A Cold War Monument in the making

Secrecy surrounds plane crash 53 years ago in Las Vegas

Ellen Hamil

There’s a movement afoot – literally and figuratively – in Las Vegas, Nevada, to honor 14 men who lost their lives more than 53 years ago on Mt. Charleston, a mountainous recreation area 30 minutes north of the city.  They were en route from Burbank, California, to Area 51, a top-secret government facility in southern Nevada, when the C-54 Military Air Transport System (MATS) was blown off course in a dangerous early winter storm.  Clouds hid the steep mountain peaks and the pilot was in unfamiliar territory. When he spotted a break in the clouds he descended through the hole.  It was a fatal move; he had lost his bearings and the right wing propeller grazed the mountain side. The pilot gunned the engines to try to clear the summit, but Mt. Charleston proved to be just 50 feet too high.

Tall and sprawl — Mt. Charleston reaches for the heavens. (Ellen Hamil photo)

“What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” is a commercial message frequently flashed across our television screens. Its goal is to attract visitors and assure them their indulgences will remain secret. Las Vegas had secrets long before this advertisement hit the airwaves. The secrecy surrounding this plane crash was all encompassing.  As soon as news of the crash reached the entities involved, security agents converged on the site – or, because of the storm, as close as possible.  Roads to the area were closed and information relating to the incident was limited. Even the sheriff’s posse assigned the task of rescue or recovery was sworn to secrecy.  

The victims' families were given little if any information about why their loved one was on the plane and where it was going.  To understand why the secrecy surrounding this plane crash was paramount, you have to think about the year in which it occurred and what was happening in the world.  The year was 1955 and America was in the midst of the Cold War.

The shroud covering this mystery wasn’t lifted until 1998 when the CIA declassified the project.  What was this secret project?  The U-2.  And who were these men?  Air Force pilots, CIA employees, Lockheed and Hycon Manufacturing engineers and physicists.

The goal to honor these 14 men with a Cold War Monument on Mt. Charleston starts with the story of a young boy scout.

I knew nothing of this story when I signed up to take a trip to the Nevada Test Site. The notice in the newspaper read “Tour Nevada Test Site with Author”. The author was Kyril Plaskon;  the book: “Silent Heroes of the Cold War Declassified.”  Ky was present along with his wife, and Steve Ririe, chairman of the Silent Heroes and Cold War Memorial  Committee, among others.

We met at the Atomic Testing Museum on Flamingo at 7:30 a.m. where we signed in and received badges - to be worn at all times. We boarded the bus and were off.

Ky Plaskon and Ellen Hamil. (Steve Ririe photo)

While driving the approximately 1 ½ hours to Mercury, the entrance to the Test Site, Steve Ririe gave us some background. He is the protagonist in this story.

It started when Steve was a 12-year old boy scout who went with his troop on a trip to Mt. Charleston.  Mt. Charleston is a great place to picnic and camp in the summer.  At 10,000 feet it is a respite from the shimmering heat of the Mojave Desert. To motivate the young scout to make it around yet another switchback, the scout master told a story about how they would find the remains of a plane crash when they reached the summit. They did, and Steve picked up a couple of pieces of aluminum from the plane and put them in his pocket.  Years later he returned to the site as a scout master. This time he was the storyteller but it was a story without a beginning and few details about the end.  He often wondered what had happened in this remote area but the mystery didn’t obsess him until his third trip to the site in 1998. This time his sensory perceptions kicked in, and the site became more than the spot where a plane had crashed. It became the site of a tragic event. He was pretty sure people had been killed here and wanted to know more. He started asking around - friends, neighbors, co-workers – even strangers. Did anyone know about the crash? Everyone remembered the one in these same Spring Mountains that killed Carol Lombard and how an anxious Clark Gable spent the evening in a small bar close to the area of the crash site awaiting news of the fate of his glamorous wife.  But no one - not even long time residents - remembered anything about a plane crash on November 17, 1955.
Steve got his first break at a Boy Scout fundraiser when he met a man selling a book he wrote about Mt. Charleston.  The author told him it was rumored the men who perished worked for Lockheed and were en route to Area 51 (the top secret and not acknowledged government facility not far from Mt. Charleston and at the north end of the caldera that is the Nevada Test Site.)
Steve began making phone calls – lots of them… initially not making much progress.  Eventually a contact at Lockheed remembered that the CIA was a big customer during the 1950’s and their planes flew regularly between Burbank and the Test Site.

As a former employee of the CIA, I can’t imagine picking up the phone and calling the Agency.  These days it’s hard enough to get through to a utility company.  But Steve did - and lo and behold he struck gold.  If the U-2 was the topic, “everything to do with it was declassified in 1998” he was told, and all the files were sent to Maxwell Air Force Base  in Montgomery, Alabama.  A call to the Base was answered by someone unfamiliar with the files but who offered to take a look to see what he could find. It could take time.  Steve was getting close and he was excited.  Just two days later, Steve’s call was returned and he was told there was a 157-page document dealing with the crash that he would receive in the mail. The mystery surrounding the plane crash on Mt. Charleston many years ago would soon be revealed.

The 157-page report had been prepared by two majors.  What he received was not redacted and contained reports about the plane, weather reports, flight path, time of departure from Burbank, where it was headed, communications with traffic controllers along the way and who the passengers were.  It was all there on yellowing pages.

What happens next gives the story a twist.  Coinciding with receipt of the report from Maxwell AFB, Steve had a call from his contact at Lockheed. They had an employee –  Bryan Kreimendahl - whose father was one of the victims. Steve got in touch with Bryan and it was this fateful conversation that helped plant the seed for the Cold War Monument.   Bryan was left speechless after hearing what Steve told him.  He had never heard any of the details of his father’s death…not from his mother, not from Lockheed and not from the CIA.  He didn’t know what his father did, why he was on that plane or where it was going.  Steve was just as speechless as Bryan. This was the first person Steve had found who had a connection with the crash; it seemed incredible the family knew so little about the event.  Steve felt that if he were in their place he would want to know. There were 13 more victims and he was determined to find their families.

How would you feel if the telephone rang, you answered it and a stranger from Las Vegas, Nevada, asked if you were related to someone who perished in a plane crash 45 years ago on a mountain just north of that city?  That someone might have been a son, father, brother, uncle, grandfather.  I can imagine the range of emotions racing through the mind of the person holding the receiver. The painful re-entry into a world of grief that time had actually helped to heal.

This was the scenario played out in 2001 by Steve with the help of Marian Kennedy whose hobby is researching genealogy.

One by one, Steve and Marian found the families.  Their reactions ran the gamut.  Some were bitter, some relieved; all could be described as “anxious.” What Ky has done in his book “Silent Heroes of the Cold War – Declassified” is devote a chapter to each victim, including the reactions Steve and Marian received when they made contact with the families.  Eventually their apprehension about contacting the families was replaced with compassion. Later Steve realized the families needed something more than information relayed by telephone and email. He felt closure was only possible if the families could meet in Las Vegas and visit Mt. Charleston and the actual site.

In 2001 the trip became a reality. It was a profound undertaking – joining the extended network of families – providing them with a new-found pride in the vicissitudes of life as it related to their family members, and pride too to Steve and Marian for their efforts in caring enough to contact the families who had been deprived of information about their loved ones for many, many years.

It’s natural that the outcome of all of this be a monument to commemorate these 14 men who died in service to their country.  The committee to establish a national monument has brought in the U.S. Forest Service to procure the land, design of the monument is in the works and the prediction is that next year there may be a dedication of a monument with 14 stars on one side and one large one on the other to honor all other unsung heroes of the Cold War. The site for it is located in lower Kyle Canyon on a section of Mt. Charleston that overlooks the Nevada Test Site and Area 51.

Steve L. Ririe, Chairman, Cold War Monument Committee. (photo provided by S. Ririe)
Despite the approximate 3,000 miles that separate New Hampshire from Nevada, we are all survivors of the Cold War and some of us may have some unsung heroes in our midst. Remember the “duck and cover” routines in school, bomb shelters, and jets from the SAC Base at Pease screeching through the night to head off a Soviet plane or missile, the Cuban Missile Crisis?  None of us was exempt from the possibility of a war of annihilation.  The U-2 project was vital to keeping the Soviet Union in check about its claims of far-reaching missiles.  President Eisenhower said he received more intelligence from the U-2 program than he did anything else and it is still in existence today.

If anyone wishes to make a tax deductible donation to this effort, mail your check to Silent Heroes of the Cold War, 9425 Deer Lodge Lane, Las Vegas, NV  89129. Silent heroes, unsung heroes, or forgotten heroes, they deserve the recognition this monument promises to deliver.

Thanks to Steve Ririe and Ky Plaskon for providing information for this article.

February, 2009
See Letters in March, 2009