Americans, Armenians observe 53rd anniversary of US C-130 crash
September 20, 2011
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NERKIN SASNASHEN, Armenia (Sept. 2, 2011) -- On Sept. 2, 1958, a U.S. Air Force C-130 out of Germany crashed just north of the small village here in a final act of bravery as the 17 Airmen aboard maneuvered the falling aircraft away from local civilians.
Every year since then, villagers gather on Aircraft Hill to place flowers on a memorial erected by Armenia where the aircraft crashed and remember the Airmen who died that day.
Today, 53 years after the tragic crash, Americans joined the Armenian community here for the first time to pay tribute to their fallen comrades.
"Aircraft flight by its very nature is a risky business, but in the interest of mission accomplishment, airmen of all nations accept that risk," said Air Force Maj. Gen. Mark Zamzow, 3rd Air Force vice commander. "I was deeply touched when I heard the citizens of Sasnashen remember this event and you've conducted this ceremony every year since 1958. And now having finally seen this memorial and knowing how you continue to care and bring forward artifacts of the deceased and their aircraft, it is even more relevant to me."
Representatives from the U.S. European Command, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Embassy Office of Defense Cooperation participated in a ceremony at the memorial to pay tribute and to receive items found at the crash site, including two rings and pieces of the C-130.
"These Airmen who died here were, they were fellow Christians who were implementing their mission, and we have to remember their memory," said Nver Hovhannisyan, a local villager. "We always will keep the memory of those Airmen."
In 1993, the villagers built the monument to the fallen Airmen. The plaques, inscribed in English and Armenian, reads, "We must never forget that freedom is never really free. It is the most costly thing in the world. Freedom is never paid in a lump sum. Installments come due in every generation. All any of us can do is offer the generations that follow a chance for freedom."
"I think that is a very appropriate, memorable inscription," said Zamzow, who was also a C-130 pilot earlier in his career. "The manner in which you conducted this ceremony and the way in which you take care of this memorial speaks strength for your community."
According to local recounts of the story, upon hearing the loud crash, villagers rushed to try to help the Airmen. To thank the village for their efforts in maintaining the memory of these Airmen and for returning to Americans the recovered items, ODC and EUCOM funded renovations to a local kindergarten.
"Three years ago, we asked the mayor if there were any issues we might be able to assist him with. His immediate response was, 'We need better school conditions for our children,'" said Col. D. Peter Helmlinger, USACE Europe District commander, during his speech at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the kindergarten later that day.
The $425,000 renovation project, managed by USACE, provided a complete overhaul to the kindergarten while World Vision Armenia donated all new furnishings.
"I'm so very pleased to have had the opportunity to represent U.S. European Command and the Air Force for my nation and I wish the people of Sasnashen all the best as they continue to remember this," Zamzow said. "This truly is an incredible act of kindness … Certainly, we will do our very best to find the deceased of the families who owned these [rings]. And there is no doubt in my mind that when their next of kin receive these, there will be a place in their heart for the people of Armenia."
While officials will work to identify which members the rings belong to, members from the Air Force Engineering and Technical Services and the 19th Maintenance Group from Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark., were able to positively identify several of the recovered aircraft pieces.
"One of the pieces is part of the troop door that was in the back of the aircraft," said Air Force Capt. Robert Sanders, bilateral affairs officer from the Embassy ODC. "Another part is from somewhere on the belly skin of the aircraft. We also learned that a portion of one of the wings was recovered and we're working on coordinating the transport of this large piece."
Several of the items were recovered by Andranik Stepanyan and his family, who presented the rings to U.S. officials during the ceremony.
"I feel sorry for these soldiers," he said. "I was hoping that someday I would be able to do a good deed for the people of the United States."
As history continues to be recovered by local villagers, relations between the U.S. and Armenia continue to grow. Including the kindergarten, so far roughly $1.2 million has been invested in the country's health and educational facilities this year. According to the ODC, this investment by the Defense Department improves the lives of Armenians through access to better health care and education, which in turn leads to a stronger partnership.
"Today we have representatives from their [the Airmen's] country being here and we have shared goals and we have shared values together. Hopefully one day their families will also be able to come here," Hovhannisyan said. "Glory to the soldiers who have been serving their countries to the end of their lives. Glory to everyone who serves their country."