Compromise defense bill leaves out timeline for recovering '52 Alaska plane crash

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — The U.S. House passed a $768 billion defense policy bill Tuesday night that left out a requirement that the Air Force put forward a timeline for recovering a C-119 airplane that crashed on an Alaska mountain nearly 70 years ago.

Two men from Muskegon County — Army Cpl. Gail Daugherty of Muskegon and Pfc. Raymond Housler of Ravenna — were among 19 service members killed in the 1952 training accident during the Korean War.

The men's remains have never been returned, though aircraft wreckage from the flight, known by the call sign Gamble Chalk 1, was discovered five years ago on the Eldridge Glacier in Denali National Park. 

A U.S. Air Force Fairchild C-119B-10-FA Flying Boxcar of the 314th Troop Carrier Group in 1952.

The House in September had voted to approve an earlier version of the annual National Defense Authorization that included an amendment by U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Holland, aiming to force the Air Force's hand on Gamble Chalk 1.

Huizenga's provision would have required the Air Force to provide a status update on recovery operations for the C-119 "Flying Boxcar" crash on Mount Silverthrone, as well as detailed plans for recovery and the rationale for any past operations that were delayed or canceled.  

But the Senate version of the defense legislation contained no similar measure, and the compromise bill released Tuesday by House and Senate negotiators also left it out. The Senate is expected to take up the compromise package and pass it in the next week.

Huizenga said Wednesday he was disappointed but is focused on holding the Air Force accountable for actions that officials there committed to take on Gamble Chalk 1 — sending a team to conduct reconnaissance on the ground in August 2022 and recovery in August 2023.

"I'm OK if we don't have to have a legislative directive on that, as long as they follow through on what they said they would do," Huizenga told The Detroit News at the U.S. Capitol. "I don't want to have to use a sledgehammer if a thumbtack will do the job."

U.S. Army Pfc. Raymond L. Housler of Ravenna, Muskegon County, was among the 19 service men who died in 1952 when a C-119 transport aircraft crashed into Mount Silverthrone in Alaska. Their remains have never been recovered.

Huizenga has said he wants to see action from the Air Force in an effort to bring closure to family members who never got to bury their loved ones.

He said after a broader group of lawmakers got behind the effort this fall, including Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa — who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee — it spurred the Air Force to send representatives to brief him.

In addition to committing to the specific timeline and "action plan," the Air Force pledged to report back and communicate with Huizenga's office on a regular basis, he said. 

"I'm not going to chalk it up as a win to have an amendment. I chalk it up as a win if we can help these families, whatever that process is," Huizenga said.

"Now, our job, though, is to watch closely to make sure that they follow through on what they said they're going to do. They've now made specific promises."

If the Air Force fails to meet the promises, Huizenga said he'd rally colleagues and senators to put legislative directives into law. 

The service had previously told Huizenga's office that a recovery operation on Mount Silverthorne would be too dangerous and that the agency doesn't have the resources for it, he said.

An Air Force spokesperson confirmed Wednesday the plans for a "boots-on-ice" mission in the summer of 2022 and that search and recovery operations are projected for August 2023.

"We met again last week, and the respective organizations ... are still on track for late July/early August of 2022," Christin K. Michaud, chief of public affairs for Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations, said by email. 

"Our ongoing planning efforts will continue to ensure all parties involved are equipped to support in the safest, most effective manner."

Michaud said a reconnaissance flight on Aug. 30 identified "key factors" to assist in the planning process, such as terrain features, an area for a weather station and landing zones, elevation and an approximate recovery range. 

The August 2022 mission is intended to survey the landing zone and debris field and conduct an extensive site survey, Michaud said.

"Eldridge Glacier is very challenging, given its higher elevation," Michaud said, adding that other concerns include weather, terrain and wildlife. "The boots on the ground assessment will help the team in developing an executable recovery plan for 2023."

Gail Daugherty's younger brother, Charles, is hopeful but also skeptical that the Air Force will follow through on its promises after so many years of doing nothing to recover his brother's remains, he said. 

Charles Daugherty said he wished the legislative mandate had gone through. He also questioned why the Air Force can't just recover his brother's remains from the glacier when a team goes to conduct reconnaissance there next summer.  

"I don't understand why all these servicemen did not receive some sort of recognition or honor," he said.

Charles and his sister Claudette Bethke are the only two siblings living from among the original eight. He is 80, and she is 81, and both have health problems. He's worried one or both of them won't be around in two years when and if his brother finally returns home for a proper burial.

"There's just two of us now," said Charles, who was 10 years old when his brother Gail was killed in the crash. "We are praying that something gets done here pretty quick."

Cpl. Gail Daugherty of Muskegon was among the 19 service members killed in a C-119 aircraft crash into Mount Silverthrone in Alaska in 1952.

Gamble Chalk 1 crashed in November 1952 during a cold-weather training operation in the Alaska mountains known as Warm Wind. It carried an Air Force crew of five and 14 Army men as passengers.

The military initially delayed the recovery operation due to equipment challenges related to the terrain and elevation of the crash — roughly 12,000 feet. 

Part of the challenge of recovery, family members have said, is that there are only about six weeks of the year when the weather in the area permits travel to the glacier at an interval where the debris field is clear of snow and ice. 

The compromise NDAA bill adopted by the House on a 363-70 vote authorizes $768 billion for national defense programs and a 2.7% pay raise for service members.

In a surprise move, the legislation abandoned a provision that would have required women to register for the draft — something that had been included in both House and Senate versions of the legislation. 

The package also included reforms to the military justice system aimed at improving the process for handling sexual assault by adding special prosecutors from outside the chain of command to take over the prosecution of sex crimes, kidnapping, murder and manslaughter. 

U.S. Reps. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, and Andy Levin, D-Bloomfield Township, were among 51 Democratic lawmakers who voted against the bill on Tuesday. The rest of the Michigan delegation was in support.

"I voted no on the NDAA simply because I don’t believe we should add that much money to an already bloated Pentagon budget," Levin said in a statement.

"I support having by far the strongest military in the world and the good-paying defense jobs in my district that protect our troops, but I cannot support ever-increasing military spending in the face of so much human need across our country."

mburke@detroitnews.com