“I was almost four years old when he died. My sister was just 14 weeks. It was February 17, 1956 and he was on a routine transport plane from El Toro, California where he was stationed, to Alameda Naval Air Station, en route to Hawaii for an overseas assignment. My dad was actually supposed to fly out on the 19th, but his best buddy asked to swap flights because he had a wedding to go to.
“The plane hit a storm, and it crashed into a mountain, just twenty one miles – nine minutes – from landing. All 38 men on board were killed instantaneously. The crash made world-wide news when the passenger manifest was switched with another flight and families were incorrectly notified that their loved one had been killed. It wasn’t until halfway through the list that a woman said, ‘No, my son is right here,’ that they realized. It was awful. There wasn’t much left in the wreckage, but somehow they found my dad’s wedding ring. They brought it to my mom on April 3 – what would have been their fifth wedding anniversary.
“My dad was only 25 when he died, and I was so little. He had been in Korea for several years after I was born. I only have three recollections of him, and looking back, I think they were probably all on the same day. I can see him walking through the front door of our duplex, carrying a six pack of root beer. I can picture him laughing in the kitchen, talking with a friend, while my mom was ironing. I remember him taking me to the flight line in El Toro, where he took me up a ladder of a smaller plane, and there was a man sitting in the cockpit. It isn’t much, but I am so thankful for those memories.
“I had so many years of grieving, so many years without closure. My mom tried to protect us. I didn’t go to the funeral. I don’t have a pinpoint moment of when I learned that he died. I remember obsessing over him for about a year. I sat with his picture constantly. My mom let me grieve, but she was very concerned. I kept wishing he was just on a deserted island. I was in such denial, but my mom was patient. She kept his memory alive for us. It wasn’t until I was in my 50s that my mom suggested we go to the cemetery together. I wrote him a letter, I drove in town, and we made a weekend of it. When we got there, my mom told me to take my time, and that she would wait in the car for as long as I needed. She told me, ‘I’ve had my healing. It is time for you to have yours.’ I sat at his gravesite for over an hour; it was an amazing journey.
“My mom went into the hospital not too long after our trip. I found it interesting that she was admitted February 17, 2005; it was 49 years to the day of the crash. She passed two months later, and she and my dad are buried together, in the same plot.
“In recent years, my sister and I have poured over newspapers and articles about our dad. It has brought us so much closer. We’ve reconnected with his family. Dad was the baby of six kids. He had two brothers with long careers in the military, and a sister who served as a nurse in the armed forces as well. I love hearing their stories about my dad – like the time a colonel flew into Korea, and somehow my dad, who was a crew chief, ended up in the jeep with him, laughing and smoking cigars. He had a personality like that, of just making people smile. I am grateful that there are people who knew him who have said, ‘You look like him.’ I am so proud of our men and women who give up their lives in service of our country. I am so, so proud of my dad.
“Healing takes time, and you have to embrace it. My advice to anyone who has lost someone would be, do all that you can do in your grief to find healing. And honor the person every day by living your life.”