GREENVILLE — Thirty-five years have passed since an unarmed B-52 Stratofortress airplane crashed on Elephant Mountain in the Moosehead Lake region, killing seven of the nine crew members aboard the plane.
That anniversary will be recognized Saturday with a dedication at the crash site sponsored by the Moosehead Riders Snowmobile Club. The club will conduct a snowmobile ride-in to the site at 1 p.m.
An approximately 1,200-pound monument made of black Monson slate engraved with the names of the seven crew members who perished, as well as the two survivors, will be unveiled. The monument, donated by Sheldon Slate Products Co. of Monson, was transported by snowmobile to the crash site last week by 16 volunteers from the Moosehead Lake region. The monument leans against the B-52’s fuselage.
Weather permitting, a local search plane will fly over the site during the dedication, according to Fred Worster, one of the event organizers.
“There happens to be a few of us here, ex-military or whatever, that think this is pretty damn important,” Worster said Thursday. “These guys, it might have been peacetime, but they were doing something to protect the country.
“I would encourage anybody who has ever had anything to do with the military or not to come to this dedication,” the Army veteran added.
Gerald Adler of Davis, Calif., one of the two crewmen who survived the crash 35 years ago, will be present to mark the event. The former airman, who served as navigator, fractured his skull and ribs in the crash and lost a leg to frostbite.
The other survivor, Dante E. Bulli, was the aircraft commander. Both he and Adler endured overnight temperatures of 28 degrees below zero the night of the crash, Jan. 24, 1963.
In 1992, the 30th anniversary of the crash, Priscilla and Fred Worster rallied forces among club members to organize a dedication at the site. With help from Priscilla’s brother, Bob McCarthy, who was employed in the Attorney General’s Office, the pair found the two survivors of the crash. Contacted that year, both former airmen were happy to learn that a memorial was planned and would be held each ensuing year at the site.
Adler flew to the region in 1992 to attend the first dedication and returned the following year to a hero’s welcome. Although Bulli visited the region during one summer, he was not able to attend the ceremonies because of ill health.
During those early years, a memorial kiosk built by Greenville High School students was installed at the clubhouse. The kiosk displays photos and stories of the crash and the subsequent rescue efforts.
At the 1993 ceremony, Adler was shown the ejection seat that carried him from the crippled B-52 bomber to safety. Members of the snowmobile club had found the seat about 2,000 feet from the crash site. A second seat was recovered earlier, but Adler recognized his seat because its bent frame had imprisoned his survival kit the night of the crash.
The B-52 Stratofortress airplane had originated at Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts and was on a routine training flight when it crashed on the mountain near Moosehead Lake that January day.
News reports at the time said the plane took off from Westover at noon Jan. 24, 1963, and was supposed to return at 5:30 p.m.
In a Bangor Daily News story published September 1967, Adler said, “One moment it was blissful, if arduous, training. The next moment came the turbulence as we approached a mountain range on our planned course. Then came the moment of sheer terror. There was a loud noise from somewhere. The aircraft snapped into a steep right bank descending at the same time. Nothing that the pilots could do would bring it out of this altitude.”
Later, it was determined that the plane’s vertical stabilizer, or tail fin, had snapped off.
The same turbulence that caught the B-52 nearly caused a rescue helicopter to crash as well that night 35 years ago. Eugene Cramer of Lee, who was a flight medic with the Air Force, said this week that he was one of four individuals in the first helicopter to find the crash.
“We got caught in the same turbulent storm that the B-52 got caught in, and we almost crashed in the helicopter also,” he said. “We were riding along smoothly, and the pilot started to gain altitude to go up over top, and we went over top of Elephant Mountain and when we got on the other side, we got caught in the same turbulent storm,” he said.
Panic-stricken at the time, one of the pilots was saying, “Mayday,” Cramer recalled.
“We thought we were going down because he lost complete control of the helicopter,” Cramer said. “We fell about 1,000 feet” before the pilot regained control of the craft and the foursome returned to Dow Air Force Base. He returned to the site the next day to collect the bodies, he said.
Cramer had hoped to attend Saturday’s event, but the weather may prevent his presence, he said.
The first family to travel on foot to the crash site after the region was opened to the public that May was the Trafton family from Milo, according to Clinton Trafton of Milo. He said this week that some of the family plans to attend Saturday’s dedication.
Ellen Trafton and the late Ralph Trafton, accompanied by their children Clinton Trafton, Irene (Trafton) Irving and Calvin Trafton drove as far as they could and then walked the additional miles to see the crash site, according to Clinton Trafton.
“It was a mess,” he said. Trafton, then 11 years old, said he saw parachutes in trees and scattered debris covering the ground.
“My parents took photographs of us kids sitting inside the canopy of the airplane,” he said Wednesday.
The engine of the plane is on display at the snowmobile clubhouse. At the crash site, visitors will see pieces of debris of the plane scattered about and a 15-foot section of the fuselage, which is where a memorial wreath is placed each year.
After the ride-in and dedication, club members will serve a spaghetti feed all day long. Adler also will be at the clubhouse to chat with visitors and answer any questions they might have, according to Worster.