Presidential recognition finally comes for 28 who died in Texas Tower #4 collapse in 1961

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 9, 2011; 9:36 PM

Little things can mean a lot, even when those little things are a long time coming.

Such is the case with a three-paragraph letter President Obama wrote to the organization representing sending to the families of 28 men who died in 1961 when a Cold War radar station crashed into the sea.

Although it was called Texas Tower #4, the radar tower was about 85 miles off the coast of New Jersey. The Air Force personnel and civilian contractors on the tower were part of the nation's defense against a possible attack by the Soviet Union.

It's taken more than 10 years to win presidential recognition of their sacrifice.

"As you reflect on the 28 airmen and civilians who lost their lives half a century ago in this tragic event, I hope you take pride in your efforts to remember their service and sacrifice," Obama wrote.

Securing this simple letter was no mean feat. Donald Slutzky, who previously worked on the tower, and his wife, Ruth, have been trying to get presidential recognition since Bill Clinton was in office. When he was vice president, Al Gore did write a personal letter to the families and had flags flown over the Capitol in honor of those who died on the tower, but presidential recognition was missing, Slutzky said.

"I wrote a letter to President Bush. No response," he said. "I tried to get to the vice president. No response."

Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) also repeatedly pressed the White House beginning in 2000, along with other senators, only to be ignored. That changed in July when the Air Force, on the recommendation of the Obama White House, sent letters honoring the men to surviving family members.

Not satisfied with that, Kerry in October again pressed for presidential recognition. It must take a long time to write three paragraphs in the White House, but the letter, signed by Obama on Feb. 4, at last has been written.

"I'm thrilled," said Don Abbott, past president of the Texas Tower Association. "I could never understand" why Clinton and Bush did nothing, he said. "I've been working for 50 years on this."

Letters for the families from Obama, and another one from Kerry, will be delivered to Abbott at his home in Malden, Mass., next week. Abbott will distribute the letters to the families.

Abbott's father, David Abbott, was one of those who died on the tower. He was a civilian welder who would live on the tower six months at a time. Perhaps Obama's letter will help make up for the insensitive way in which the Abbott family and other families were treated at the time of the tragedy.

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