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

By Joe Davidson Joe Davidson
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.

Don Abbott said his mother learned of her husband's death, not from the Air Force or David's employer, but from her sister, who heard about it on the radio. Her sister called, according to Don, and told his mother: "Tower's down. Dave's dead."

"The Air Force never called my mom. The company never called my mom, never," Abbott said. "It was like these guys didn't exist."

In a letter to Abbott, Kerry said he is "inspired by the story of the men who served on the Texas Towers and played such an historic role in our Cold War air defense network."

But the tower couldn't defend itself from attacks by a force less forgiving than the Soviets - Mother Nature.

First came Hurricane Donna.

Slutzky, a civilian computer technician, was on the tower when Donna slammed it in September 1960.

"The hurricane passed right over us," he recalled. "It was a harrowing experience."

Donna shook loose a maintenance platform under the deck of the tower and banged the platform against one of the tower's legs.

"The tower leaned badly," Slutzky said. "From that moment on, we didn't know if we'd make it out or not."

They did, but after that the men had an uneasy relationship with the tower, which needed extensive repairs. By January 1961, the Air Force was shutting down the tower and many of its crew, including Slutzky, were gone. A repair team of 28 men replaced them.

Then the tower was hit by another big storm. What the hurricane started, this storm finished. Donna weakened the tower, which was called "Old Shaky," and it could not stand up to more violent weather. It collapsed into the Atlantic.

There was a small window of opportunity to evacuate the tower, but it didn't happen at least in part because of uncertainty within the Air Force chain of command, according to Slutzky, who is writing a history of the tower. He said an Air Force colonel was charged in relation to the deaths of the 28 men but was not convicted.

"It took 50 years to get some recognition for them," Slutzky said. "I feel like there is closure."

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