Fifty years later: Jet crash memorial to be dedicated in Comfrey
COMFREY -- Fifty years after a B-47 jet bomber crashed just outside of Comfrey, killing three crew members and a U.S. Air Force colonel, the community will mark the tragedy with a memorial dedication on Sunday.
Marianne Schotzko, a Comfrey historian and wife of the town's American Legion Post Commander, Stan Schotzko, said a 20- by 20-foot stamped concrete patio in North City Park was created as the base for a memorial that includes four black granite stones -- each one lasered with the face of a man killed in the Feb. 20, 1963 tragedy. The victims included Capt. Donald J. Livingston, 31, who piloted the plane; Lt. Thomas Hallgarth, 22, the navigator; Lt. Col. Lamar Ledbetter, 41, commander of the 98th Armament and Electronics Squadron at Lincoln, Neb.; and Lt. Michael R. Rebmann, 23, all of whom were living in Lincoln.
The stones were crafted by a St. Cloud company, while a pair of benches stationed at the memorial feature the work of a local sandblaster.
"Doug Callanan has a sandblaster and he does lettering for tombstones," Marianne Schotzko said. "He was the artist that helped us design everything."
Callanan sandblasted the image of a B-47 on the back of one of the benches and, on the other, re-created the Air Force insignia. In the middle of the benches and the granite markers stands an historic marker telling the story of the crash, and behind the memorial is a flag display, which was already in place.
The Schotzkos, along with the Comfrey American Legion & Auxiliary, were instrumental in raising $22,000 in 10 months for the memorial. Marianne said anything left over would be used to create a scholarship fund for Comfrey graduates.
"We were flying by the seat of our pants," she said. "Whatever we had money for, we just knew what we were going to do."
The real bonus, said Schotzko, was a $5,000 donation from the flight surgeon who was at the scene in 1963 to help in the search for remains of the victims.
"We had put (information) in the Air Force newsletters and that's how he found out we were doing this," she explained. "He had been so impressed with the helpfulness and kindness of the people of Comfrey that he wanted to do this for us."
The memorial, for now, is covered in tablecloths and wrapped in duct tape, waiting for Sunday's unveiling.
Events begin at 12:45 p.m. with the Minnesota Patriot Guard driving down Comfrey's Brown Street, the main road through town, on their motorcycles with flags flying. The Civil Air Patrol, which will include cadets James Arndt, Hunter Bolt and Eerek, Shawn and Kenneth Hillesheim from the Worthington Composite Squadron, will then join local American Legion members in a march to the memorial. The program is slated to begin at 1 p.m. in the park, with a single-plane flyover at the culmination of the program.
Schotzko said people from California, Florida, Texas, Ohio, Oregon, Alabama and Nebraska are expected to attend the memorial dedication, including daughters of two of the men killed in the crash.
After the outdoor dedication, refreshments will be served in the Comfrey Community Center. There, the families of the victims will be presented scrapbooks containing newspaper articles published at the time of the crash, as well as plaques marking the memorial dedication. Sunday's event is in conjunction with Comfrey's Community Days.
A tragic day
The headline at the top of the front page of the Feb. 21, 1963, Worthington Daily Globe, reads, "B-47 Jet disintegrates in Comfrey farm field," with the Lew Hudson story detailing the events that transpired on the afternoon of Feb. 20.
Headquarters of the bomber wing in Lincoln, Neb., reported that the plane had just completed a simulated bomb run across Heron Lake prior to the crash.
"The RBS Express, a 17-car train stationed at Heron Lake to score bomb runs, had just checked the plane's performance and radioed the information to the craft when radio contact was lost," Hudson reported. "Officers said there was no indication of trouble in radio conversations with the plane. Jet planes of the Strategic Air Command have been flying low-level simulated bombing missions across the area for the last six weeks."
Later, it was reported that the plane suffered a catastrophic failure of its sixth engine.
Col. Gerald Quilling, believed to be the last surviving Civil Air Patrol member that assisted with the search and recovery mission, said it's believed the plane was flying at an altitude of about 500 feet, at a speed of approximately 425 knots.
"That's the type of mission they flew back in those days," Quilling said. "At that speed, he's moving."
The now 85-year-old Quilling, of St. Louis Park, was notified of the crash within hours after it occurred. The Civil Air Patrol group commander for the region at that time was Mjr. Bill Fedder of Madelia. Fedder spread the word to CAP squadrons across the state, seeking help in the search mission.
"Our primary mission at that time was to make sure all of the crew members were accounted for," said Quilling, who flew his plane down to Springfield -- the nearest city with an airport -- to assist the Civil Air Patrol in the search. "Our secondary mission was to locate any parts of the aircraft."
While the jet was not carrying bombs, there was a lot of fuel in the tank.
"Something that big going straight into the ground, all you had was a fireball," Quilling said. "A smoking hole and that's all that's left."
Fedder led the search mission through the day on Thursday, but became ill with pneumonia Friday morning. His illness resulted in Quilling's appointment as mission commander.
By the time Quilling took over, three of the four crash victims had been found.
While the Civil Air Patrol was never privy to the information gathered regarding the cause of the crash, Quilling said there was plenty of speculation. What was known was that the No. 6 engine, located at the tip of the right wing, failed.
"With the failure, there's a vibration of the engine," Quilling, who is still a pilot, explained. "In case of emergency, the engine would twist and break off and the plane could keep on flying, but it didn't happen that way.
"One of two things probably happened -- one, the engine may not have come off the airplane as designed, and that would have caused the crew to lose control of the airplane," he continued. "Also, if the engine came apart ... (parts) could have hit the wing in such a way to affect the control of the airplane. We don't know that. That's in a report the Civil Air Patrol never sees."
Normal cruising speed for the B-47 jet was 500 miles per hour, and after the engine failure, the plane started coming down fast. Quilling said the primary crew members each had ejection seats, allowing the pilot and co-pilot to escape.
"We don't know if they were killed on impact or if they were killed when their chutes drug them across the ground," Quilling said, adding that both men ended up "some distance" from the wreckage.
The navigator was also able to eject himself from the plane, and his body was recovered less than a block away from the crash site. The evaluator didn't have an ejection seat and, after three days, it was determined he perished with the plane.
"The chance of him getting out of the airplane was next to impossible," Quilling said.
The Daily Globe, which had sent a photographer to take aerial pictures of the crash site, reported that the site of the plane crash left a crater approximately 50 feet wide and 25 feet deep.
Search continued for days
Newspaper reports after the crash encouraged people to stay away. Quilling said he, as the mission coordinator, was responsible for keeping the crash site secure.
"We didn't need any people getting in our way of doing our mission," Quilling said. "In case they did find something, we had to make sure they didn't walk off with it."
The parts were needed by the Air Force so they could determine what caused the crash.
"That's why they were anxious to find the parts," Quilling said.
He gives a lot of credit to the volunteers, including the Civil Air Patrol, who conducted the ground search. Quilling said temperatures overnight that mid-February evening were "double-digits below zero."
"It's February, colder than the blazes," Quilling said. "There was very little snow on the ground at that time, but we've got all these people going through the fields looking for these parts. That is rough duty."
Searchers found a fuel tank, part of one engine and numerous small pieces.
"I don't remember how much we had of the No. 6 engine," Quilling said. "The shroud surrounding the engine was found. I remember standing next to it on the ground, and we could see where some of the blades from the turbine came through the side of that shroud."
Quilling piloted one of two planes that searched from the air for several days following the crash.
The Minnesota Wing of the Civil Air Patrol received a unit citation for its efforts in the mission, and Quilling said he still proudly wears the green ribbon on his uniform.
Quilling remains active in the Civil Air Patrol and still does "a little bit" of flying. He has notched 65 years of service in the CAP, is a flight instructor and has done numerous safety seminars for CAP cadets in the Worthington and Pipestone composite squadrons. He served as Civil Air Patrol's state commander in the late 1960s.
A place of remembrance
Three of the men killed in the February 1963 plane crash left behind wives, each of whom were pregnant. The women each gave birth to a daughter, according to newspaper reports.
Tammy Maher, the daughter of Lt. Thomas Hallgarth, now lives in California and had kept in contact with some of the people of Comfrey. She visited the crash site two years ago and, at the time, said there should be a memorial to tell the story of the men who died.
"Her mother gave her a suitcase of her dad's things," said Marianne Schotzko, growing emotional. "She considers this her dad's final resting place."
The Schotzkos met Maher during her 2011 visit, and Stan gave her an ATV ride to the crash site.
"We do have a flag out at the site, which is three miles out of town," Schotzko said, adding that the crater, while still evident, is disguised by tall grasses and blooming wildflowers.
"It's really peaceful," she said.
Near the road, a piece of the plane that was recovered several years after the crash marks the site. Schotzko said the site is near Brown County 16, on 130th Street.
Maher will make the trip from California for Sunday's memorial dedication, along with her husband, two children, mother and stepsister. Also attending will be Lt. Col. Lamar Ledbetter's daughter and her husband from Oregon, along with his sister from Alabama.
Schotzko said they have never been able to find members of Donald J. Livingston's family.
"We've had feelers out there," she said. "The Air Force hasn't cooperated -- not one bit."
None of Rebmann's family is able to attend.
Quilling will speak at Sunday's memorial dedication, and said he's proud of Comfrey for coming together to create a memorial in the community. The fatal crash was historically important to the town.
"The Cold War was not a shooting war, but there were casualties," he said. "It's part of our heritage, and people shouldn't forget those things."
Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.