Final Mission

The Crash of an Air Force B-52 Stratofortress in 1963

Dr. Joseph Wax will never forget the day he and his family hiked up Elephant Mountain near Moosehead Lake in Greenville during a summer vacation almost 22 years ago.

Some of the local residents had told them they would encounter the crash site where an Air Force B-52 Stratofortress had crashed on Jan. 24, 1963. But “nothing prepared us for what we found on that trail,” Joe recalled. He and his family did indeed come upon huge pieces of the bomber’s fuselage, the planes giant wheels, and the cockpit carefully preserved and adorned with US flags. They also saw a marker that listed the Air Force crewmen who survived and those who perished. “It was really quite overwhelming and powerful as an experience.”

Wax found all of the remnants of the B-52 bomber haunting and fascinating. Each summer that his family vacationed at their summer camp near Greenville, Joe would return to the crash site. He kept asking himself the same questions: Who were these men? What about their families? Why were they flying in northern Maine at that time?

“You visit the site, you can read their names, and see their ranks and what they did, but you can’t get a sense of who they were as people, and that’s what I wanted to do,” Joe explained.

“The more I learned, the more important I realized it was,” said Joe who lives in Oxford with his wife, Jerry. Joe, 60, is also an obstetrician and gynecologist with a Portland practice. He specializes in helping women deal with difficult pregnancies.

When Joe suffered a head injury in 2018, he and his wife spent some time at their Greenville summer camp to aid his recovery. As Joe gained his strength back in August, he decided to roll up his sleeves and write a book that would tell this story. What he found made for a compelling narrative. “It was an 18-month process from project conception to completion,” he said. The book was published in December 2019.

The events leading up to the crash seemed implausible at the time. Joe recalled that Capt. Jerry Adler, one of two survivors, told him they were going on a routine training mission that was like “making a quick trip to the grocery store.”

The B-52 bomber was piloted by Lt. Col. Dante “Dan” Bulli. The other crew members were Capt. Herbert Hanson, Major Bob Hill, Tech Sgt. Michael O’Keefe, co-pilot Major Robert Morrison, and Capt. Charles Leuchter.

The crew took off from the former Westover Air Force Base near Springfield, Massachusetts, just after 12 noon. The flight to northern Maine and back was set at 47.5 minutes. The B-52 bomber was flying at 27,000 feet as it flew over Concord, New Hampshire, the White Mountains, and Augusta toward the Moosehead Lake region. Visibility was clear with blue skies and scattered clouds. But suddenly, everything changed when the aircraft experienced violent wind turbulence that overwhelmed its rear tail assembly.

Trying to express the convergence of multiple unfortunate factors, Joe put it this way: “All of the pieces of swiss cheese lined up, and there was a hole, and they fell through it.”

Within minutes, Bulli gave the order to “Bail out! Bail out!” One by one, crew members hit their ejection seat buttons to exit the aircraft as it plummeted toward the side of Elephant Mountain. Bulli was the last to eject the B-52. As soon as the Air Force was made aware of the crash, search and rescue teams were mobilized quickly from the former Dow Air Force Base in Bangor, some 50 miles away from the crash site.

Maine State Police, firefighters, EMTs, and Greenville community members also aided the search effort along with the Maine Warden Service, civilian pilots, and members of the Scott Paper Company. Three Millinocket men—Earlan Campbell, his son, Wayne, and their friend Bob Hume—provided three Sno-Travelers, precursors of today’s snowmobiles, to help rescuers get closer to the crash site area.

The B-52 crash site and memorial in Greenville.

Bulli and Adler were the only two crew members to have survived the crash and now were struggling against the freezing cold as they waited strapped in their ejection chairs in the snow. On the morning of Jan. 25, 1963, Tech Sgt. Eugene “Slab” Slabinski arrived from Otis Air Base in Cape Cod. He boarded a Sikorsky CH3-B chopper. Once they located Bulli and Adler, Slab was lowered from the chopper to help each man get to safety. Other searchers found the remains of the other crew men who had ejected, but not survived. Other crew members’ bodies were found inside the fuselage of the bomber.

Joe’s research showed that the original design of this bomber would not allow its tail assembly to respond to severe wind turbulence above a certain threshold. Since the bombers were designed to fly at extremely high altitudes, the Air Force and Boeing felt the tail assembly was sufficient. Some years after the 1963 crash, the fleet was retrofitted with vertical stabilizers, and no more crashes occurred.

Joe notes that Bulli and Adler continued to serve in the Air Force after they recovered from their injuries. They also stayed in touch with Slabinski and spoke on the telephone every year on the anniversary of that tragic day.

Joe also reconnected with several family members of the men who survived and those who perished and discovered “the absolute strength and resiliency of the human spirit.”

Most of the family members were pleased that he was researching and writing a book about the accident and provided him with a great deal of information. “In their mind, it is as clear as it was yesterday.”

Having the opportunity to remember their husband, fathers, and brothers proved to be therapeutic for the family members, Joe said.

Joe also found that the crash had a lasting impact on the Air Force at Westover Air Force Base and the community of Greenville. Over the next 50 years, the Air Force, the Moosehead Riders Snowmobile Club, Greenville town officials, and the Maine Air National Guard took steps to preserve the crash site. Signage and a dark grey and black slate bearing the crew members’ names and ranks were added.

Thanks to the efforts of Frank Worster, the snowmobile club president in 1993, the 30th anniversary of the crash was met with a two-day commemoration leading up to 2:52 p.m., the exact time of the crash. That commemoration has been followed by a similar ceremony every year since. One of the bomber’s eight engines is currently on display in front of the snowmobile club’s clubhouse.

Sno-Travelers help rescuers get closer to the crash site.

Joe’s journey to making a life in Maine with his family was also a contributing factor in his decision to research and write The Final Mission.

Joe grew up on Long Island, New York, and attended medical school in Springfield, Massachusetts, where he met Jerry, his wife of 34 years.

Joe attended medical school on a Navy scholarship. He did his training in Portsmouth, Virginia, for four years and spent two years in Baltimore at Johns Hopkins University Hospital. After the training was done, he owed the Navy five years. He returned to Portsmouth, Virginia, for five years and left the Navy in 1997.

His first practice was located in Hartford, Connecticut. “If a spot ever opened, we would head back up north. That was the deal I made with her,” Joe recalled.

Jerry grew up in Oxford and had plenty of friends and family in the area. When Joe had a chance to practice medicine in Portland, the couple and their two children, Tyler, now 31, a mechanical engineer at Bath Iron Works, and Ashley, now 29, a firefighter and paramedic in South Portland, moved there.

The B-52 crash site and memorial.

In additional to this medical practice, Joe is serving a second term on the Oxford Budget Committee and Jerry has served six years on the Oxford School Board.

“Writing has always been a passion,” Joe said. He has always done a lot of writing for medical journals and textbooks since college. “That side of me has been developed over that time and is part of who I am and what I do at this point.”

A view of the tail gunner.

Writing The Final Mission: The North Woods has been a rewarding experience for Joe. It has brought surviving family members together and has provided a permanent record about the tragedy as well as a memorial to the men and their families.

“It’s the rare person who visits Greenville and doesn’t visit that site or hear about what happened.”

Joe added that all of the proceeds are donated to Maine charities in the names of each of the crewmen who were on that flight.

The book can be purchased on Amazon and several independent Maine bookstores.

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