The gravestone next to his mother has been waiting for him for more than 60 years. On Saturday, the remains of Army Pvt. Leonard Kittle of Caney, Kan., finally will be placed beneath it.
The shift of a glacier in Alaska two years ago released the remains of a C-124A Globemaster cargo plane that crashed on a mountain near Anchorage in 1952, killing Kittle and 51 other military personnel. DNA testing in April confirmed Kittle’s identity.
Surviving family members said they have been through an emotional cycle, churning from surprise and joy that the plane was found through a new round of grief, followed by a sense of relief that DNA testing ultimately identified him, and finally happiness that he is home and they can get some closure.
“We can put him to rest beside his mother,” said Kittle’s wife, Sandra Kozak, 79, who lives in East Troy, Wis. “She never believed he got on that plane. She thought he had amnesia and was living in Canada. She believed that till the day she died. There was no body, and she just couldn’t accept that.”
This summer is the fourth that U.S. troops and civilians have combed Colony Glacier in Alaska to recover wreckage and identify 52 service members aboard a C-124 Globemaster II that crashed in 1952.
The mission was launched after the plane's wreckage was rediscovered in 2012. Every summer since then, military members and civilians have returned to the crash site to remove debris and human remains.
The glacier moves between 200 and 300 meters each year, and as it recedes, more of the wreckage becomes exposed, Cocker told Air Force Times on July 1. There's no way to tell how long it will take for all the wreckage to become unearthed.
Service members recovered between 4 and 5 tons of debris during this year's operation, which lasted from June 8-25, Cocker said. Up to nine service members were tasked with collecting aircraft debris on the glacier, another 12 service members collected human remains and personnel effects, and dozens of others from the Army National Guard helped transport teams to the glacier and back.
The mission is about more than cleaning up a crash site, Cocker told Air Force Times. The operation's purpose is to provide resolution to the relatives of those who had been on board the C-124. So far, 17 of the 52 service members aboard have been identified and returned home.
"The main effort is to be able to identify and provide to the family members of the deceased whatever personal effects we can send to them, and just the knowledge that, yes, your loved one was found," Cocker said. "A lot of the guys on the aircraft maybe have brothers or sisters or even kids or grandkids that for the past 60 years don't really know what happened to their family member. Now we're providing them some of those answers."