Daughter finds closure six decades after dad's death in top-secret crash

05/28/2012 12:00 AM

05/29/2012 11:33 AM

More than six decades after his death, Betty Pollard Wheeler has finally said farewell to her father. A casualty of an ill-fated Cold War air mission – and of the jittery uncertainty of the early years of the atomic age – he is finally at rest this Memorial Day.

Air Force Staff Sgt. Elbert W. Pollard, known to everyone as Wayne, was buried with full military honors at the San Francisco National Cemetery in the Presidio on Friday. He was one of five airmen killed after parachuting from a crippled B-36 Peacemaker bomber on a practice mission off the coast of British Columbia in 1950.

Their bodies were never recovered, although in 1952 a Canadian fisherman found a parachute from the mission tangled with a left boot containing human remains. The bones were interred in a group memorial in a St. Louis military cemetery, beneath a marble gravestone in an expanse of small white crosses.

For decades, the families didn't know whose loved one's remains were there. But the uncertainty ended in February, when the Air Force Mortuary Service informed Wheeler of a DNA match with her father's half-brother.

"It's such a gift to me to know," said Wheeler, a 63-year-old nurse practitioner who lives in Citrus Heights. She was 20 months old when her father died.

"I've been given my father after all these years. As a child, you never lose the longing to know your father. It's a happy thing that's happened now."

With the identification of his remains, the mystery of his death draws to a close for Betty Wheeler, his only child.

A surprising number of military families never have real answers. According to the Defense Department's Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office, 83,435 service members remain unaccounted for from past conflicts, including 73,681 from World War II and 126 from the Cold War.

America's recent wars haven't yielded high numbers of missing. Only one serviceman – Sgt. Bowe R. Bergdahl, who was captured by the Taliban in June 2009 – is listed as missing in Afghanistan. The remains of the only soldier missing in Iraq, a linguist captured in Baghdad in 2006, were recovered earlier this year.

Because they were lost during a peacetime training mission, the names of the crewmen from the doomed B-36 in early 1950 were not included on POW/MIA lists.

But the crash was big news at the time, both in Canada and in Texas, where the 17-man crew was based.

"Daddy's Missing," read the banner headline from a Fort Worth newspaper. Next to the story was a picture of a young mother, dark-haired and sad, holding 20-month-old Betty on her lap while two older girls, Wheeler's half-sisters, nestled close.

"You can look at my mother's face and see her grief," said Wheeler.

A secret mission

The B-36 left Eielson Air Force Base outside Fairbanks late on Feb. 13, 1950, heading down the West Coast in miserable weather. Its top-secret mission, kept classified for years, involved a simulated atomic bombing run, one of many carried out amid the growing tensions of the Cold War.

Six hours into the flight, as the clock ticked midnight, three of the plane's six engines iced up and malfunctioned.

Dick Thrasher, one of two crew members who survive today, remembers watching as the B-36's payload, a 11,000-pound bomb, detonated in a cloud deck after it was jettisoned over the ocean, lighting up the stormy night.

The pilot told the crew they had to bail out over the islands dotting the coast of British Columbia. A dozen airmen, including Thrasher, ended up in the remote wilderness of Princess Royal Island and were located within days by the Canadian coast guard.

But the first men to jump – including 27-year-old rear gunner Wayne Pollard, a World War II veteran who had spent 13 months in a German prisoner of war camp – were blown back into the ocean by gale-force winds.

"We thought they were going to find those guys and bring them home," said Thrasher, 90, who lives near Fort Worth. "We still had hope for them."

The five missing airmen were declared dead in 1951.

Thrasher and other crew members assumed that the B-36, left on automatic pilot, had crashed into the sea. But it hadn't: In 1953, the wreckage was found 212 miles to the north on the side of a mountain, half-buried in snow. It was another year before an Air Force team made its way up Mount Kologet, recovered components from the B-36 and blew up what was left.

"It was known at the time that the flight was top secret," said Ann Ascol Rodenberg, 65, a Maryland woman whose father, Lt. Holiel Ascol, also perished in the icy ocean that night in 1950.

"The wives of the missing men weren't happy the Air Force stopped looking for their husbands so quickly. But the military didn't want the public to know what was going on."

Not for another five decades would declassified reports reveal that the doomed B-36 was the Air Force's first so-called "broken arrow" incident, involving the loss of a possible nuclear weapon.

As it turns out, the crew was on a simulated bombing run from Alaska down the West Coast to culminate in the mock drop of an atomic weapon near San Francisco. Because it was a training exercise, the bomb that crewmen watched light up the clouds did not carry the plutonium core required for a nuclear explosion.

"If the plutonium core had been involved, there would have been more effort put into finding the wreckage," said Frank Tims, co-founder of the American Cold War Veterans association.

Long-awaited answers

After Wayne Pollard was declared dead, his widow, Betty Jane, married an airman named Eldon Wheeler. In the early 1960s, after leaving the military, he moved the family to Sacramento.

Betty Pollard Wheeler has the wispiest of memories of being held in Pollard's arms in the warm water of the Gulf of Mexico when she was tiny. But except for that, Wheeler is the only father she remembers. He died in 2010.

"I loved him," she said.

What she knows of her own father is sketchy. He was shot down over Germany during World War II and learned to play bridge in a POW camp. He was quiet and smart. He told crew members that he wanted to leave the Air Force at some point and study engineering. He was devoted to his family.

Wheeler's mother died in 2000, never knowing more about Wayne Pollard's death than what the Air Force told her a half-century earlier.

"My mother talked about my father through the years," said Wheeler. "She never got over that loss."

Neither did Pollard's family.

"My mother never fully accepted it," said Jerry McGlasson, 71, Pollard's half-brother, a police chief in a small town outside Fort Worth. "She knew he was gone, but she never fully accepted not having a body to bury.

"I wish she could have lived to see this."

The answers came because Rodenberg, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, demanded them. Because of her efforts, the remains buried outside St. Louis were exhumed in July 2001, and blood samples were taken from the deceased crew members' maternal relatives.

"I wanted to know who this was," she said. "These remains belong to a family, and they need to be where a family can honor him."

Over the past decade, the Defense Department's Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii – which investigates cases of missing American service people from past wars – performed a series of DNA tests on the bones. It took that long for the science to evolve and progress enough to confirm a match, said Allen Cronin, chief of the U.S. Air Force Mortuary Service's past conflicts branch.

On Feb. 13, hours before the 62nd anniversary of the B-36 incident, he called Betty Pollard Wheeler to tell her that the lab had identified her father's remains.

Wheeler was aware only that Jerry McGlasson had long ago been asked to provide a blood sample. She was delighted with the news, then overcome with emotion.

"I was astonished how much emotion there is," she said. "Over the years, I've thought about my father so many times."

She has since struck up an email relationship with Rodenberg.

"I'm happy she has her father back," said Rodenberg. "I'm disappointed it's not my father, but I'm ecstatic for her."

In advance of her father's Memorial Day weekend burial, Wheeler at last was able to sift through the items from the small trunk her mother saved containing mementos of her father: photographs, yellowed and moldy newspaper clippings about his disappearance, his dress uniform, his log book, a faded bomber jacket.

"It's an incredible gift to have my father back," she said. "I didn't realize I was longing for him after so many years."

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