Former brigade commander remembers December 1985 tragedy
November 8, 2010
- The Soldiers, along with eight crewmembers, died in an early morning plane crash at Gander, Newfoundland, International Airport.
- They were returning from a 6-month peacekeeping mission to the Sinai Peninsula in the Middle East.
- The Arrow Air DC-8 plane they were aboard crashed upon takeoff.
- The Fort Campbell 2010 ceremony will take place December 12 at the Task Force 3-502nd Memorial Tree Park at 1 p.m.
On Dec. 12, 1985, Fort Campbell and the 101st Airborne Division lost 248 Soldiers to one of the worst air disasters in military history.
The Soldiers, along with eight crewmembers, died in an early morning plane crash at Gander, Newfoundland, International Airport, returning from a 6-month peacekeeping mission to the Sinai Peninsula in the Middle East. The Arrow Air DC-8 plane they were aboard crashed upon takeoff.
The Soldiers, from several different military units at Fort Campbell, were all attached to 3rd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade.
According to Canadian Transport, the airplane got no higher than 1,000 feet into the air before crashing.
"This is the deepest and most heart-felt tragedy of my time in the Army," Division and Post Commander at the time of the crash, Maj. Gen. Burton Patrick said the day of the tragedy to news reporters. "The first priority of this division now is the Families."
The general went on to tell reporters that the Families of the fallen had gathered at a gymnasium for a welcome home ceremony where the commander of the brigade informed them of the tragedy.
"I had a real feeling of despair but my real concern was for the Families and the friends that would be gathering in a couple of hours to welcome that group back to Fort Campbell," said retired Maj. Gen. John Herrling, 2nd Brigade commander at the time of the crash. "My big concern was we were having a welcome back ceremony in the 2nd Brigade gym, I believe it was scheduled for 9:30 a.m., and I had to figure out what I was going to say to those people when I walked into that gymnasium."
Stories were circulating and the news was reporting the crash so there were Families and friends that had already assumed it was the flight that they were waiting on that wouldn't make it home.
"There were rumors and people had already heard the television reports and there were a lot of concerned folks, but I still had to get up and make a formal announcement," he added.
Herrling's morning started out like any other that December morning.
"I remember it like it was yesterday," he said. "At the time I was in the kitchen getting ready to go off to the brigade headquarters for PT. It was about 6 in the morning and I got a call from the brigade S3 and he said he had heard the news on TV and they were reporting a crash of a military aircraft in Gander, Newfoundland, and he said 'that's a strange coincidence, our guys are coming back from the Sinai.'"
Herrling then walked across his driveway to see his next door neighbor, who was the chief of staff of the 101st Airborne Division, Col. Bruce Moore. He told Moore what he had heard and then went to the brigade headquarters to wait for what could've been the worst news of his career.
"He called me maybe 15 or 20 minutes later and he said, 'I got some bad news for you, that was your plane that went down and right now they're reporting no survivors,'" Herrling said. "That's how I found out about it."
"It was the most difficult period in my Army career I think and that particular morning was probably the most terrible time I had in the 35 years I spent in the military," Herrling said. "You just have to sit there and think for a minute on what you can do for the Families and all the friends that had gathered there to welcome them home."
That was Herrling's primary concern - the best way to help the Families.
"I just knew that all of us in the 101st were going to have to do everything that we could for the Families and friends of those that had been lost in that plane crash," the former general said. "I knew when I walked into that gymnasium and made the formal announcement we were going to have some very troubled people. So we needed medical staff in there to help deal with all that."
In just three hours, he coordinated with the division personnel officer, division adjutant general and the hospital to put together a group of people that could be most beneficial to the Families.
"Once you go through a tragedy like that you realize that this can happen at other places and other times," he said. "I think for the rest of my time on active duty, whenever we were involved in a large exercise and we were moving people around and we were training somewhere, safety was foremost in my mind."
Herrling will once again have an opportunity to address the Families and friends of the Gander fallen Soldiers during a wreath laying ceremony at Fort Campbell, Dec. 12 where he'll be the guest speaker. The ceremony will take place at the Task Force 3-502nd Memorial Tree Park at 1 p.m.
"It's been 25 years but I haven't forgotten as I'm sure they have not forgotten," he added. "Their sons and daughters did a wonderful job and they really need to be proud of their service. It really is a tragedy and it just points out the fact that they were on a peacekeeping mission and keeping the peace is sometimes a very difficult thing to do. Sometimes there's a price to keeping the peace and in the case of those Soldiers they paid a very dear price and so did their Family and friends for their service in the Sinai."