slope of the mountain.

On Friday, December 13, 1946, Assistant Chief Ranger William Jackson Butler (1909-2000) and Paradise District Ranger Gordon Patterson climbed to Panorama Ridge, elevation 6,800 feet, in a desperate effort to scout Nisqually Glacier for signs of the missing aircraft. But visibility there was almost zero and they were driven back by a blizzard. The rangers reported hearing the roar of avalanches on the glacier, which could have easily buried any wreckage forever.

Stormy weather in Western Washington continued for the next five days. High winds and heavy rain caused flooding at lower elevations, severely hindering search efforts and disrupting communications. More than five feet of snow fell on Mount Rainier, making it almost impossible to locate any trace of the plane on the mountain.

On Monday, December 16, 1946, the weather cleared for the first time in a week and conditions were ideal for an aerial search. Twenty-five Army, Navy, and Coast Guard aircraft were launched to search the slopes of Mount Rainier and as far south as Toledo in Lewis County for any sign of the missing Curtis R5C transport. But all the search planes returned without sighting any trace of wreckage. An intensive search around and west of Nisqually Glacier by air and ground units failed to uncover a single clue to the plane’s whereabouts. Still, authorities suspected that the aircraft had crashed on Mount Rainier or somewhere in the vicinity.

Two weeks of searching produced nothing and at that point chances of the Marines’ survival were nil, so in late December efforts to find the aircraft were suspended. Park rangers thought that recent heavy snows on Mount Rainier would have covered any signs of wreckage.

Reconstructing the Event

Still, the lost Marines would not be forgotten. The search for the missing plane resumed the next summer, after some of the snow had melted. Meanwhile, the Navy conducted a thorough investigation into the facts and circumstances surrounding the aircraft’s disappearance. Families of the missing men offered a $5,000 reward to anyone finding the plane.

After analyzing the evidence, Navy officials concluded the missing plane, traveling at approximately 180 m.p.h., crashed into the side of Mount Rainier. Major Reilly was flying an IFR course, corrected for a southeast wind. However south of Portland, the wind changed direction, blowing from the west at 70 m.p.h. This wind shift, unknown to the pilot, pushed the plane approximately 25 degrees to the east, directly on a path into Mount Rainier. Their analysis was bolstered by reports from persons on the ground along the supposed line of flight where the Curtis R5C disappeared, who reported hearing a plane flying overhead. They believed the wreckage, if it could be located, would be scattered on one of the glaciers on the south or southwest side of the mountain.

Bill Butler’s Eagle Eye

On Monday, July 21, 1947, Assistant Chief Ranger Bill Butler, 38, was hiking up Success Cleaver on his day off, monitoring snow levels and climbing conditions, when he spotted some aircraft wreckage, including a bucket seat, high on South Tahoma Glacier. The following day, Butler flew over the area in a Navy reconnaissance plane to assist photographing the area where he saw the debris. The wreckage couldn’t be seen from the air, but Butler was able to pinpoint the location without difficulty.

It was at about the 9,500-foot level on a huge snow-field rife with deep crevasses and sheer ice precipices, below an almost perpendicular 3,000-foot rock wall. The terrain was so treacherous that none of the park rangers or mountain climbing guides recalled anyone ever traversing the glacier’s face. As gravity drags the glacial ice down the mountainside, at an approximate rate of 10 inches per day, fissures open and close, causing avalanches and rock slides and collapsing snow bridges over crevasses.

Searching for Wreckage and Remains

On Wednesday, July 23, 1947, the Navy established a radio relay station and base camp at Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground, altitude 5,800 feet, on the slopes of Pyramid Peak. That afternoon, Butler, accompanied by seven expert mountaineers, hiked five miles from the Longmire Ranger Station to the base camp, where they spent the night. They planned to embark at 4 a.m. the following morning, but bad weather delayed the mission.

Finally, at 9 a.m. on Thursday, July 24, 1947, the search party started the arduous three-and-a-half mile climb toward South Tahoma Glacier. They split into three groups, each taking a different route, making the search of the glacier safer and more efficient. Because it was believed that vibrations from aircraft motors could trigger avalanches and rock slides, endangering the climbers, all planes were warned to stay clear of Mount Rainier.

That afternoon, the first fragments of an aircraft were found at the 9,500-foot level, strewn over a quarter-mile-wide area and partially embedded in the ice. Initial efforts to free pieces of the wreckage with ice axes proved unsuccessful. Although no bodies were located, searchers found a Marine Corps health record, a piece of a uniform, a seat belt, a temperature control panel and fragments of an aircraft’s fuselage. At about 5:30 p.m., the mountaineers returned to the base camp at Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground with their discoveries. There Navy officials positively identified the health record as belonging to a marine aboard the missing Curtis R5C transport.

On Friday, July 25, 1947, the mountaineers returned to South Tahoma Glacier to search for signs of the 32 missing men, but the weather had deteriorated, greatly increasing the hazards on the glacier. Throughout the day, the climbers, battling rain and snow, were bombarded by falling rocks and encountered two large crevasses that had opened overnight. They recovered additional evidence identifying the wreckage, including a knapsack containing Marine Corps health and service records, and saw considerably more that could not be extricated from the ice. But no bodies were found although searchers dug several feet down into the ice at various locations to inspect debris.

On Saturday, July 26, 1947, Navy officials announced that, due to the extremely difficult and dangerous conditions on the glacier, the search for the missing men had been suspended. Photo reconnaissance aircraft would continue monitoring the crash site so that if and when conditions on the glacier improved, further attempts could be made to find and recover the bodies.

On Monday, August 18, 1947, Assistant Chief Ranger Bill Butler was on a scouting trip around the South Tahoma Glacier with two park rangers when he spotted a large piece of wreckage at the 10,500-foot level. The rangers investigated and found the crushed nose section of the Curtis R5C, which had been buried under several feet of snow since winter. The sun had melted the snow down to the glacial ice, revealing the nose section with the bodies of 11 men tangled inside. The rangers returned to park headquarters at Longmire and notified officials at Naval Air Station Sand Point of their discovery.

The Navy responded immediately, establishing a base camp at Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground. Over the next few days, Navy and National Park Service officials discussed the feasibility of the removing bodies from the glacier for burial. The general census was it would take at least 20 experienced mountain climbers, at great personal risk, about two weeks to bring 32 bodies from the crash site to the base camp. Butler explained that conditions on the glacier were so bad, it took four hours to get to the site of the original wreckage. Snow bridges, which were there previously, had collapsed and new crevasses had opened up all through the ice. Although it was only another half mile up the glacier, it took another four hours to reach the wreckage of the nose section. Before making any decisions, Navy officials advised they would seek expert advice from the Army’s famous Mountain Division about recovery efforts.

Meanwhile, the Navy Department and National Park Service had been planning a memorial service for the lost Marines on Sunday, August 24, 1947 at Longmire. Parents and relatives were due to arrive in Seattle as early as Tuesday. Although circumstances had changed dramatically, the decision was made to proceed with the service.

On Friday, August 22, 1947, 17 climbers, led by Butler, returned to the glacier to survey the new site and search for more bodies. In addition to the 11 men found in the crushed nose section, 14 more bodies, most encased in ice, and a considerable amount of the broken plane, were discovered wedged in a crevasse. A heavy volume of rocks and boulders falling from the glacier’s headwall forced the search party to withdraw, but they brought out wallets, rings, watches, and personal papers of many of the men who died. The Naval Public Information Office in Seattle announced that all 32 Marine bodies had been located; 25 had been seen and there was no doubt the other seven were there also.

At 2 p.m. on Sunday, August 24, 1947, a memorial service for the 32 Marines was held near Longmire. The ceremony took place on a knoll at the 4,000-foot summit of Round Pass, overlooking Mount Rainier and South Tahoma Glacier. Approximately 200 persons attended the solemn service, including the families of 14 of the men. Marine Corps Commanding General Leroy Hunt presented each family that had lost a Marine with a folded American flag as a memorial. The ceremony concluded with a bugler playing taps and the traditional 21-gun salute. Before leaving, the families decided to hold a memorial on Round Pass in August every year to honor the dead Marines.

On Monday, August 25, 1947, 13 climbers, led again by Butler, returned to South Tahoma Glacier to assess the feasibility of removing the bodies for burial without undue hazard. Included in the survey party were nine experts in mountain and winter warfare from the Army’s Mountain Division. The following day, officials from the Army, Navy, and National Park Service met at Fort Lewis to discuss the recovery problems. After careful consideration, all the experts agreed to abandon the mission because it would endanger the lives of the recovery parties. Clinching the decision was a letter written after the memorial service by parents of six of the Marines aboard the ill-fated plane, stating that sufficient effort had been made to recover their son’s remains:

“It is our wish that the vicinity be properly posted to defeat any efforts of curious and uninterested parties who enter near this hallowed area and that all further activity be abandoned, leaving our sons in the care of our Creator” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer).

Parents who had left Mount Rainier before the letter was written also expressed the desire that no more lives be risked in recovery efforts.

Honoring the Fallen

On Wednesday, August 27, 1947, Captain A. O. Rule, Commandant of Naval Air Station Sand Point, announced the official decision to cease all recovery efforts on South Tahoma Glacier. A dispatch from the Navy Department, Washington, D.C., concurred with the decision and approved mass burial at the site. In effect, the 32 Marines would stay where they died, among the wreckage of the Curtis R5C.

Officials at Mount Rainier National Park affirmed that there were no predatory animals or insects on the glacier at 10,500 feet and the wreckage and bodies would be covered by several feet of snow which would start falling at that altitude in early September. “By next spring, this snow will be compressed into several feet of glacier ice and there should be no visible evidence of this tragedy left” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer).

On September 15, 1947, the Department of Washington Marine Corps League asked Secretary of the Interior Julius Albert Krug (1907-1970) to rename South Tahoma Glacier the United States Marines Memorial Glacier, stressing that “No finer memorial to our Marine dead could be found or erected” (New York Times). Instead, the National Park Service affixed a bronze plaque, bearing the names of the Marines, on a large granite boulder at Round Pass, overlooking South Tahoma Glacier.

On August 18, 1948, the first annual gathering of the families of the Marines interred on South Tahoma Glacier was held at Round Pass. During the ceremony, Butler was presented with the Distinguished Public Service Certificate and lapel pin, the Navy’s highest civilian award, for his determined efforts to find the lost Marines. The award was the first of its kind presented in Washington state.  In his presentation address, Colonel D. A. Stafford, USMC, told the audience that Butler had declined the $5,000 reward offered by the parents for locating the missing plane, explaining that he had only been discharging his duties as a park ranger.

Butler was honored again by the National Parks Service during a meeting at Grand Canyon, Arizona. On October 3, 1948, he was awarded the Department of the Interior’s highest award, the Distinguished Service Medal, and given a promotion that netted him a salary increase of $126 per year. A year later, he was the subject of a full-length article in the Saturday Evening Post, entitled “Mountain Rescue Man.”

The Department of Washington, Marine Corps League, in conjunction with the families of the men buried on South Tahoma Glacier, had been conducting an annual memorial ceremony at Round Pass each year on the last Saturday in August. However, in the mid 1990s, the road to Round Pass washed out, making the area inaccessible to everyone except hikers willing to walk four-and-a-half miles from the Longmire Ranger Station. Consideration was given to moving the granite memorial from Round Pass to the new Tahoma National Cemetery near Kent, dedicated on September 26, 1997. But extracting a 10,000-pound boulder from a wilderness area wasn’t feasible and it would require an act of Congress to allow its removal from a national park. Also, the family members and local Marine veterans believed the monument should stay in its original location.

In 1998, the newly established Mount Rainier Detachment of the Marine Corps League received authorization to duplicate the monument. They located a similar boulder and had it moved to Veterans Memorial Park in Enumclaw, approximately 45 miles southeast of Seattle, in the foothills of Mount Rainier. After creating a flat space on the rock, the league affixed a replica of the bronze plaque on boulder at Round Pass. The new monument was dedicated on Saturday, August 21, 1999, at the 51st annual memorial ceremony held to honor the 32 Marines entombed forever on Mount Rainier.

In 1946, the loss of the Curtis Commando R5C was the worst accident, in numbers killed aboard a plane, in United States aviation history. Although there have been more than 325 fatalities in Mount Rainier National Park since it was established by Congress in 1899, the plane crash on December 10, 1946, remains the greatest tragedy in the mountain’s history.

Roster of Marines on board the Curtis Commando R5C, No. 39528

Crew:

  • Major Robert V. Reilly, Memphis, Texas, Pilot
  • Lt. Colonel Alben C. Robertson, Santa Ana Heights, California, Copilot
  • Master Sergeant Wallace J. Slonina, Rochester, New York, Crew Chief

Passengers:

  • Master Sergeant Charles F. Criswell, San Diego, California
  • Private Duane R. Abbott, Minneapolis, Minnesota
  • Private Robert A. Anderson, Raymondville, Texas
  • Private Joe E. Bainter, Canton, Missouri
  • Private Leslie R. Simmons, Jr., Kalama, Washington
  • Private Harry K. Skinner, Confluence, Pennsylvania
  • Private Lawrence E. Smith, Lincoln, Nebraska
  • Private Buddy E. Snelling, Columbus, Ohio
  • Private Bobby J. Stafford, Texarkana, Texas
  • Private William D. St. Clair, Los Angeles, California
  • Private Walter J. Stewart, Austin, Texas
  • Private John C. Stone, Los Angeles, California
  • Private Albert H. Stubblefield, Bakersfield, California
  • Private William R. Sullivan, Ardmore, Oklahoma
  • Private Chester E. Taube, Fresno, California
  • Private Harry L. Thompson, Jr., Kansas City, Kansas
  • Private Duane S. Thornton, Biola, California
  • Private Keith K. Tisch, Marne, Michigan
  • Private Eldon D. Todd, Fort Collins, Colorado
  • Private Richard P. Trego, Denver, Colorado
  • Private Charles W. Truby, Anthony, Kansas
  • Private Harry R. Turner, Monroe, Oregon
  • Private Ernesto R. Valdovin, Tucson, Arizona
  • Private Gene L. Vremsak, Calexico, California
  • Private William E. Wadden, Cedar Rapids, Iowa
  • Private Donald J. Walker, Hoquiam, Washington
  • Private Gilbert E. Watkins, Tuscon, Arizona
  • Private Duane E. White, Ottawa, Kansas
  • Private Louis A. Whitten, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Sources:

“Ask Glacier Name for Marines,” The New York Times, September 15, 1947, p. 21; Robert N. Ward, “Marine Transport Feared Down in Mountain Region,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 11, 1946, p. 1; “Hunt Abandoned at Mount Purcell,” Ibid., December 12, 1946, p. 1; Jack Jarvis, “Bad Weather Halts Search of Ice Fields,” Ibid., December 13, 1946, p. 1; Gene Schroeder, “Storm Blocks Plane Search by Rangers,” Ibid., December 14, 1946, p. 1; E. P. Chalcraft, “Plane rescue Team ‘Sweats Out’ Delay,” Ibid., December 15, 1946, p. 1; “Long Missing Plane Believed Found on Rainier,” Ibid., July 23, 1947, p. 1; E. P. Chalcraft, “Arduous Trek Starts to Site of Craft Wreckage,” Ibid., July 24, 1947, p. 1; E. P. Chalcraft, “Searching Party Risks death to Reach Tragic Scene,” Ibid., July 25, 1947, p. 1; E. P. Chalcraft, “Search On Foot Halted for Plane Victims in Rainier Ice,” Ibid., July 27, 1947, p. 9; E. P. Chalcraft, “Rainier May Hold Forever Bodies of Air Crash Victims,” Ibid., July 26, 1947, p. 1; “Report Eleven Bodies Found On Rainier,” Ibid., August 20, 1947, p. 1; Lucille Cohen, “Risk Lives to Get 11 Dead Off Rainier,” Ibid., August 21, 1947, p. 1; “All 32 Marine Bodies Located,” Ibid., August 24, 1947, p. 9; Robert N. Ward, “Taps Echoes Over Rainier for Marines,” Ibid., August 25, 1947, p. 1; Lloyd Stackhouse, “Marine Plane Dead to Rest On Mt. Rainier,” Ibid., August 28, 1947, p. 1; “Fit Resting Place for Plane Victims,” Ibid., August 29, 1947, p. 8; “Navy Honors Finder of Plane Wreckage on Mount Rainier,” Ibid., August 19, 1848, p. 1; “Park Ranger Given Award,” Ibid., October 4, 1948, p. 4; Candy Hatcher, “God’s Monument to 32 Marines,” Ibid., March 30, 2000, p. A-1; “Search for Craft Moves to Randle,” The Seattle Times, December 11, 1946, p. 1; “Floods Slow search for Lost Marine Corps Plane,” Ibid., December 12, 1946, p. 2; “State Men on Missing Marine Corps Plane,” Ibid., December 13, 1946, p. 13; “Plane Searchers Wait on Weather,” Ibid., December 14, 1946, p. 2; “Weather Balks Search Parties’ Hunt for Plane,” Ibid., December 15, 1946, p. 3; “18 Planes Hunt Lost Transport,” Ibid., December 16, 1946, p. 13; “Rangers Start Plane Search Tomorrow,” Ibid., July 23, 1947, p. 5; Robert L. Twiss, “Bad Weather delays Search for Lost Plane,” Ibid., July 24, 1947, p. 1; Robert L. Twiss, “Some Wreckage found in First Assault of Ice-Choked Terrain,” Ibid., July 25, 1947, p. 19; “Army May Seek Rainier Bodies,” Ibid., August 20, 1947, p. 14;”Body Removal Plans Uncertain,” Ibid., August 21, 1947, p. 9; “Final Climb to Crash Slated,” Ibid., August 24, 1947, p. 10; “Climbers Study Removing Bodies,” Ibid., August 25, 1947, p. 5; “Parley Set on Body Removal,” Ibid., August 27, 1947, p. 2; “Crash Victims Will Remain on Glacier,” Ibid., August 28, 1947, p. 21; “Navy Rewards Ranger Who Found Lost Plane,” Ibid., August 19, 1948, p. 12; “Ranger Receives Service Medal,” Ibid., October 4, 1948, p. 7; “Butler, Veteran Rainier Ranger, Gets into Print,” Ibid., November 9, 1949, p. 12.

It’s Not Just Stuff

The image above is from one of dad’s personal notebooks.  It was what he expected of his men, and at least for a few years, his children.  Growing up in my parent’s house in the 60’s and 70’s meant you were always surrounded by various artifacts and memories of their military service. My mother served as a Women’s Army Corp (WAC) nurse from 1954-1956.  My father served for over twenty years and three wars, from 1943 WWII to the beginning of the build-up of the Vietnam War in 1966. This circumstance was pretty much taken for granted by us kids…didn’t everyone’s parents serve in the military?  It had simply been the way things were since the day I was born.

WWII style footlocker. Dad had 2 of these stuffed with old Army stuff.

For the older kids at least, it was part of our very being…watching dad go off to work every morning in uniform, constantly moving to a new place to live, in different states, even different countries, seemed normal.  It did not feel unusual to follow dad around when he was training his troops, attend various military events, and finally to watch Walter Cronkite at dinner every single night to see if you might catch a glimpse of your father on the TV, even if it was just to look for his name on the list of casualties that scrolled by at the end of the newscast.

Walter Cronkite telling a story in Vietnam

Mom would let us pull the TV cart over to the dinner table so we could eat while watching…a distinct change from when dad came home for dinner most of the time and the TV was turned off.  We wanted to see him so bad, some kind of proof that he was OK, that we were positive we saw him a time or two in the news footage, especially if there were helicopters.

News team in Vietnam

We had seen them flying over our house every day when we lived at Fort Benning and connected them directly to dad as that is where we last saw him before he went to Vietnam with the 1st Air Cav Division.

1st Cav news photo, 1965 when dad was training his men at Ft Benning. Doing this was scarier to me than rappelling out. Note the photo credit, Joe Galloway, the guy that wrote “We were Soldiers Once” that became the Mel Gibson movie.

Connecting the dots to my mother being a soldier took a bit more imagination.  Her service was over several years before I was even born.  Serving three years, there were far fewer bits and bobs for her, and more hidden away. While dad was a world champion packrat of, well, everything, she was not a fan of anything “old”. She used to explain that having lived a good deal of the time with her grandmother, everything around her when she was growing up all was old.

She liked “new” and was determined to purge, or at least hide, the “old” stuff. This trait must skip back and forth every other generation, as I dearly love almost anything “old” with the implicit stories and history attached to any old items.  The irony is that many of her then “new” belongings have now become old, cherished things.  But hide it away she did, in old boxes, trunks and closets.

“Curiosity killed the cat” has been uttered by poets, playwrights and prognosticators through the generations…but cats have nothing on a Profitt child.  Like a cat, the more trouble taken to hide something, the more effort we expended trying to get into it, and also like a cat, we may have lost a few lives, or at least a few layers of skin off our behinds, when we were discovered having found and messed around with them.

In the 60’s I remember jimmying the locks on an old green suitcase with stickers pasted on it from all over the place. This suitcase cost more today on Etsy as a “Vintage Samsonite” than a full set cost brand new in the 50’s.

This is the same color and style of Samsonite mom had her stuff in. Her stickers were different of course.

Overpowered by the smell of mothballs, digging inside I found some knick-knacks and personal effects along with some olive drab woolen clothing…skirt, jacket, blouse, light-brown stockings, a cap and some shoes and a pair of old brown, over the ankle boots tied together. Well now. My mother wore combat boots.

WAC service boots

The classic curse “Ah, your mama wears combat boots” from Bugs Bunny and the Little Rascal’s was no longer as funny as it used to be.  Now it had a whole new meaning, and rather than used for belittling, it became something to be proud of.  From then on if someone tossed that phrase at me on the playground, the retort would become, “that’s right, she did wear combat boots, what did your mom do”?

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Now, I knew my mother had been a WAC nurse, there were several photos around the house and I had been patched-up with untold butterfly bandages, but holding the physical proof of her service in my hands was somehow more real.

Mom WAC Portrait
Basic Training photo to her father Carl.

Looking at the patches on the sleeve, I quickly identified the uniform to be the one in the classic set of photographs of her and dad from when they met at the Presidio of San Francisco. That feeling of confirmation and validation of knowledge that she “wasn’t always just a mom” was worth every layer of skin I lost on that venture.  The stories were true!

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Of course, dad had trunks and footlockers with decades of stuff everywhere. He didn’t have just one uniform, he had dozens of them.  Fatigues, Class B khakis, Class A dress uniforms, cold weather gear, jungle gear, he had it all… field jackets, field caps, dress caps, garrison caps, belts, socks, skivvies, field pants, wool pants and shirts. I wore it for Halloween for years and it never got old. I wore it to school and camping and playing Army around the neighborhood.

It didn’t stop with clothing items everyone gets to keep, he had stuff you typically had to turn in (SFC Packrat at your service). There were steel helmets, helmet liners, web gear with ammo pouches and canteens, compasses, entrenching tools, ponchos, snap links and climbing rope, wet weather gear, camouflage stick, shelter halves, pole and pegs for a tent, cots, Mickey Mouse Boots for extreme cold, ammo cans, dud rockets and rifle training grenades, brass from cannons.

When we deep cleaned the house after he passed away we found a live, 40 year old CS grenade (extra strong tear gas). If that thing had rusted out or gone off it would have cleared the entire neighborhood.

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Tear Gas type Grenade

He had bookshelves of Army training manuals for everything from building a field expedient latrine to Ranger training, mountain training and setting field expedient booby-traps.   I had used the gear and read all the books many times before I joined the Army so I had a pretty good leg up on the other guys. Hell, I could have showed some of the instructors how to use the stuff.

One of the more unique items was a full crate of expended LAW rockets (Light Antitank Weapon)…they can only be fired once and then disposed of.  I knew how to deploy and target an enemy vehicle by the time I was seven.  We would take these very real rocket launchers out into the neighborhood and play army with them, fully outfitted in actual combat gear.

M72 LAW Rocket, closed for carrying and open for firing.

My brothers and I would be fully outfitted with real gear, camo’d faces, complete with antitank weapons…matched up against the neighborhood kids with a stick for a weapon. Can you imagine if someone’s kids were found running around like this today? SWAT would probably take out the squad of enemy midgets and ask questions later.

Along with all the militaria (an eBay word), much of which I still have, there were also dad’s war souvenirs. They held a special reverence as they had been brought back from the battlefield. Having been a GI myself, I now know these items could have been bought or traded from other GI’s, won in a card game or peddled by ambitious locals just as likely as dad gathering them off a fallen enemy soldier.

But as a kid, I was convinced they were pulled from the hands of a less able warrior than my father after honorable, heroic, hand to hand combat and taken as a trophy of war.

One of these items was a Japanese drafting set. It was cool because just to open it you had to find the secret button hidden on the side of the case.  The case was covered with thin, black leather, with gold Japanese characters.

Drafting Set Case

Opening the fitted case, you glanced over the mysterious contents…many bits and pieces that somehow fit together to make all kinds of odd devices.  Silver plated, some had ivory handles and all had their special cutout place in the deep blue velvet lining. It just looked impressive even if you had no clue what they did.

Look at all that stuff!

Having watched every war movie I could find, I imagined a map maker or artilleryman hiding away in a cave HQ, plotting out American targets to be shelled that night as my dad heroically charged in single-handedly with his big Browning Automatic Rifle and wiped out the HQ, saving dozens of lives.

What the heck are they for?

We were expressly forbidden to touch it for fear of losing parts, which of course made it that much more desirable.  Over the years, pieces were lost, the case was broken and it was ultimately tossed. Kids can be such assholes.

Another favorite is a Japanese Naval Officer’s Sword.  While not the more desired Samurai sword every GI wanted, it is impressive none the less.

IMG_1466.jpgThe pommel, back strap, guard, and scabbard fittings are all brass with the traditional chrysanthemum flower decoration.

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The handle is made of very rough ray skin for a good grip. The gray, shark skin scabbard is heavily lacquered so it is shiny.

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The blade itself is extremely sharp, with what used to be called the “blood groove”, ostensibly there to allow blood to flow easier so the blade goes in and out easier.

IMG_1468.jpgAgain, expressly off-limits to us kids, when mom and dad were gone we would get it out and marvel over the steel blood, imagining marks and tarnished spots to be where the sword had been used to kill or maim someone, leaving marks from the bone and blood.

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Still in remarkably good condition for 75 years of abuse, it is only missing the tassel that used to hang from the handle.  Mom or someone added an old tassel from a hamper we used to have to replace it, but I removed it as it felt like it somehow discredited the history of the sword. I never heard the story from dad how he came to acquire it.

There is also a silk Japanese flag…as a kid I again imagined the flag flying over a strategic enemy position, with dad and his squad as conquering heroes pulling the flag down and raising the stars and stripes in victory.

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It is signed by all of the men that were in his unit back then, the C Company, 184th Regimental Combat Team, 7th Infantry Division.

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A number of years ago when dad was still with us, I transcribed all of the names and tried to find each of them on-line, trying to connect dad with some old buddies. I spent a great deal of time looking, but this turned up no results, as most of them have probably passed on or simply have no internet footprint.

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This style WWII flag is commonly known in collector circles as a “meatball” flag, as it only depicts the sun, rather than the rising sun flag, with its 16 rays surrounding the sun. The rising sun flag was the war flag of the Imperial Japanese Army, if the sun is centered, and the war ensign of the Imperial Japanese Navy if it was off center.

Ensign of the Imperial Japanese Navy

The Japanese call their country’s flag hinomaru, which translates literally to “sun’s circle”, referencing the red circle on a white field. When the hinomaru was signed, the Japanese characters were usually written vertically, and radiated outward from the edge of the red circle. This practice is referenced in the second term, yosegaki, meaning “collection of writing”. The phrase hinomaru-yosegaki can be interpreted as “Collection of writing around the red sun”, describing the appearance of the signed flag.

Another example with far more Japanese writing than dad’s

Dads’ flag also has some Japanese characters written on it.  I have since discovered these flags are known as a Good Luck Flag, known as yosegaki hinomaru in the Japanese language.

Japanese writing on the flag

It was a traditional gift for Japanese soldiers when they deployed during a Japanese military campaign of the Empire of Japan, but most notably during WWII. This national flag was given to a soldier and signed by friends and family, often with short messages wishing the soldier victory, safety, and good luck.

As children, we again added our own story to the flag.  Every brown spot was a dried blood stain or mud from the battle field.  Dad did say that he pulled the flag off a dead soldier, and had all his buddies sign it as they passed around their own flags to be signed.  While this sounds rather morbid today, the war in the Pacific was horrific, fought against an enemy that seldom gave quarter or expected it in return. I am just glad my father survived to give me a place in this world.

There is also a camera, a German Zeiss Icon Iconta 520 camera made in the mid to late 30’s.  The unique part about it is that it had a bullet shot completely through it.

Zeiss Icon Iconta 520

Of all the items, this one created some of the more fanciful imagined stories. I’m sure you can think of a few of your own. “The guy was taking a picture at the time and the bullet went through the camera into his eye”, or “the photographer stuck the camera above his fox hole to take a picture and a sniper shot it out of his hand” and so on.

Bullet hole

I would have loved to see the roll of film that was in the camera at the time, but I’m sure it was spoiled by the light of the bullet entry or turned over to the intel boys to try and get some information on the enemy.

Metal pounded back into hole. I think dad was trying to “fix” it.

Dad or someone tried to pound the aluminum from the bullet hole back in place…I can imagine the great scrounger trying to fix it so he could use it again.  Zeiss did make the sharpest lenses for many years.

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Finally, there is the Nambu Type 94 pistol.  It was chambered in 8mm Nambu, which is an extinct and obsolete cartridge.

Nambu Type 94 8mm. The sear bar is is the narrow bar running along the barrel.

While the Nambu Type 14 was a sexy looking weapon that looked like a Japanese Luger, and every GI wanted to score, the Type 94 has been called the worst service pistol ever made.

Machine marks make it rough as a cob

It was a very crudely made pistol produced by Japan towards the end of the war, when they were pumping out the “last ditch weapons” as the US was closing in on the homeland.

Those thumb grooves on the back can rip your skin off. Can I get this in chrome please?

It is extremely poor quality, as most late war Japanese weapons were, this one having very rough machine marks and poor tolerances. It was just as dangerous to the owner as the person it was pointed at.  The reason for this is that it has an exposed sear bar on the side.  If this sear gets touched, it fires the gun. Yup, if you touch the side of the gun, not the trigger, it will fire.

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So, it could go off when holstered, handling it, dropping it, handing it to someone, etc. There are stories of Japanese officers handing the pistol over when “surrendering” and then pressing the sear bar to get off one last suicide shot.  It is still known as a desirable collectible…as the worst service pistol ever made.

Nambu Type 14 8mm Luger look alike that everyone wanted.

Moving to the Vietnam era, dad brought back a Montagnard spear tip.  The Montagnards are the indigenous peoples of the Central Highlands of Vietnam, where dad was stationed in the 1st Cav Division.

Montagnard weapons.

The term Montagnard means “people of the mountain” in French, and is a carryover from the French colonial period in Vietnam. Dad took a number of pictures of the Montagnards.

Dad’s photo of a nearby Montagnard  village along the Main Supply Route (MSR)

 

Montagnard kids begging dad for goodies along the road

Originally inhabitants of the coastal areas of the region, they were driven to the uninhabited mountainous areas by invading Vietnamese and Cambodians beginning prior to the 9th century.

Montagnard with spear and cross bow.

Having no love for the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese regulars, they were allies and trained by US Special Forces as guerilla fighters.  They used spears, crossbows and other primitive weapons as well as move conventional firearms.

He also brought back a Viet Cong flag.

Viet Cong flag dad brought back

Here is a VC belt buckle.  It used to have a black leather belt, but it long ago rotted away under the care of the Profitt children.

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Viet Cong belt buckle

When we used it to play Army, the enemy forces got to wear it and as everyone knows, the VC popped up out of rice paddies and rivers so it was often wet and dried and left out in the yard to the point where the leather rotted.  I don’t know how we all lived to adulthood other than they would have to kill us all and someone would notice 6 kids missing.

Here is a photo of dad with a photo captioned as “captured VC souvenirs”.  I’m sure he thought about how he could get that bicycle back to the states somehow.

Dad in 'Nam w_ Bro's & Bike_1-2
Dad with some of his buddies with a captured VC bike and rice wine.

From the local shops around the An Khê, dad also sent back jackets for the boys and Vietnamese dresses for mom and Laurie.

An Khe street vendors

I’m not sure if any of the dresses still exist, but here is dad wearing my mother’s dress in Vietnam.

Dad in Vietnamese Dress

As far as I know there is only one remaining jacket left.  I outgrew it by about the 4th grade.  He was actually there 65-66, but bought them in ’66 just before he left.

Size to fit a 7 year old

My favorites though, are the photographs he took in many of the places he went.  They are rare in number compared to today with the endless selfies and photos of what we had for lunch enabled by cell phone cameras, so I cherish each one and take care to restore as many as I can to share with the family.

From WWII there are very few photos. Maybe a couple from Korean occupation after WWII along with a couple from R&R in Japan, quite a few from when he served in the Free Territory of Trieste for three years, a few more from the Korean War, and a number from Vietnam.

It amazes me that there are only these few remnants of their military careers, a good part of dad’s life really, but I am grateful for what remains. To me they are memories I have been surrounded with for 60 years and key aspects of who my parents were.

 

 

Death From Above

I never know what memory might happen to pop into my head at any given time. While I used to just ruminate and ponder on them for a few minutes and move on, these days I try to at least make a few notes on my iPhone for a story idea to be developed later.

The older I get the less I am able to run easily through my memory banks with total recall…it takes some more pondering and work to coax the memories back.  These playing cards popped into my head the other day and the first thing I did was go to eBay to see if I could find one of the cards to add to my small bookcase of dad’s military mementos. I found they were very rare, but I did find some information I was unaware of.

When dad came back from Vietnam in the summer of 1966 he brought several duffle bags and a foot locker back with him. These were filled with the paraphernalia of a soldier and stored away along with another 20 years worth of soldiering in an area underneath the stairs that was commonly called “The Cave”, as it was not easily accessed and you had to crawl in on your hands and knees.

Naturally, this was attractive to us kids as we could grab a flashlight and secretly dig through all kinds of cool stuff we weren’t supposed to touch. One of the things in the footlocker was a number of playing card decks like the one below. Having skulls, we naturally thought they were very cool and swiped a deck or two to play with. We thought it was weird that some of the decks only had 52 aces of spades, but some were just regular playing cards.

1/8 Cavalry Death Card

When dad starting finding them spread all over the house we got a spanking and told that the cards were special and we needed to leave them where they were.

We didn’t know why they were special, we just thought they were cards and there were several decks.  As we got a little older the story came out that these were “Death Cards” from Vietnam used by soldiers as calling cards and left on dead enemy soldiers to let the Viet Cong know who they were up against.  Well, that only made them more desirable since we constantly playing Army all over the neighborhood… so we started leaving a card on enemy neighbor kids as we “killed” them.

Most of my life I just assumed these cards were used by the entire 1st Cavalry Division and were probably still very common.  I have learned since the cards were designed by Captain Mozey, the commander of Charlie Company, my dads unit, and were unique to the men in the 8th Cavalry “Jumping Mustangs”, which were an Airborne/Air Assault unit, hence the “Death From Above”.

Some of Charlie Company in Vietnam,
1965-1966. Capt. Mozey is crouching on the left.
Some of Charlie Companies finest.
Vietnam 1965-1966

Here is some historic information I discovered while researching the cards written by retired Sergeant Major Herb Friedman, who researches and collects death cards:

There is a confirmed report that this card was designed by Captain Mozey of C Company, 1st Battalion of the 8th Cavalry Regiment “The Jumping Mustangs” during his Vietnam tour of 1965-1966. A member of the unit told me that:

The calling card was placed on the chest or tucked, slightly, in the shirt pocket.  But as I said before we did not use it except to say “We were here.” The actual “Death From Above” saying was a WWII phrase. As of August 1966 the 1st & 2nd of the 8th “Jumping Mustangs” were all carrying a deck of “Death From Above” cards. 

Specialist 4 Kevan Mynderup, a former member of “Charlie” Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1968 adds:

I can confirm that the “Death From Above” card was designed by Captain William B Mozey in either late 1965 or early 1966. When Bill took over the company the nickname was changed to “Death From Above” and the unit members got a full deck of the playing cards along with a Black Silk scarf with the “Death From Above” and airborne Skull on it. The phrase was banned in the Battalion Area, so the guys said “DFA” until the brass figured that out. It was an Article 15 offense to say either. The company was broken up at least 2 times because of “DFA” and the cards and scarves disappeared, but returned in 1968 when I was with the company. Only Charlie 1/8th Cavalry was known as “Death From Above” at this time. The other companies had their own nicknames as did all the companies in the 1st Air Cavalry Division.

Although Mozey has been credited with designing the cards, it appears that he had them printed in the United States. One complete deck was found in an old foot locker and the cards turn out to have been printed by: Brown & Bigelow, St. Paul, Minn., U.S.A. Text on the actual deck adds the following information: The Business builders, 55164, A Saxon Industrial Company. 

Showing what the Ace of Spades death card looked like. Some of the decks only had 52 of this single card.

Brown & Bigelow of St Paul, Minnesota, was a leading producer of playing cards in the U.S. from the late 1920s to the 1980s. Brown & Bigelow manufactured playing cards under several brand names, as well as novelty and advertising decks. There seems to be no record of them producing Death Cards, so perhaps because of the political situation in the United States the company chose to keep their participation in the production of these cards quiet.

Former Specialist Fourth Class Vic Castle told me that when he arrived in Vietnam as a member of the 1/8th Cavalry on 1 May 1967 they showed him the death cards and black silk scarf and told him their use was prohibited. He says:

The clerk calls out my name. I get in Jeep for short ride to 1/8th Cavalry. There is a large sign that says, “1/8th Cavalry: Airborne, Air Assault, Air Mobile.” Out walks this Sergeant who greets us. I tell him I think there has been a mistake. I haven’t had Jump training. He says, “Don’t worry about it; we don’t give you a damn parachute anyway. He assigns me to A Company. He shows me the Death card and the “Death From Above” black scarf and tells me if I get caught with either it is an Article 15.

He remembers that some unit members were court-martialed while using the cards. He said:

I was told that the men were carving a Cavalry patch on a dead Viet Cong’s chest and stuck the playing card in his mouth. There was a soldier from an engineer outfit there and he took some pictures. He sent them back to his father who apparently was not amused. An investigation followed and then a trial of a First Lieutenant and a buck Sergeant. I think the trial was held in St. Louis and both men were sent to Ft. Leavenworth.

It seems to me that the two men were tried for abusing the body of the dead Viet Cong rather than the use of the death cards. Such charges have occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan. It seems perfectly acceptable to shoot a terrorist a dozen times or hack him to death with a bayonet, but abuse the body in any way afterwards and it is a criminal act. How strange.

Curiously, the “Death from Above” death cards reappeared again 30+ years later when American troops were sent to the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm.”

From Ron Doyler:

“There exists another form of these cards. Brown and Bigelow out of Minnesota produced them.  William Mosey had them made when he was with the CAV in VN. The cards were done in full decks of regular suits and also ace of spades only. I have two of which were gifts from the Colonel when I was a boy. The cards are all black background with a winged skull and DEATH from ABOVE. The Colonel coined this phrase and had a unit flag also made. If I remember correctly from my conversation with him the director of Apocalypse Now had to gain permission to use this in the film from Col Mosey. Over the years the Col. has given all the cards away.”

I find the background of all this fascinating, as it has been part of my life for over 50 years now.  I even wrote “Death From Above” on my climbing helmet back in the 90’s as a sort of karmic dare to the powers that be, as rocks falling from above was one of the more common dangers we encountered while climbing.

Death From Above on my climbing helmet

While these were just playing cards, I shudder to think how many of mom and dad’s mementos we destroyed over the years when we were kids. After a while all the cards had been lost or destroyed, but there was much more.

There were some cool old suitcases that had stickers of where they had traveled stuffed full of cool stuff they had stashed away, like mom’s old brown army boots, both their uniforms and patches, medals and other hard won awards, post cards and various souvenirs, leaded crystal from Austria, and on and on. We were a half dozen destroying locusts devouring everything in the house. At least the internet allows us to reclaim some some of the bits and pieces of our history.

Brothers in Arms

I happened to channel surf past an episode of the PBS series “We’ll Meet Again” that is named “Korean War Brothers In Arms”.  This title caught my eye as I did a tour of duty up near the Korean DMZ and often think of my brothers in arms from that wild tour.

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Les on a Cobra crash recovery mission near the Korean DMZ 1979

I also happen to admin a Facebook Group dedicated to the small garrison where I was stationed in Korea, Camp Stanley.  This camp was in constant use from 1957 until it was closed for good November of 2017.

I ride herd over a couple of thousand soldiers representing 5 decades of service that have year-long hardship tours at that camp in common. They now reminisce together on a daily basis and find old buddies they haven’t talked to in years.  It is truly gratifying to see a couple of old soldiers take up where they left off, as only those that have shared hardship together can.

So, I decided to park the remote and see if there was anything interesting about the show to share with my buddies.

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Camp Stanley, Korea Group

I hadn’t seen or heard of the documentary series that describes itself like so:

We’ll Meet Again is a documentary series reported and executive produced by Ann Curry. Each episode introduces us to two people who were affected by momentous events in American history. We follow them on a journey of detection as they look for a long-lost friend, family member or significant stranger.

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I got a little more interested as I began understanding where the show was going…looking up long lost friends or others that had an impact on their life that they have lost contact with.

That played into another passion I have, which is family history and genealogy. I can’t get enough of shows like “Who Do You Think You Are”, “Finding Your Roots” and “Long Lost Family”.  I spend an inordinate amount of time researching my family’s history on various genealogy related sites and find our stories extremely fascinating.

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But that’s not what made me decide to put these words together.  One of the stories in the show reminded me of a similar situation concerning my father. The story on TV was about a man whose life had been heavily influenced by the heroic actions of two of his lieutenants during a period of heavy combat during the Korean War.

To briefly summarize the story, the young marine was from a very broken home whose mother was in the service and had left him several times, and he had never known his father.  Essentially an orphan, he joined the Marines to feel like he was a part of something bigger and to serve his country.

jo.pngHe was sent to war in Korea and on one particular occasion his artillery unit came under very heavy enemy artillery bombardment. All communications had been completely cut off.  This went on all day as part of a major Chinese offensive.

His unit, as well as many others, was in chaos and taking heavy losses. With no communications with HQ they were in danger of being routed…until these two lieutenants started making their way to each of his artillery unit’s gun positions, giving firing instructions and encouragement all around.

This young Marine was incredulous that these two officers were willingly placing their lives in extreme danger by moving from position to position, with no cover, and talking to each gun crew to calm them down and get them back in the fight. This is of course how the Marines want all their officers and NCOs to behave, but in real life the instinct to stay alive often keeps ordinary men hunkering down in their foxholes, which was the case for the young Marine.

That left such a huge impression on him as a young man that he never forgot it.  He determined to live his life with the example set by these two brave men that were dedicated to getting the mission accomplished and caring for their men, no matter the risk to themselves.  It affected him so deeply that after living most of his life, he wanted to reconnect with these men that had meant so much to him and let them know he viewed them as heroes and as examples to pattern his life. While he found both men to have passed on, he did eventually connect with their families to express to them how he felt about their loved ones.

It was at this point in the show that I remembered a phone call that occurred just after my father had passed away in 2006. I had flown back to Ohio for my father’s funeral and to help get the estate settled. One day we happened to be gathered around my parent’s dining room table, spread with insurance forms, bank account info, hospital bills and all the other various “important” paperwork from 80 years of life.

The phone rang and my sister Melody answered and chatted briefly trying to answer someone’s questions before waving me over and handing the phone to me and said it was someone that knew dad.  It turned out the call was from one of my father’s brothers in arms from Vietnam. He had served as a Platoon Leader, with my dad serving as his Platoon Sergeant.

They served together in Charlie Company, 1st Platoon, 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment.  They were nicknamed the Jumping Mustangs as they were an airborne unit. As a reference, they were a sister unit to the 1/7th Cavalry Regiment depicted in the Movie “We were Soldiers” with Mel Gibson and went through identical training.  Both units traveled by ship together as the first divisional unit to arrive in Vietnam as the war heated up in 1965, the 1st Cavalry Division (Air Mobile) based at An Khé in the Central Highlands.

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Back in 1965 Vietnam, the man on the phone was a very green 2nd lieutenant, right out of college, that had suddenly been put in charge of leading 50 or so young infantrymen into combat.  A platoon’s leadership was typically a 1st or 2nd Lieutenant, the lowest of the officer ranks, known as the Platoon Leader, and a senior non-commissioned officer or NCO known as the Platoon Sergeant.

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Dad in Vietnam, 1965

The NCO’s always have much more experience than a butter-bar, a nickname given for the single gold bar denoting their rank. The senior NCOs, having spent years attaining their rank, had much more experience and had typically served in combat. The Platoon Sergeants ranks were usually Staff Sgt. (E-6), or Sgt. First Class (E-7).  There are then 4-6 Staff Sgt’s (E-6), or Sgt’s (E-5) that serve as Squad Leaders for teams of 8-10 men.

My dad was a career soldier with 20 years in the Army, having joined in 1943 and fought in terrible conditions against the Japanese in the Pacific theater in WWII, held the Yugoslavian General Tito’s communist aggression at bay in the Free Territory of Trieste just after WWII and held the line against Chinese and North Koreans on the 38th parallel during the Korean War.  Vietnam was to be his final war before he retired in 1966.

This lieutenant was calling, it turned out, because he had been thinking about dad and how, in his words, “he was a real old-school hard-ass, but SFC Profitt saved my dumb, green ass so many times over there”.

He just wanted to touch base to see how he was doing after all those years and shoot the shit. I could hear the sadness and loss in his voice after finding out dad had passed away only a few days before his call.

It was jarring that he would suddenly call after so much time had passed and dad had just died.  When I looked back at calendar dates though, it was a only a couple of weeks past the 40th anniversary of when they would have last seen each other in Vietnam.

So he may have just been reminiscing on the 40 year milestone or there may have been some unexplainable cosmic energy at work, or a TV show may have just tickled his memory, as it has mine. It certainly brought tears to my eyes to hear a total stranger speak of my father in such reverent terms.

Similar to the guy in the TV show, after his service he had just gone on living his life for decades, dealing with all the immediate needs that come up with work and family, as we all do.  But over time, and with age and experience, it became more important to reconnect with one of the more meaningful people in his life.

He reminisced how the tough old Airborne Ranger and veteran of multiple wars had taken a young kid (he was probably only 21-22, dad was 40) under his wing and showed him how the real Army worked and how to keep his men alive in combat.

He said it was frightening for him when dad’s 40 year old warrior knees finally got too torn up for him to go on field operations into the jungle and he had to get a less experienced Platoon Sgt. to take over.

But he said dad had trained him well, and he made it through OK.  I can’t remember all the details of the conversation as this was over 12 years ago. At the time I thought I could never forget, but I do remember hearing true respect and sadness in his voice.

A few months previously, after showing dad the videos I made of some of his Army service, including Vietnam, on Memorial Day that year, I remember him saying “Hell, you know more about what I did than I do”.  But that was after I had spent months digging through his old orders and records and researching tons of info in books and on the internet.

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Dad and I at the Moraine veteran memorial dedication May of 2006.  He passed away 2 months later.

I loved seeing the pride in his face as he watched the videos and added details he remembered to the stories, trying to put names to his men’s faces on the screen gave me immeasurable joy to be able to honor him that way.

I am at a point in my life where it has now been 40 years since last seeing my own brothers in arms, and can now easily empathize with how time has a way of peeling away layers of memory and leaving only the highlights…the people, places and points in time that get indelibly stamped into your memory.

I continued talking with the old soldier for a while longer and then gave him my contact information as I had a number of dad’s photos I wanted to share with him as well as the video that I had edited together from the photos.  He sounded excited about that and promised that he would dig through the back of his closet to see what pictures he still had.

Time passed, and I suspect with dad gone the urge to reconnect was dampened as the demands of life caught back up.  I have never heard from him again and, over time, I have lost, misplaced or simply can’t remember where I stashed his contact info, but the memory of that call is one of those memories stamped in my brain that I hope I never forget.