JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. – Fate has an interesting way of changing our lives. In one instance, fate can yield a much different result than what’s present today.
So is the case for Suzanne Truex, who just happened to stumble across an article online about the very plane her dad, U.S. Marine Corps Pvt. Dan Truex, had his near-death experience with.
“I’ve always been intrigued by the story, ever since my parents first told me about it while we were going through old photos,” Suzanne said. “I was shocked to learn just how close Dad had been to being killed.”
On Dec. 10, 1946, six Marine Curtis Commando R5C transport planes departed on, what should have been, a routine transfer from San Diego, California, headed to Naval Air Station Sand Point in Seattle, when the trip turned out to be anything but routine.
Less than six hours following takeoff, unforeseen severe weather from the west prompted four of the planes to turn back and land in Portland, Oregon. One pressed on and somehow made it safely to Seattle.
The sixth plane, carrying 32 Marines, radioed into the Civil Aeronautics Administration office at Yakima to report ice forming on the wings just before it seemingly vanished.
Prior to departure, when Truex attempted to board the sixth plane, he was turned away -- even when he presented his official orders.
There must have been a mistake, he was told, as the plane was full and no one else could board. Truex was disappointed, his daughter said, because some of the men were his buddies and he wanted to travel with them.
The day after the plane went missing, Truex reported back to his unit and was met with sheer disbelief. His commander had no idea he hadn’t gotten on the plane.
Unlike Truex, the Marines on board the sixth plane weren’t as lucky to escape the unfortunate tragedy.
“In the beginning, the parents were very hopeful that the plane had found somewhere to land,” said Robert Richard Rickard, nephew and namesake of his late uncle, U.S. Marine Corps Pvt. Harry Richard Turner. “But as time passed, and there were no real sightings, their weary turned to grief.”
For weeks following the plane’s disappearance, search-and-rescue efforts both in air and on ground yielded no results. After more than 350 missions and over 700 hours in the air, Navy officials with the 62nd Troop Carrier Wing at McChord Field, at then-Fort Lewis, suspended the search due to heavy snowfall and crevasses on the glacier opening throughout the ice.
Air rescue unit planes returned to McChord Field, and search squads from Mount Rainier National Park ceased missions. Family members who had come to help with the search returned home with sadness.
Efforts to find the missing Marines were ongoing for several months, but none were successful due to the harsh weather.
Since many of the family members lived so far away, they relied on the families that lived closer to relay any information. Many parents of the fallen Marines reached out to Edrie Simmons, mother of U.S. Marine Corps Pvt. Leslie Simmons, because her family lived the closest.
Even while Edrie tended to her 12-year-old daughter Carolyn, she still found time to send letters and newspaper clippings to the others.
Seven months later on July 21, 1947, then Mount Rainier assistant chief ranger Bill Butler, along with a search party, spotted aircraft wreckage high on the South Tahoma Glacier.
They found plane fragments at the 9,500-foot level and the crushed nose section of the plane, at the 10,500-foot level, revealing the bodies of 11 men tangled inside. A few days later, they found 14 more bodies -- mostly encased in ice.
Rickard’s mom, Patricia Rickard, was only 17 years old when her brother, Turner, died.
“My mom often spoke about how strong her older brother was, that he was good in sports and how much she looked up to him,” Rickard said. “She, like many other of the young siblings, were devastated.”
Of the 32 Marines who perished, most were 18- and 19-year-old privates, fresh out of boot camp, reporting to their first duty station. Two officers were also on board – the pilot and co-pilot – as well as two master sergeants – one being the crew chief.
After an investigation, the Navy and National Park Service officials concluded the missing plane was blown off course by high winds and flew into the side of Mount Rainier at a speed of 180 mph.
Navy officials noted it would take at least 20 experienced mountain climbers about two weeks to bring all the bodies down from the treacherous location on the glacier.
After careful consideration, the families of the fallen Marines made the tough decision to abandon the recovery mission, because it would have endangered the lives of the rescue climbers.
“The parents of all the boys didn't want anyone else to die trying to bring the bodies down,” said Carolyn Pope, Simmons’ sister. "If all the boys couldn't come down together, then they wanted them to rest in peace together where they last laid."
Simmons had planned to surprise his family with gifts for Christmas. His parents had sent him $50 to catch the bus home on his holiday leave, but unbeknownst to them, he used the money to buy gifts and hitched a free ride on the cargo plane heading to Seattle.
OUT OF TRAGEDY COMES CONNECTION
Most people rarely get a second chance at life, let alone a third. After Truex’s first near-death experience of almost falling down an elevator shaft, he considered himself lucky, his daughter Suzanne said. After the second one of almost being on the doomed plane, he considered himself just blessed.
Fifty-six years after the plane crash, Suzanne discovered just how interesting fate truly is.
“I was in total shock when I uncovered an article about a young Marine private who had caught a last-minute ride on the same plane my dad was supposed to be on,” she said.
After Suzanne found the article, she dug up Pope’s address.
“I sent her a letter and told her that her brother saved my dad's life, and if it were not for him, I wouldn't be here either,” Suzanne said. “I didn't think the family knew that, and I wanted them to know what a profound realization that was for me.”
When Bob Leslie Pope, Simmons’ nephew and namesake, got ahold of the letter, he reached out to Suzanne via Facebook.
“My mom would tell me the story about how Uncle Leslie should not have been on that plane,” Bob said. “I sent Suzanne a message with a picture of my uncle.”
Having connected and pieced their stories together, both believe Simmons took Truex’s place on the plane.
“My dad passed in 1991,” Suzanne said. “I don’t think he ever found out why he wasn’t allowed on the plane, but I know for certain that if he had been allowed to board, I wouldn’t be here today.”
REMEMBERING THE FALLEN
On Aug. 24, 1947, a memorial service was held at the 4,000-foot summit of Round Pass, overlooking Mount Rainier and the South Tahoma Glacier. Approximately 200 people attended, including several families of the fallen.
It was decided the memorial would be held annually in August to honor the Marines.
“I attended the event every year from birth until I was 18 years old,” Bob said. “Most times, us kids would wander off hiking or playing while the adults talked somberly amongst themselves.”
Although the event may have been a good time for the kids, it was the adults who felt the weight of its history.
“My mom talked a lot about the feeling of grief everyone had and how traveling to the mountain every year grew into the annual pilgrimage for several families,” Rickard said.
In the mid-1990s, the road to Round Pass washed out, making the area inaccessible to everyone except hikers willing to brave the roundtrip 7.75 miles. Memorial services for the 32 Marines ceased.
In 1998, the Mount Rainier Detachment of the Marine Corps League received authorization to duplicate the monument, and a new memorial was established at Veterans Memorial Park in Enumclaw.
December 10 marks the 75th anniversary of the crash. Although most of the parents and siblings of the Marines have passed over the years, their memories and stories will live with the families forever.
The legacy of the fallen will live on forever as well and is commemorated with an annual memorial hike at Round Pass by the Combat Logistics Battalion 23, Combat Logistics Regiment 4, 4th Marine Logistics Group from Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
"Marines never truly die,” said U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. John McCall, training chief, with CLB-23, CLR-4, 4th MLG. “Each of our names are forged in the flames of what makes us who we are, and that torch is passed down from one generation to the next. Our legacies are connected, and we will forever honor those who have come before us; once a Marine, always a Marine.”
The 1946 plane crash remains the greatest tragedy in Mount Rainier National Park’s history. The 32 U.S. Marines will remain entombed forever, and the mountain will always serve as their 14,000-foot tombstone.
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Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two-part series on the plane crash that took place on Dec. 10, 1946, killing 32 Marines.