WILLCOX — More than 70 years ago, a B-50 bomber and its crew of 10 left Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson on a practice run, headed for Dayton, Ohio. They never completed the mission. The plane lost its number 3 propeller and went down somewhere north of Willcox, in the Gauliro Mountains, a range noted for its ruggedness. Four men died in that fiery crash.
Last Thursday, Veterans Day, those four men were remembered and memorialized with a plaque that is now firmly cemented in place at the veteran’s memorial at Railroad Park. Nearly 30 representatives of the men’s families gathered from across the United States, along with about 200 local people, to pay tribute to lost tail gunner James T. Adcock, turret gunners Harold C. Martin and Robert R. O’Daniel and central firing command gunner Robert L. Jones. The event was organized by Richard Johnson of Tucson.
“I would just like to thank Richard for all the hard work he put in on this,” said John Downey of Glendale, a nephew of Martin. “What he did was great for the families.”
Dewey Turner of Birmingham, Alabama, came to honor Adcock, his mother’s brother.
“I am a Marine and ... to know his sacrifice and to know what this town has done to them, what Richard has done, everybody involved in it, it’s just a very moving thing for me,” Turner said with tears in his eyes. “We drove 1,600 miles to get here ... We came for our parents and for T (Adcock’s nickname).”
Among the speakers at the event were U.S. Air Force B-52 bomber instructor pilot Maj. Mark Fabinger, who came from Louisiana to talk about the bomber mission then and now. He noted the importance of the training mission.
“They were training to be at their best when the world was at its worst,” he said. “Cutting edge technology is nice, but people make the difference.”
The six surviving crewmen were rescued by Rocky Vindiola, a cowboy who worked at nearby Larsen Ranch. He was coming home from a dance when he saw the crash explosion. The next morning, he saddled four horses and headed into the mountains hoping to rescue the crew, but not knowing what to expect. It was not an easy trek there or back.
His daughter, Jeannie Harris, recalled what happened.
“(The survivors) kept asking, ‘Are we almost (back) yet?’ Dad said, ‘Yes, it’s just over this hill.’ Of course, he was lying,” she said.
Her husband, Scott Harris, remembered talking about the rescue with his father-in-law.
“Rocky saw the fireball late that night,” he said. “He saddled a pack train of horses and off he went. (The survivors) were dehydrated and some were hurt. It was quite an ordeal. I’m glad my father-in-law was there.”
“Dad has always been my hero. Now he’s a hometown hero,” Jeannie added.
Another family member of the fallen, Mack Arrington of Alabama, said he was happy to come for his mother, who was the sister of James Adcock. He said he really appreciated the entire event, especially the city of Willcox.
“Your hospitality has been outstanding,” Arrington said.
Johnson has made it his mission to remember the service people who have lost their lives while serving their country. He has done several dedications in Arizona. It is no small task for Johnson to prepare a memorial. He spends his own money and is not backed by an organization. He does extensive research into the how and why of events that caused the deaths.
“It’s a calling and a mission for me,” Johnson said. “It’s just so important. I do it because families need closure. Families need answers. They live better and it enriches their lives to get answers.”
Johnson has another reason, too.
“The way things are going right now in this country, we need some kind of big patriotic spark plug to be lit off,” Johnson said. “This is one way to light it.”