Atold crash site, a new mystery: 60 years later, ground yieldsunidentified remains
Edition:FINAL, Section: NATION, Page A1
Ona windy April day in 1944, a B-24 bomber plummeted from the sky aboveCalifornia's Mojave Desert, leaving 10 dead airmen and a crater inthe ground. The destruction was so complete that grief-strickenfamilies, such as the Rudiches of Charleston, simply received sealedcoffins that they understood held the remains of their loved ones.
But today, onwhat would have been Sgt. Michael Rudich's 82nd birthday, MarciaShealy and her family are less certain that the coffin hergrandmother cried alongside for a day and a night actually holds theremains of her late uncle.
Barring anexhumation, which the family already has ruled out, it's a mysterythat may never be solved. But Rudich's surviving relatives hope thata recent archaeological dig will provide some new answers.
Shealy's unusualjourney began last year when an Internet search showed the youngradio operator and former Citadel cadet's name on Don R. Jordan's Website. An author who has located hundreds of airplane crash sitesacross California, Jordan had determined where Rudich's B-24 fell toearth.
Shealy e-mailedJordan, asking if he might send her some dirt, or perhaps anartifact. Jordan returned to the site, and sent Shealy a bag ofdesert soil and several artifacts, including the mangled radio dialthat her uncle may have used to make a final mayday call.
But with onlycursory digging, Jordan found a great deal more.
"I wasflabbergasted," he said. "There were literally thousands of humanbones."
Curiously, an oldnewspaper clipping stated that only eight of the 10 bodies had beenrecovered. Yet the military issued 10 death certificates.
After Jordan'swork, an archaeologist with the Air Force's Joint POW/MIA AccountingCommand determined that the B-24 site still held significant remains,and a thorough archaeological excavation was warranted.
In May, Jordanjoined with a professional team made up of Kern County Coroner KellyCowan and a JPAC team that specializes in tracking down the 88,000still-unaccounted-for service members worldwide since World War II.
"It was verytough to me, a very emotional experience," Cowen said. "There werepersonal effects, including the dog tags of the two whose remains hadnot been identified. And we found a lot that belonged to the othereight."
Rudich's B-24departed March Airfield at 7:10 a.m. on one of the last training runsbefore its crew was to deploy overseas. But around an hour later, aneyewitness said the plane fell out of a cloud, sending up a50-foot-high ball of flames on impact. On Easter morning in 1944,Bernice Bernstein was alone at her Charleston home when a telephonecall notified her of her brother's death.
"It wasdevastating," she said. "Of all the times for me to have to be bymyself."
Rudich's sealedcoffin was escorted home by a sergeant who stayed alongside thegrieving family. Bernstein and her sister, Pearl Hyman, recalled thatso great was their mother's grief that her hair turned grayovernight. The family's pet collie howled all night long and ran awaythe next day, never to return.
"My brother was avery fine character, and was very protective of me," Hyman said. "Heused to take me to the movies. And I remember that he sent me a pairof silver Air Force wings, but I didn't get them until after theplane had already crashed."
Bernsteinrecalled how her brother worked at Rudy's, the family's downtowngrocery store. "If someone was rude to my father, he was always thereto take up for him," she said.
According toShealy, the family had no reason to doubt that the coffin heldRudich's remains until the new dig and the revelation that only eighthad been identified.
"I don't think itwas a conspiracy or anything," she said. "But if after 60 years,someone who barely scratched the surface found rings, belt bucklesand bones, and if they knew two bodies hadn't been recovered, howcould they have not gone out there and dug a little bit more?"
Jordan and Cowenboth said that there was an outside chance that Rudich's coffindidn't contain his remains, but it was likely that the young airmanhas been laid to rest in Charleston. They emphatically defended thehandling of the case. Jordan pointed out that roughly 29,000 to30,000 airmen and women died during training in the United States,and there were more than 500 documented crash sites within 50 milesof Rudich's.
"In those days,the military did the best they could with the resources they had,"Jordan said. "This crash was horrific. The plane went straight downfrom 500 feet and blew up with thousands of gallons of fuel onboard."
Cowen said shehopes that all the remains — perhaps even those of Rudich —ultimately would be identified through dental records and DNAtesting. She acknowledged that the process could take years.
Shealy said thatwhat was truly important was not the winged tombstone at the tinyMeeting Street cemetery, but that her uncle was still alive in thememories of her family. One day, she said, she would like to joinmembers of other families in placing a memorial at the crash site.
"I never knewhim, but he's now living again because people are talking about himand the fact that he was a hero," she said. "From something tragichas come some good."
Reach Chris Dixonat (843) 745-5855 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On the Web
Read Don R.Jordan's account of this and other crash sites at www.donrjordan.com.