Demian Bulwa / San Francisco Chronicle – 2012-05-25 23:50:46
Airman’s 62-year Journey to End in Presidio Burial
Demian Bulwa / San Francisco Chronicle
SAN FRANCISCO (May 25, 2012) — A Cold War mystery will drift through the cypress trees of the Presidio on Friday when an Air Force gunner is laid to rest, 62 years after he was last seen bailing out of a crippled plane carrying an atomic bomb toward a mock attack on San Francisco.
Staff Sgt. Elbert W. Pollard and four other men were lost off the coast of British Columbia during a secret training exercise that became the United States’ first “broken arrow,” military code for an accident involving nuclear weapons. A dozen other crew members survived.
After a flyover, a 21-gun salute and a rendition of taps, a few of Pollard’s bones will be buried in a casket at San Francisco National Cemetery, ending a journey that took a final turn last year when remains found long ago by a fisherman were identified through DNA testing.
A flag will be folded and given to Pollard’s only child, Betty Wheeler of Citrus Heights (Sacramento County), who wasn’t yet 2 years old when she lost her father.
She always knew he was dead, not missing. Still, the official identification of his remains opened something in her and prompted her to revisit his short life, which ended at age 28. “I’m exploring, talking to people and getting to know details about my father’s life that I’ve never known,” she said.
Raised outside Fort Worth, Texas, Pollard took part in 13 combat missions in World War II. He was shot down over Germany during the last one and spent 13 months as a prisoner until the war ended in 1945.
Wheeler’s mother had two children already when she married Pollard in 1947 and was just 20 when he died.
Wheeler said she now looks differently at a trunk of her father’s belongings — a flight jacket, a cap, a harmonica, his World War II dog tags — that once represented the sadness of her mother, who could rarely bring herself to open the chest and died in 1990.
“She was such a young woman when he died,” Wheeler said. “Now I look at this beautiful leather flight jacket and I don’t know why it’s been living in this trunk all these years. These things don’t have the heaviness they once had.”
It was February 1950 when Pollard and 16 others flew a B-36 bomber from Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks, Alaska, toward San Francisco to carry out a simulated nuclear attack on the city — practice for what a war against the Soviet Union might look like.
Near the coast in northern British Columbia, the big plane ran into trouble in a storm, and everyone jumped out with parachutes.
The Air Force and the survivors of the mission have said the Mark 4 bomb that the plane carried lacked the plutonium core needed for a nuclear blast, and that the pilot, before bailing, dropped it over the ocean, leading to a conventional explosion.
After the Royal Canadian Air Force stumbled upon the crashed B-36 three years later, the U.S. military — worried about losing secrets — gathered some of the wreckage and demolished the rest.
That did little to silence questions about whether a nuclear weapon had been lost in the mountains of Canada.
Some who studied the accident speculated that the crash site’s location indicated not that an empty plane had flown on autopilot for miles, but that one of the airmen had stayed aboard and tried to steer it back to Alaska. Why would he do that, they asked, unless an armed nuke was aboard?
One of the survivors, 90-year-old Dick Thrasher of Hurst, Texas, said the conspiracy theories are groundless.
Thrasher recalled that the pilot of the six-engine plane had tried to climb his way out of the storm when ice began to build up on the exterior.
“We got to 17,000 feet and the carburetors iced up, and then three engines caught fire,” said Thrasher, who was also a gunner. “The pilot said we had to bail out, but that before we did we had to go out over the water and get rid of this nuclear weapon. So we did that. And as we got back to the shoreline, he said, ‘Bail out.’ ”
Pollard was the second man to jump out of the back, and Thrasher, his close friend, was the third. He believes Pollard was blown into the ocean, and that his own life was saved by a fluke.
In his haste, Thrasher had put on a “Mae West” life vest over his parachute strap. As he plunged from the plane, he said, he had trouble finding the deployment ring because of the vest, leaving him to free-fall for a longer time and hit dry land after his chute finally opened.
Thrasher said the bomb did not have a plutonium core and that he had seen it blow up in midair. As for the secret mission, he said, “it was just training. They considered the B-36 to be what was keeping Russia from attacking us. It was a mission to more or less duplicate what we would do if we were to bomb Russia.”
The plane carried the bomb “just for the weight,” Thrasher said. “They wanted to make it realistic, I guess.”
In the days after the crash, Canadian fishermen and sailors found the 12 survivors on Princess Royal Island — including one who was hanging upside down in a tree by his parachute. But an unprecedented search effort turned up no signs of the other five.
That is, until 1952, when a fisherman near the island snagged a parachute attached to a military-issue boot. Inside was someone’s left foot.
The foot was buried two years later in a ceremony that honored all five missing men at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. It remained there until 2001, when one of the men’s daughters persuaded the government to dig it up and compare its DNA to relatives of the men.
Fitting Timing for Burial
The next stop was the Hawaii lab of the U.S. Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command. A match to Pollard was made last year, said Allen Cronin, who runs the past conflicts branch of Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations.
Cronin, who flew out from Delaware for Friday’s burial, said each identification of a missing soldier is important, giving families a sense of peace. He said it was fitting that Pollard would be buried just before Memorial Day.
“On a daily basis, there are hundreds of people working to bring back our missing,” Cronin said, “and most people don’t even know we’re looking.”
Demian Bulwa is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: email@example.com Twitter: @demianbulwa
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