Searching for a Home for a World War II Memorial
The final resting place for a memorial to 40 U.S. soldiers killed in a World War II air crash remains in limbo, as the Army recently rejected proposals to place the granite stone at Arlington National Cemetery or nearby Fort Myer.
On June 14, 1943, an Army Air Forces B-17C Flying Fortress aircraft took off from Mackay, Australia, shuttling U.S. troops who had been on rest and recuperation leave back to the fighting in New Guinea. The plane crashed at Bakers Creek, Australia, shortly after takeoff. There was a sole survivor.
Although the accident was the worst crash in the Southwest Pacific during the war and remains Australia's worst air disaster, it was largely unreported in the United States because of wartime restrictions on disclosing troop movements.
The fate of the soldiers has been brought to light in recent years in part by Robert Cutler, a Potomac resident and former professor at George Washington University. His father, Army Air Forces Capt. Samuel Cutler, ran the recreation facility in Mackay for U.S. service members and was the last man to see those aboard the plane.
Sam Cutler was haunted by the fate of the soldiers, as his son discovered while reading his father's wartime diary.
"I put the men on the ship, and so had a direct part in sealing their fate," Cutler wrote. "Also, I was at the scene of the crash and saw the mangled bodies, killed while flying at 200 miles per hour. Terrible."
Intrigued, Bob Cutler began researching the crash, which was kept classified by the U.S. government until 1958. Working with other volunteers who had connections to the crash, he pieced together the history and contacted family members, many of whom had never heard what happened to their loved ones. They created the Bakers Creek Memorial Association and raised money for a memorial similar to one Australia placed at the crash site in 1992.
A piece of pink Queensland granite, for use as a pedestal for the memorial, was donated by the governments of Australia and the state of Queensland. The names of the crash victims were inscribed on a plaque. The memorial, about 5 feet high and 4 feet wide, now sits in the District at the Australian Embassy, which is considered foreign soil. The Bakers Creek association has pushed to have it moved to U.S. soil.
A letter signed by five U.S. senators was sent to Secretary of the Army Pete Geren on Nov. 2, asking that the Army select a site and noting that the memorial association preferred that the memorial be placed at Arlington Cemetery or Fort Myer.
The Army said it will not place commemorative monuments in Arlington without congressional authorization.
"Unfortunately, the placement of monuments in ANC would take away ever-decreasing land that is needed for burial purposes," Assistant Secretary of the Army John Paul Woodley Jr. wrote in a Nov. 27 letter.
Woodley's reply said that although the Army had considered Fort Myer, the best solution would be to accept an Air Force offer to fly the memorial to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, and house it at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.
"It appears that the most viable option, and one with relevance to military aviation, is the Air Force's national museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base," Woodley wrote.
But Cutler, executive director of the association, says that Wright-Patterson is not the right home for the memorial.
"What's wrong is simply it's not Arlington," Cutler said in a telephone interview from his winter home in Las Cruces, N.M. What's wrong is foisting it on the Air Force, "when it's an Army issue."
Cutler said the association plans to make a renewed push for Fort Myer, which has its own tie to aviation history and tragedy.
The Fort Myer parade grounds were the site of the first military test flight of an aircraft in September 1908, when Orville Wright succeeded in keeping the plane aloft for 1 minute 11 seconds. The second flight ended with a crash that injured Wright and killed his passenger, Lt. Thomas Selfridge, in the first powered-aviation fatality.
"We're going to write an appeal to the Army, asking them to reconsider Fort Myer on the basis that this is part of Army aviation history," Cutler said.
Later Cutler added in a message to memorial supporters, "Pity, they couldn't find room for a [small] granite marker anywhere in the Ft. Myer Historic District."
Change of Assignment
This marks the last Military Matters for the time being, as the column goes on hiatus while The Washington Post increases its coverage of local military affairs in the daily newspaper.
Military Matters, The Post's column for and about issues of importance to the military community in the Washington region, began in 1998 and continued until 2004, when I went on leave to write the book, "The Pentagon: A History," which was published last June by Random House.
Since the column was relaunched last year, I've had the privilege of relating many stories of memorable people and brave actions. Among those people are Robert W. Riddle of Springfield, who spoke out on his deathbed in defense of the treatment he received at beleaguered Walter Reed Army Medical Center; Army 1st Sgt. Bruce L. Reges who, with the help of his mother, Jean Burn, of Reston, is giving out puppets to Iraqi children in an effort to foster better understanding of U.S. troops deployed in their nation; the Dixon family of Howard County, which now has a father and two sons serving in Iraq; Michael Francis "Moe" Collins of Anacostia, who disappeared in 1942 with his crewmates aboard the USS Grunion, a submarine whose wreckage was recently found in the waters off Alaska's Aleutian Islands; and the soldiers of the 76th Infantry Division, veterans of the Battle of the Bulge, who came to the District in the fall for a final reunion.
I look forward to writing more such stories in the future. As always, I welcome your suggestions and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.