Ghosts of Rainier:
'God's monument' to 32 Marines
For the last half-hour, the pilot had been navigating solely by instrument. Fog had completely obscured his view. And now it was growing dark and the wings were icing over.
Four other Marine pilots flying into the fog, heavy snow and high winds that afternoon, Dec. 10, 1946, had turned back.
Maj. Robert V. Reilly, who had been flying for the Marines for five years, pushed on. He radioed for permission to go higher than 9,000 feet, hoping for better conditions above the clouds.
He said he was 30 miles south of Toledo, Wash., and would be landing his twin-engine R5C in Seattle in less than an hour.
In fact, 70-mph winds had pushed the transport plane east. He was somewhere around Randle, a town 63 miles east of Toledo in the foothills of the Cascades.
Reilly, his two crew members and 29 passengers were headed straight for Mount Rainier.
* * *
The passengers, mostly fresh-faced Marines just out of boot camp, had been assigned to this plane because they came at the end of the alphabet.
Leslie Simmons Jr. of Kalama, Wash., for example. Keith Tische of Marne, Mich. Duane Edwin White of Ottawa, Kan. Like Simmons, most of them were 18 and six months out of high school. Some had never flown before. A few, like Simmons, were pilots themselves.
Most were on their way to Seattle -- a 6 1/2-hour, non-stop flight from San Diego -- to be assigned to a base.
Six planes -- sturdy transports, each capable of flying 36 passengers and 4 tons of cargo 1,500 miles without stopping -- were making the trip that Tuesday morning. Reilly's plane, R5C 39528, was the second to take off.
His plane was said to be transporting the official records for all the Marines being reassigned in Seattle. Simmons had teased a friend before leaving San Diego that he was on the higher-ranking plane -- the one with all the paperwork.
Simmons, who had just been chosen for officer training school, was on furlough, headed to Kalama to surprise his parents and sisters for Christmas. His father had given him $50 for a bus ticket to come home the following week, but Simmons went Christmas shopping with the money, then caught a free ride to Seattle aboard the transport plane.
He was bringing his 11-year-old sister a friendship bracelet. He had bought his father a flight jacket. He had posed for portraits in his dress blues and was giving his mother a fancy photograph of himself.
The flight was rough, noisy and very cold. When the plane reached northern Oregon, a storm from the northwest required Reilly to fly by instrument.
Reilly, 29, was no stranger to difficult flying conditions. During the war, he had been based in Guam. He'd been a glider pilot, test pilot and commander of a special weapons division.
Although four other Marine planes turned back and landed in Portland, Reilly and another pilot, flying at 12,500 feet, continued on.
At 4:13 p.m., Reilly made a routine radio check with the Toledo range station. He said he was 30 miles south. He said ice was forming on the leading edges of the wings. He asked permission to fly higher than 9,000 feet -- a normal request for a plane that typically flies at 10,000 feet.
About 4:15, residents of Longmire and Paradise in Mount Rainier National Park reported hearing a plane struggle.
By 4:30, Reilly was supposed to have radioed the Civil Aeronautics Administration in Everett. Navy, Army and civilian stations called frantically, trying to reach him. His plane was due to land at Sand Point Naval Air Station at 5:06 p.m.
No one heard from the plane again.
* * *
The missing Marine plane was the top story in the Longview Daily News the next day. Leslie Ray Simmons Sr. read the story and learned the plane was coming from El Toro Marine Air Station near San Diego, where his son was based. He wondered aloud about the possibility that Leslie Jr. was aboard. That would be just like Leslie, he told his 11-year-old daughter, to come home early and not tell his family.
Simmons dismissed the idea because he knew his son was coming by bus the following week.
The horrible news arrived the next day. Edrie Simmons was at home alone when the phone rang. Her son had been aboard R5C 39528. Search teams were looking on Mount Rainier, but they had no idea what had happened to the plane.
In the next eight days, 10 feet of snow fell on Mount Rainier, and heavy rains flooded Longmire and the lowlands. Army and Coast Guard units couldn't search by air. Rangers were unable to cover much ground because of blizzards.
Families of the missing men held out hope that the plane had landed, not crashed, and that the Marines were holed up somewhere until the weather broke. Marines, after all, were tough. They were skilled in survival techniques. If anyone could survive the conditions, they could.
Meanwhile, crackpots were stomping painful messages in the mountain's snow. "We're all right," one read.
When two weeks of searches had produced nothing, a Boy Scout Explorer post hiked the Carbon Glacier on Mount Rainier's north side, looking for remnants of the plane. Meanwhile, Army and Navy units, having combed the area between Toledo and Mount Rainier, began an intensive aerial search of the Olympics.
Search efforts were scaled back in late December. Officials said snow would have covered any signs of an aircraft. They promised they'd begin looking again in the summer, when some of the snow had melted.
Carolyn Simmons had last seen her big brother in October. He'd brought her a wallet, engraved with her name, for her 11th birthday.
Now everything was different. She didn't understand why her mother always cringed when the phone rang. Or why Leslie -- who had skied and wrestled and hiked and flown airplanes, who had packed her school lunches and bossed her around, who had carried her on his shoulders when he skied down the slopes -- couldn't come home.
"I can remember lying in bed thinking: 'I'll never get to see him again,'" the little sister, now Carolyn Pope, said recently. "For a child, that's quite a realization."
Mary Margaret Reilly was too young to understand even that. She was 14 months old when her father's plane went down. He was supposed to begin holiday leave that week. The family of three was driving to St. Paul, Minn., his hometown, for Christmas.
Instead, Mary Margaret and her mom spent the holidays waiting for word on her dad. Within a month, Reilly's wife learned she was pregnant.
* * *
For many of the families, time stopped when the plane went down. In February, two months after the plane disappeared, one mother wrote of her anguish trying to reconcile the prevailing opinion that her son was dead with the feeling that he might be out there somewhere, needing her help.
She asked rangers whether the Marines could be in one of the ranger cabins on the mountain. "My son cries to me to save him, and I'm helpless in the face of all this," she wrote. "We think of them constantly and everything is stopped here til we do have some trace of them."
The families offered a $5,000 reward for finding the plane.
In July 1947, ranger Bill Butler, hiking on his day off, discovered wreckage nine or 10 miles into his hike on Mount Rainier's southwest side.
Among the items found immediately were a Marine's health records, fragments of a uniform and legible service records. They identified the plane as the missing Marine transport and confirmed the worst accident in Mount Rainier's history.
Officials believe the plane, traveling 195 mph, likely struck the cliff near the top of a glacier and crashed. Parts of the plane were scattered over a quarter-mile, at about 8,500 feet on the South Tahoma Glacier. There was no evidence it had burned.
Simmons' father and cousin and several other Marine families went to the mountain to watch the recovery efforts, and the Navy flew four of the mothers over Mount Rainier, giving them a fairly close view of the South Tahoma Glacier.
Three weeks later, someone spotted other pieces of the plane more than a mile up the glacier, below Point Success. The wreckage, covered by snow in July, was just emerging from the melting snow and ice in mid-August. South Tahoma Glacier, 4 miles long and with deep crevasses, had swallowed most everything else.
Park rangers and Navy officers surveyed the scene and reported recovery impossible without loss of life. A few family members refused to accept that recommendation; some asked for a second assessment by armed service and civilian mountaineers.
Navy officers complied, assembling 16 expert search-and-recovery climbers in late August. As the group approached the site, "boulders the size of a small house with the velocity of artillery shells" came down with a roar, a Navy officer reported. The slide missed them by inches.
Dodging rocks constantly, they found 11 decomposing bodies. The crew was compressed in the twisted wreckage of the nose. Seven men were still strapped to their seats, their lower bodies encased in ice. The other 21 were so entangled in the wreckage or completely imbedded in ice that they could not be removed.
The men had died in an instant, the searchers determined. But attempting to excavate the bodies would require as many as 75 people and days of digging in treacherous conditions. The searchers considered the alternatives: attempt recovery of all remains; bury the plane and bodies by dropping a bomb on the icefall above the wreck; cremate the bodies by dropping napalm bombs; leave everything and let nature take over.
Evacuation of all bodies, they said, would be impossible. Removing even a few would cause more deaths and could be delayed indefinitely because of fog and snow. Dropping a bomb on the icefall would affect a huge part of the mountain because the peak was so badly disintegrated. And cremating the remains went against the religious beliefs of some family members.
In spite of a Marine mantra -- Marines never leave their wounded or dead behind -- they recommended leaving the men on the mountain.
"There are no predatory animals at this altitude and insects, such as blowflies, cannot survive the cold nights, hence the mortal remains of these men will not be molested," one of the rangers wrote. "If the wreckage and the bodies are not completely covered by rock falls within a few days, they will definitely be covered by 15 to 25 feet of snow which will start to fall at that altitude early in September.
"By next spring, this snow will be compressed into several feet of glacier ice and there should be no visible evidence of this tragedy left."
Most Marine families, unwilling for anyone to die trying to recover the remains of their loved ones, agreed with the recommendation. Eight families officially requested that recovery efforts cease, that the men be buried together, and that the glacier be closed to all traffic.
In mid-August 1947, rangers and Navy officers removed as many personal belongings as possible, then moved 11 bodies a short distance from the wreck site. They were placed side by side on the ice and covered with snow and ice.
A few parents couldn't accept leaving their sons on the mountain and tried to hire professional climbers to bring out the remains. No one took their offers.
"Why couldn't they tunnel in this ice?" one mother wrote from the Midwest. "Falling rocks then would pass on over. A cable hanging from an airplane seems reasonable, with a hook and the bodies socked in heavy canvas."
She wrote repeatedly, suggesting ways to recover her son's body. "I think the rainfall will wash those bodies out of there or loosen them so that huge icebergs may fall. . . . I can never call it a closed book or chapter until they have a burial like all other average Americans."
Another mother answered her. Why insist on recovering the body? asked Ida Tische, whose son, Keith, was on the plane. "Since he must lie some place, why not leave him at rest on (the Marines') mountainside, above the flower-bedecked slopes where the deer graze quietly, and where the towering peak of Mount Rainier is God's own monument to him and his companions?"
The families tried to give the $5,000 reward to Bill Butler, the ranger who found the plane. He refused it, saying he wouldn't profit from their tragedy. So they bought him a Swiss watch.
Family members also chipped in for a stone memorial on Round Pass, facing South Tahoma Glacier. On Aug. 24, 1947, Marines and family members gathered there for a memorial service.
Robert Reilly's wife and daughter couldn't attend. That was the day Robert Reilly II was born.
* * *
The flowers began arriving in September 1947. Every month, Rolland and Ida Tische sent a bouquet to the Mount Rainier National Park administration building in memory of their son.
Many of the families, so grateful to Butler for finding the plane and the spot where their sons were buried, kept in touch with the ranger for years. The parents became a support group. Edrie Simmons was the unofficial secretary. She brought flowers to the annual memorials. She made a scrapbook of everything related to the crash. And when, in 1980, the park considered reopening South Tahoma Glacier to climbers, she led lobbying efforts -- successfully -- to keep out the curious.
About seven years ago, rangers found pieces of the Marine plane's fuselage miles from the crash site. The glacier, a mass of ice that flows downward, splitting open and closing again as the ice melts, then freezes, had spit one 5-inch piece of gray metal into Tahoma Creek. Another, larger piece showed up by the Nisqually River at the park boundary.
Over the years, glaciologists say, the plane and the remains of the Marines will move through the glacier, part of the mountain. Metal and bones, having been ground among the ice and rocks for decades, are unlikely to be recognizable.
By then, the Christmas cards exchanged among the Marine relatives, already dwindling, will have stopped. Carolyn Simmons Pope, a former flight attendant who is now 64, has inherited the scrapbook, the names and addresses of Marine families, the interest in keeping the memories alive. Not just for her brother, an extraordinary athlete and pilot who "had everybody convinced planes were safer than cars," Pope said.
The story -- the mountain's greatest tragedy -- is important for the branches of 31 other families, for Marines, for anyone interested in Mount Rainier.
Mary Margaret Reilly, the 14-month-old toddler who lost her father in the crash, is now a 54-year-old grandmother. For nearly 50 years, she didn't know the other Marine families were meeting every year for memorial services. She, her mother and little brother had moved a year after the crash, and a few years after that, her mother remarried.
Reilly, now Mary Greene, has read everything she can find about her father's flight, the crash, the search for the plane. She knows the bodies of the crew were identified and wonders what happened to her father's dog tags. She knows now that her father was pilot of the plane, not its co-pilot.
She also knows that one of the other crew members had a wife and four children. She doesn't know the names of those children or how she'd find them, but she wants to meet them.
At the 50th anniversary service in 1996, she introduced herself to some of the families. She met a former Marine who had known her father, who remembered him as a fun guy, a nice guy. The people on that plane were just kids, she said. "So many kids on that airplane."
Last August, she and her brother attended the dedication of the new Marine Memorial in Enumclaw. The original one overlooking South Tahoma Glacier is inaccessible -- except to backpackers willing to hike 4 1/2 miles -- because the road washed out several years ago.
The Mount Rainier detachment of the Marine Corps League agreed in 1998 to duplicate the original. A couple gave the league a 10,000-pound rock, much like the one on the mountain. A crane operator moved it, gratis, to Veterans Memorial Park, overlooking Mount Rainier. League members themselves carved the rock to make a flat face for the plaque.
At the service Aug. 21, 1999, Jack Warren, adjutant of the Mount Rainier detachment, talked about his fallen comrades and the circumstances of their crash. He unveiled the new monument, then called roll for the 32 who died.
Warren had asked family members and friends to shout "YO!" when he read the name of their loved one. Silence followed 27 names.
As has always been the case, Carolyn Pope was there to yell when Leslie Simmons' name was called. But this time, Mary Greene and her brother were there, too, to shout when they heard their father's name.
Robert Reilly II carried a white carnation to the foot of the monument, to honor the father he never knew.
And then he and the other family members stood silently as Marines fired a 21-gun salute and a band played taps.
P-I reporter Candy Hatcher can be reached at 206-448-8320 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Thursday, March 30, 2000
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