A U.S. airman’s remains are on their way to Minnesota for burial, having been freed more than 60 years later from the debris of a doomed Korean War-era aircraft that crashed in the Alaska mountains.
A memorial service and burial with full military honors are scheduled for Saturday in Arlington for Airman 2nd Class Verne C. Budahn, a 19-year-old Air Force mechanic killed in the crash with 51 others on Nov. 22, 1952.
For each of the past few years during a narrow window in June, Budahn’s remains and those of others on board have been steadily recovered from the site where a C-124 Globemaster cargo plane went off course and slammed into a mountainside in stormy and foggy conditions east of Anchorage.
The plane was the third military aircraft to crash or vanish in the rugged terrain in a three-week span, leaving 91 people dead or missing.
Budahn was working his way back to his base in Alaska after a short leave to spend time back home west of the Twin Cities with his parents, Arlington Mayor Vernon and Myrtle Budahn. The gigantic aircraft was en route to Elmendorf Air Force Base outside of Anchorage from McChord Air Force Base near Seattle with 11 crew and 41 passengers aboard for the 1,500-mile flight.
Difficult weather thwarted immediate recovery attempts of any wreckage or remains in the weeks and months after the crash, and any thought of taking such a risk was off the table for decades to come.
But after an onset of glacial melting, an Alaska National Guard helicopter crew spotted wreckage while on a training mission on June 9, 2012, over the Colony Glacier. Three days later, another Alaska National Guard team landed at the site to photograph the area where they found evidence of the C-124’s wreckage.
In 2013, further evidence of the crash was visible, prompting military recovery efforts every June in what has come to be known as Operation Colony Glacier, and the pursuit of remains for the last 10 continues.
Budahn’s family members started getting word early this year that his remains were among those confirmed to have been located.
Joan Budahn, whose late husband was one of Verne’s brothers, said she never met the long-missing airman, and until word came that his remains had been located, “it never dawned on me, but ... now all of a sudden, he’s my brother-in-law.”
Bruce Budahn, one of Verne Budahn’s nephews, said that Ruben Garza, a civilian mortuary specialist at the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, joined a family reunion in the Denver area on Saturday and announced that their loved one’s dog tags had been recovered.
The reaction among the few surviving and younger kin was rather subdued, Bruce Budahn acknowledged, but it was still “a part of history a lot of families don’t get to experience. And it’s certainly closure for the family.”
Verne Budahn was one of five brothers growing up in the family home. The last surviving brother, Alvin, is battling dementia but intends to be at the funeral. It was a sample of Alvin’s DNA along with the dog tags that proved vital in verifying the identity of his brother’s remains, Garza said.
The remains will be flown on a military aircraft Thursday from the East Coast to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport ahead of burial about 60 miles to the west at Saturday’s 2 p.m. graveside service at Arlington Public Cemetery.
Once the casket is lowered into the ground, over it will go a marker that will have been moved from another location in the cemetery. It’s been there since 1953, when the community chose not to wait for Verne Budahn’s return and held a memorial service for its missing airman.
Garza said it’s at that time when he intends to present the family with the dog tags.
“We owe it to our service members and mostly to family members,” Garza said, “to find our missing and return them home.”