Crash Memorial Without Permanent Home
Tuesday, September 25, 2007; 3:17 AM
WASHINGTON -- It's a war memorial without a home.
When 40 U.S. soldiers died during World War II in a plane crash in Australia, even their families weren't told what happened. It took decades for them to find out.
Now, a memorial to their mission sits on the grounds of the Australian Embassy in Washington, waiting for someone to give it a permanent home.
The Senate is expected to vote on a measure this week pushed by Pennsylvania Sens. Arlen Specter and Bob Casey that would direct the Army to move the memorial from the embassy _ considered foreign soil _ to Arlington National Cemetery. Six of the victims were from Pennsylvania. The rest came from 22 other states.
Putting it at Arlington would bring long-needed closure to the victims' families, said Bob Cutler, executive director of the Bakers Creek Memorial Association.
"In today's world where military families are constantly being reminded by the military that we haven't forgotten you and we will return everything that's yours at the right time, this is unfinished business from World War II," said Cutler, whose late father helped direct the loading of passengers on the plane.
Cutler is among a group of individuals with ties to the plane crash who raised private dollars for the memorial and helped locate family members so they would know the circumstances of their loved one's death.
The B-17C Flying Fortress bomber, which had been converted to a transport plane, crashed on June 14, 1943, at Bakers Creek near Mackay in Queensland, Australia. It was shuttling troops back to New Guinea after they had taken leave on the beaches in Australia. One soldier survived.
The crash was the deadliest in Australian history and the worst single plane crash in the Southwest Pacific in World War II, according to a joint statement from the Pennsylvania senators.
Family members were notified of their loved one's death, but they were not told the circumstances. Cutler said the crash information was hidden because the U.S. military didn't want the Japanese to know that U.S. troops were in Australia who could then be a target, and to conceal the magnitude of the disaster as part of its propaganda effort.
Documents related to the crash weren't declassified until 15 years after the war, but even then the families weren't given additional information.
"What's tragic about this is the government never told them where or how their loved ones died in World War II. It was a hushed-up military secret," Cutler said.
The memorial, at the embassy since November after officials there volunteered to take it when a permanent place was not chosen by the military, is about 5 feet high and 4 feet wide and contains the names of the soldiers who died. The base is made of Queensland pink granite donated by the Australian government.
There is a similar memorial in Australia.
In 2006, Congress passed legislation authorizing the secretary of Army to pick a location, but it was not done, Cutler said.
Language directing the memorial be placed at Arlington passed the House. Specter, a Republican, and Casey, a Democrat, inserted the language into an amendment to the 2008 defense authorization bill.
Backers hope it will be at Arlington by June 14, the 65th anniversary of the crash.