Operation Colony Glacier: Bringing servicemembers home

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. John Gordinier
  • Alaskan Command Public Affairs

Operation Colony Glacier, an annual mission to recover remains and aircraft debris from a 1952 crash of a U.S. Air Force C-124 Globemaster II onto Colony Glacier, began June 5 and is scheduled to continue until June 30.

Fifty-two military servicemembers lost their lives when the C-124 crashed into Mt. Gannett, just 40 miles from its destination of Elmendorf Air Force Base. The crash debris was hidden for 60 years until an Alaska Army National Guard helicopter discovered the wreckage during a training mission in the summer of 2012. The search for remains and wreckage continues every summer by personnel from Alaskan Command, the Alaska National Guard, Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations, U.S. Army Alaska, 673d Air Base Wing, and 3rd Wing.

“The planning for this year’s operation began in December, 2016, and culminates this week as we transition to the operational aspect of the mission,” said Army Maj. Stephen Magennis, Operation Colony Glacier project officer.

This is truly a multi-component, joint operation, he said. The Air Force Mortuary Affairs Office is the lead agency for the recovery of remains to the families in a dignified manner. Alaskan Command is the headquarters in charge of resourcing and executing the operation on behalf of Headquarters, Air Force, and the United States Northern Command. The Alaska National Guard provides the lift assets to transport the team daily in addition to conducting assessment flights in the months prior. The 673rd ABW and 3rd Wing provide mostly general support to include building containers to collect debris, storing potential human remains at the hospital for movement back to Dover AFB, Del., and movement support of connexes to support team ops.

The icy landscape, crevasses, unpredictable weather and the ever-changing environment of the glacier presents very unique challenges to the mission and Magennis said, “Safety of our team is paramount and the number one priority.”

To help with safety, an expeditionary weather team from the 3rd Operational Support Squadron was inserted with a cold weather sustainment container near Colony Glacier June 3, Magennis said. The weather personnel provide the team daily reports to ensure safe insertion and extraction by the Alaska National Guard helicopters.

The Alaska National Guard 1-207 Aviation Battalion will insert nine to 10 members of Team Colony Glacier each day, six days per week, weather permitting, until all debris and remains are recovered or the ice conditions become too unstable to safely conduct recovery operations.

“We established a temporary flight restriction from May until October,” Magennis said. “It’s important sight-seeing aircraft give the area a wide berth so as not to disturb the on-ice team or create potential safety of flight hazards during military helicopter operations. From a dignity perspective, it’s important that we recognize this area as hallowed ground and respect the servicemembers who lost their lives and their families. Disturbing the site impedes dignified recovery of remains and sets back future operations where remains of U.S. servicemembers are still to be recovered and identified.”

According to Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations, since the wreckage discovery in 2012, 37 of the 52 servicemembers have been identified and plans are to continue Operation Colony Glacier as long as debris and remains appear on the ice or until extraction becomes too dangerous.

“This certainly is a unique and worthwhile mission,” Magennis said. “It’s an honor to play a small part in recovering, identifying and returning our servicemembers to their families.”