ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Operation Colony Glacier was launched after an Alaska National Guard test flight in 2012 spotted the debris of a C-124 Globemaster II. That aircraft was later identified as the one that crashed in 1952, killing all 52 service members on board.
Every year, a team of U.S. Army and Air Force members from all over the country travels to Colony Glacier to continue recovery efforts. This year's team just wrapped up the 2020 recovery mission.
There were several discoveries this year with postage stamps, rank patches, a film reel, and a St.Christopher pendant found among the debris. The St. Christopher medal is believed to protect the wearer on their travels.
"And on the back it says, 'I am a Catholic, if there is an accident, please notify a priest,'" said Capt. Shelby Yoakum, describing the pendant. Yoakum is with U.S. Air Force Mortuary Affairs out of Dover Air Force Base. She served as ground force commander for Operation Colony Glacier 2020.
Each year, new pieces of the wreckage are revealed on the glacier as it continues to melt and shift. For 21 days, a team of 30 U.S. Air Force and Army members were tasked with unearthing the remains and artifacts from the glacier.
"I think it's really special for the guys that we have out there recovering, they're the ones that are coming across these things and it kind of connects you to the mission in a way because you're coming across these things and just realizing you're picking up something that belonged to someone in the early 1900s," said Yoakum.
So far, since recovery efforts began, nine out of the 52 service members' remains have yet to be identified, but officials say this year's operation was very successful. They're hopeful new identifications will be made by the end of this year.
Two cases of remains are getting a dignified transfer to Dover Air Force Base in Deleware, where the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System will hopefully make some new identifications in order to bring closure to the families.
"Whenever we come out here, we're collecting between 350 and 400 individually bagged portions," said Katherine Grosso with the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System. "When you consider how many specimens that may be submitted to the Armed Forces DNA identification laboratory, we have thousands of chances to find a new ID. After this year, the yield has been very good, we're hopeful that we'll get at least a couple of new identifications out of this. There will always be re-associated remains from previously identified service members, and so we'll be able to provide those as well to the families."
Before they're bagged, artifacts and human remains are tagged with GPS coordinates so the team can track where the remains are moving from year to year in order to determine how many more years they'll continue this operation, but officials say they'll keep going out at least until all 52 service members are identified.
"We will never forget, no matter how hard times get in America, we will never forget loved ones, service members that die for our country, and we will do whatever it takes to get them home," said Staff Sgt. Isaac Redmond.
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