John George Schardong, Sr
Major, United States Air Force
of the Arizona Republic
Crash site discovery stirs widow's memory
By Angela Cara Pancrazio, The Arizona Republic
July 01, 2001
GRAY MOUNTAIN, NAVAJO NATION
The sun sets behind Gray Mountain.
It will be dark soon. Inside the tiny house perched alone on a windswept plain, the Begay family lights a lantern. The grandson grabs his grandmother's hands, placing them firmly on the metal walker so she won't lose her grip.
Parkinson's disease has slowed Loretta Mexican Begay's speech. The 64-year-old sheepherder pulls her words out slowly, especially when she speaks of that foggy fall day in 1957.
Back then Begay was a 20-year-old herding sheep with her husband and mother here on the western edge of the Navajo Reservation. It was then, on October 29, that they heard the boulders crashing down Gray Mountain.
"We were outside," Begay says. "We could see the fog all around us, up to the mountain; about halfway up the mountain it was foggy, and we heard an airplane."
With four engines, each about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, it was easy to hear the rumble of the Air Force KC-97G, a refueling tanker that had taken off in New Mexico on a classified survey mission. From nose to tail the plane stretched 110 feet; from wing tip to wing tip it spread 141 feet, nearly half a football field.
"I remember telling my mom, 'Mom, it sounds like that plane is too low,' " Begay says. "All of a sudden we heard the impact of the crash, and we heard rocks rolling down, and I told mom, 'Mom the plane crashed, it sounds like a plane crash.' "
Begay's husband, who'd just come home with the horses, caught one for Begay's mother and told her to ride to the trading post and tell what happened.
"She saddled her horse. And she rode all the way to Gray Mountain to report it," Begay says of that day half a lifetime ago.
"It was a great big plane. We couldn't see anything. I wish I could tell you more, but my voice isn't strong and I'm weak."
An airman's goodbye
The sun had not yet risen over Walker Air Force Base in southern New Mexico that day in 1957 when Charles Darwin Dees awoke with a stomachache.
Maybe it was nerves. In a few hours, the 26-year-old first lieutenant with the 509th Bomb Wing of the Strategic Air Command would be flying a survey mission at a mere 1,000 feet.
He had a good reason to stay home, his wife, Doris, told him. But Charles couldn't pass it up; he yearned to be a fighter pilot.
He grabbed his movie camera, which he brought with him whenever he flew. He put on his wedding ring, not leaving it on the dresser as usual, maybe because he lost the first one. Doris had gone out and bought him another, a simple band inscribed with his initials, CDD.
Rings come and go; love stayed with Doris and Charles, who first met at Chadbourn Negro High School in Chadbourn, N.C. At first, Doris knew, he was more interested in her than she was in him. Gradually that changed, forever.
Charles kissed Doris, who was five months pregnant, and 21-month-old Doris Deborah. He left in the darkness.
Preflight check was set for 0330 hours.
World War II was long over on that chilly fall day in 1957. But the Cold War was in full swing, and missions like co-pilot Dees' were common, especially in the Southwest, where the climate was perfect for aircraft training.
Lots of flights, however, meant lots of crashes, especially given the furious pace of pilot training during the war. Airplanes went down. Lives were lost, often in the middle of nowhere, where the remoteness hindered rescue teams from removing much of the debris.
The dry air has preserved the nearly 1,000 sites of air crashes scattered throughout Arizona, most of which occurred during World War II training.
Thus emerged a regional hobby called wreck-chasing, which draws out hikers, armed with maps, old crash reports and other data, in search of a bit of history. Books have been published and Web sites created to guide chasers to sites and, hopefully, to set ethical standards for those who visit them.
That's why Trey Brandt, 30, a Valley stockbroker, found himself hiking up Gray Mountain last month, the Painted Desert to the east, San Francisco Peaks to the south. He'd gotten map coordinates for the crash from a fellow hobbyist and was out seeking traces of what Loretta Begay heard 44 years ago when the KC-97G slammed into the mountain, killing all 16 crew members.
Brandt knew that bigger planes often meant more remains, but the mountain had preserved even more than he could have hoped for. The wreckage is strewn along the mountain's southeastern face, the haunting remains of a routine flight turned tragic. Parachute rip cords, ration kits, fire extinguishers, a ladder, headlights, springs, tie-down straps.
As Brandt labored up the steep ravine littered with boulders, he counted the huge, battered engines. They'd tumbled down the mountain as if someone had thrown two pairs of jacks. There was so little rust that the crash could have happened a month ago.
At one point, noticing something wadded up and covered with brush, Brandt found an airman's jacket. In one pocket was a roll of black electrical tape; in the other was a chain with dog tags and a medal of St. Anthony, patron saint of lost things.
The face of a watch stared up at him, stopped at 8:54. He found three more dog tags. One belonged to the pilot, Captain Harold D. Shumard. The other two belonged to First Lieutenant Charles D. Dees.
The phone call
A month ago, Doris Dees had just fallen asleep when her phone rang in Chadbourn, N.C. She listened to a young man from Arizona saying he'd found her husband's dog tags. It's some sort of joke, she thought, as she lingered in the vague space between waking and sleep.
It was no joke.
"I didn't like him (at first)," Doris says later of her long-dead husband. "He always liked me. He loved me more than I loved him, at least he was more interested than I was."
That changed. "I loved him more than life itself."
She never stopped. Never remarried.
"You get set in your ways," she says. "Trying to find a husband, a person like I had before - impossible. No two people are alike."
The fiery crash left little to be identified. There was only one coffin for her husband and four other airmen buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Afterward, some suggested that Doris try for a miscarriage. Instead, she had her son and named him after his daddy.
Later, tragedy would strike again when Charles Jr., who had grown up and joined the Air Force like his father, died in a car accident.
The dog tags arrived by priority mail. Doris hung them from her husband's photograph on the mantle.
Warring feelings rushed through her. No longer would she wonder if, just maybe, Charles had parachuted out before the crash, suffered amnesia and gone to live somewhere with another family until, one day, he would remember his past.
Of course Doris knew it was impossible for anyone to have survived. Still, she kept hope.
"I can't even describe my feeling," she said
about getting the dog tags from Gray Mountain, "knowing it was the last
thing that he touched."
There were other dog tags on Gray Mountain. Other young lives lost, other families haunted by grief.
Ruth Clark Noel buried her son, Technical Sergeant Richard Wilton Noel, in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
"She lost her will to live," Helen Noel said of her mother's death.
"She was never healthy enough after that. She just grieved over it so much. Of course, she would have done that for any of her children. But that was her baby."
Trey Brandt found the dog tags and sent them to Helen. Just two years older than her brother, Helen, 76, is legally blind.
"It felt real warm," she said of the bit of metal from Gray Mountain. "It was something he had worn.
"I had something in my hand that my brother had around his neck."
John Schardong Jr. never said goodbye to his father.
Major John Schardong, a flight navigator and veteran of World War II and the Korean War, left while his 10-year-old son slept on October 29, 1957.
John Jr. remembers little about the crash, only the commotion when his father didn't return. It's never gotten any better.
Schardong is 54 now and has planned a trip up Gray Mountain. Brandt will lead him to the place where he found a wadded-up flight jacket with Major Schardong's dog tags linked to a medal of St. Anthony, patron saint of lost things.
Early on that October morning, radio operator James E. Hicks, 26, kissed his 4-month-old baby daughter goodbye.
Today, Gina Boyd, married with four children, wants to meet someone who knew her father.
Brandt did not find any of Hicks' tags, but came across Boyd's posting on a Web site and told her of the crash site.
"I was just in hope that one of those (dog tags) was my dad's," Boyd said. "He did find a wedding ring and a couple of watches."
Three years ago, Boyd and her family drove past Gray Mountain en route to the Grand Canyon.
"It was just kind of a real quiet moment," she said. "I never knew him."
"It was almost like I could see that very spot.
I know I couldn't. But to me it was like, 'That's it, it's right there.'