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.
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Paul Cocker, lead planner for Operation Colony Glacier, expects the effort to continue for years.
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.
"We don't know how far up the glacier the debris field, if you will, may exist," Cocker said. "A good estimate would be three to give more years, just based on what we've seen over the past four summers. I don't think anybody would be able to predict exactly how long this will go."
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.
While the weather can limit how long teams can spend on the glacier, there were no major problems this year, Cocker said.
"We only had one day that we couldn't operate due to weather conditions," he said. "Weather-wise, we couldn't have asked for anything better."
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."
Tonja Anderson-Dell is one of the families still waiting for her loved one to be identified. Her grandfather, Airman Basic Isaac Anderson, was on his way back to his family when the C-124 crashed.
Anderson-Dell has spent 15 years trying to find out more about her grandfather and the other service members on the plane. She created the website Finding Those We Lost, which features news stories about the efforts to recover all 52 service members.
She doesn't know if her grandfather's will ever be identified because some of the service members' remains may be in nearby Lake George, she told Air Force Times. Still, she is hopeful that her grandfather will come home.
Even though the crash happened more than 60 years ago, she and other families are still waiting for closure, she said. She and the rest of the families of the missing service members want to give their loved ones a true final resting place.
"For 60-something years, they've been missing on the side of a mountain in a glacier," she said. "It's always been an unknown. To have them come home would be closure because they're now where they're supposed to be, with their loved ones."