B-47 Crash Memorial dedicated

COMFREY – The daughter of a U.S. Air Force officer who died in a B-47 crash in a farm field 50 years ago talked fondly about the reaction she got from Comfrey residents at a memorial dedication Sunday in the city park.

“Wow, I’m just filled with gratitude,” said Tammy Maher of California, the daughter of First Lt. Thomas J. Hallgarth.

“Comfrey Mayor Art Lilla sent my mother a beautiful letter 50 years ago. I felt connected to the citizens of Comfrey because of their passion and heart as a young child, since that time and when I came back here this weekend. For many years, my dream was to connect with all these other survivors here and now it’s happening. God is so good, giving us comfort. … Thanks to everyone who came here and helped with this. It’s a gift to us all,” Maher said.

Brown County Veterans Service Officer Greg Peterson, an Air Force retiree, talked about what it was like to lose his best friend in a military aviation crash. He and his children presented Maher and other daughters of the officers with prints including the poem “I Flew” by Col. Brad Becker.

Maher said she knows her children will bring their children and future generations will return to the memorial in the park. The memorial was created by Comfrey artist Doug Callanan and Julia Gustafson of St. Cloud.

Daughters of two of the other three Air Force officers who died in the crash spoke briefly at the ceremony that drew hundreds of people from near and far. Markers with the likenesses of the bomber’s crew plus an historical marker were dedicated.

Doves were released. They continued to circle the park as a BT-13 Valiant and another small plane flew over the park for several minutes.

On Feb. 20, 1963, a B-47 jet bomber with a four-man crew crashed three miles northwest of Comfrey while on a high-speed, low-level simulated bombing mission from the 98th Bomber Wing at Lincoln (Neb.) Air Force Base.

The crew finished flying the bombing route over Heron Lake, 45 miles southwest of Comfrey and was climbing back to high altitude when the right outboard engine mount failed. The engine spun around the wing, putting the plane into an uncontrollable, spiraling descent. The crash created a 50-foot wide and 25-foot deep crater, according to crash accounts.

The pilots, Capt. Donald L. Livingston and First Lt. Michael R. Rebmann were able to eject, but they did not survive the below zero temperature and 35 mph winds.

Hallgarth, a navigator, was out of his ejection seat replacing computer amplifiers for the next part of the flight. Instructor Navigator Lt. Col. Lamar Ledbetter, did not have an ejection seat. Neither man was able to escape the aircraft due to extreme “G” forces of the airplane.

U.S. Air Force Brigadier General Bob Cayton said military aviation is much more dangerous than commercial aviation and that there will always be military aviators trained and ready to answer the call to duty.

“People are our most valuable resource. Equipment can always be replaced,” Cayton said.

Retired Civil Air Patrol Incident Commander Col. Gerald Quilling said the six-jet engine plane capable of flying at 500 mph, was the first swept wing aircraft.

A piece of the B-47 marks the crash site northwest of Comfrey, just south of 130th Street. Gordan Jones of New Ulm was among dedication-goers who visited the crash site after the event.

“I was a member of the Air Force Military Police, based in Omaha when the crash happened,” Jones said. “Early the next morning, we flew to Sioux Falls and rode in a caravan to Comfrey to help patrol the area. The crater was glowing like lava for several days.”

Richard (Dick) Wilbrecht of New Ulm, a member of the U.S. Air Force and Minnesota Wing, Civil Air Patrol (CAP) Auxiliary, said he and several local CAP members went to Comfrey as soon as they learned about the crash the day it happened.

“The Brown County Sheriff’s Dept. had ‘ground zero’ secured, but about one square mile of wreckage was not,” said Wilbrecht. “We noticed many civilians driving or walking through the site, picking up pieces of wreckage for souvenirs. We immediately told them to leave anything they picked up and exit the scene at once, as it was a classified area.”

Wilbrecht said a pool of jet fuel was burning in the bottom of a large hole at the crash site. A nearby debris field was so large, it was almost overwhelming.

“It was hard to imagine a bomber this large could disintegrate into unrecognizable pieces…” Wilbrecht said. “The Air Force, Boeing Aircraft Co. engineers and more CAP personnel arrived later that day. We formed a shoulder-to-shoulder grid search of the area and found the remains of the remaining crew members in a few hours.

Wilbrecht said a farmer who owned the field where the crash happened was plowing his field a few years after the crash and found a jet engine fan blade.

(Fritz Busch can be e-mailed at fbusch@nujournal.com).

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