DAFB personnel helping to identify remains from 1952 crash in Alaska

By Staff Sgt. Nicole Leidholm

DOVER AIR FORCE BASE — Airmen joined forces with soldiers, sailors and contractors this summer to search for additional remains from a crash that occurred nearly 70 years ago in Alaska.

On Nov. 22, 1952, a C-124 Globemaster II — with 52 passengers and crewmembers on board, took off from McChord Field and crashed into Mount Gannett while flying to Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska.

At the time of the crash, weather conditions prevented an immediate recovery with later search attempts unable to locate the crash site.
In 2012, an Alaska National Guard UH-60 Blackhawk crew spotted the aircraft wreckage on Colony Glacier while conducting a training mission in the area. Recovery operations were conducted and confirmed it was the missing C-124 crash site.

Every summer since that time, the Alaskan Command, AKNG personnel, Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations and Armed Forces Medical Examiner System personnel have supported Operation Colony Glacier.
Ongoing efforts have helped to identify 40 of the 52 service members.
“Based off the weather and the glacier itself, June has been the optimal time frame,” said Air Force Capt. Brian Scallion, AFMAO operations support division chief. “Prior to June, it’s still covered in snow and you’re not going to be able to see remains.

“After the end of June, with the way the glacier melts and shifts, there are huge crevasses that make it unsafe and a lot of melting, so June has been that sweet spot.”
Area personnel with the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System traveled to Alaska this June to begin the inventory process on remains found on Colony Glacier.

“The medical examiners visited Alaska to conduct an inventory of remains found, to confirm what we are receiving and also, we have an idea of the number of cases we are going to have when they arrive at Dover Air Force Base,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. (Dr.) Alice Briones, AFMES deputy director and medical examiner.

“It also allows us to know how many may be identified by fingerprint, or fingerprint and DNA for a self-reference or how many may be identified by bone versus teeth.”

Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations and the services career field are in charge of the recovery process while AFMES identifies the missing service members, according to Briones.

AFMES investigators were also involved in the recovery efforts on Colony Glacier.
“We were embedded with the recovery team on Colony Glacier to serve as the subject matter expert on human remains and advise the team on search and recovery,” said Carlos Colon, AFMES medicolegal death investigator.

“It’s their mission, they are in charge of the actual recovery and we served as advisors to them.”

Following the inventory at the 673rd Medical Group at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, a dignified carry for the remains was conducted by the JBER Honor Guard and 673rd MDG personnel before being escorted to Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, where AFMES could begin the process of identifying the remains.

“Once the remains arrive here, we separate everything and begin to examine them for possible identifications,” said U.S. Navy Cmdr. (Dr.)

Sherry Jilinski, AFMES medical examiner. “The next step we do is radiography to help us identify tissue to sample for DNA for the purpose of identification.”

Some remains have the potential to be fingerprinted for possible identification. The Federal Bureau of Investigation conducts the fingerprinting processes.
“I soak the remains in a solution to rehydrate the skin,” said Bryan Thomas Johnson, FBI major incident program manager. “As it rehydrates, it fills the fingertips back up with fluid so we can print the dermal layer.”

US Navy Cmdr. Dr. Sherry Jilinski looks for clues.

In the 1950s, officers had a full ten print card because they had background checks on them, said Johnson.
“Our hope is to get any prints of the remains because we never know,” said Johnson. “Certain officers only had right hand fingerprints taken depending what branch they were in, while the other services only took a right thumb print.”

Another challenge for Johnson, was the National Records Archive fire in 1978. Records from J down and H down were destroyed, said Johnson.
“Some records were salvaged, but I have one record that isn’t usable,” said Johnson. “You can see the char marks or the water damage where they caught it and saved it, but the corner with the thumb print is gone.”

Samples that can be submitted for possible DNA identification, are transferred to the current day operations in DoD DNA Operations.
“We will sample all remains, including soft tissue for possible DNA,” said Jilinski. “We have had better results with bone and teeth samples, so they are sampled first.”

Once in the laboratory, the DNA is removed, or extracted, from the cells using two different methods depending on the size of the sample.

“The size of the sample is taken into consideration so that the entire sample isn’t used” said Ursula Zipperer, AFMES DNA Operations laboratory casework administration and evidence manager. “This allows us to return the sample back to the families so they can have their loved one back.”

Detergent is used to break open the cells so the DNA can be removed and then isolated from other cellular material. The extracted DNA is used to generate a genetic profile which is compared to other profiles to identify the missing individual.

“It’s humbling to be out there, knowing these family members have been waiting so long to receive their loved one and I take pride in this mission,” said Colon.

“Working with human remains and service members is something I do every day, but this mission is so unique and special because it’s a chance for us to work closely with AFMAO and all our joint partners to bring these service members home. It’s really fulfilling.”

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