It was about providing closure in the form of three Nebraska State Historical Markers for the family of 32 airmen involved in three midair collisions near Milligan, Neb.
Exactly one year ago, Jerry Penry, who has spent several years documenting Nebraska’s WWII air crashes, challenged a group at the Milligan Library as he shared with them some history of the crashes in their area..
Those community members took his challenge to heart and began collecting information about the crashes that took place near Milligan. They researched eyewitnesses, crash locations, and located family members from coast to coast.
Saturday , August 14th was the culmination of that work in Milligan. Family members from as far as Connecticut and California, South Carolina, and Oregon made the trip for the daylong celebration.
The family members were welcomed with nametags and corsages by the committee and started the day with a tour of the Fairmont Air Base. Doug Rung, a local historian and member of the FMZ Association gave them a bus tour of the locations of the buildings present and gone on the airbase. They had the opportunity to go inside a hanger that was open and were amazed at the size of the hanger. Rung expounded on the construction of the hanger and the base. The pilot’s lounge is still there and the family members were able to tour that as well.
Family members stopped briefly on Highway 41 at the marker site according to Committee Chair Janet L. Bartels. “We went straight to the markers so the family could go and have time alone with the markers that had their relatives name on it. It was very emotional for them to see these markers and I am so glad there were able to have that time there.”
After returning to Milligan, family members were greeted with a hospitality hour by the Legion Auxiliary. Local citizens escorted family members that wanted to to the crash site of their choosing. Returning to Milligan they boarded buses to the site of the three historical markers at 1 p.m. for a special dedication program. Janet Bartels, the chair of the Milligan Memorial Committee, served as the emcee of the event.
The short program started with the presentation of the colors by the Milligan Legion Post and the singing of the National Anthem by Karen Kotas Eisenhaur.
Rev. Brian Kottas gave a prayer and then Russ Karpisek the Nebraska State Senator from District 32 welcomed the crowd. First Lt. Ernest Pence of the Nebraska Wing of the Civil Air Patrol introduced the guest speaker, Retired Major General Roger P. Lempke.
Lempke spoke to the group of around 200 about the history that the markers will preserve. He spoke for Senator Mike Johanns who wanted him to share “he was so proud that you as a community came forward to make this happen.”
Lemke shared how the committee has “done something here to provide an opportunity for this history to continue. The stories from around here resonate. . .I hope that these markers will serve to help that resonation move ahead to future generations.”
After Father David Bourek of St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church in Milligan gave a prayer and blessing over the memorial markers Sue Underwood played Amazing Grace on her Dudy. Members of the Milligan Memorial Committee placed wreaths at the three new crash markers at the site.
After a flyover by a Blackhawk helicopter piloted by Captain John Vavra Fong, son of Bartels, American Legion Post #240 gave a volley salute. Taps and taps echo was played by Michael Kassik and Galen Beck before the retirement of the colors and closing remarks.
After the ceremony the family members soaked in the words on the marker where their loved ones name was etched. Members of Sgt. Ursulo Galindo, Jr.’s family came from Escondido, California and Sioux Falls, SD. His niece, Denise Snyder, was so thankful for the honor that had been bestowed on the uncle she never got to know. “I was one week old when he died,” said Snyder.
This was an unexpected opportunity for Snyder as she received word from her mother that a letter from Milligan, Neb. had been received. Snyder started corresponding with Memorial Committee member Shirley Brunkow. She had never delved into the history of her family so deeply. What struck her the most was the impact that her uncle’s death had on the community. “At that time Escondido had about 3500 population and my uncle and his two brothers were well-known baseball players, especially after winning a big tournament. They even had their picture taken with the governor.”
These bits of history also prompted her to research her own father, Adan. She found her “Dad’s aviation book, all because of this.” She and her husband Dennis along with her cousin Pete and five of his family members felt it was important to be there for the dedication.
Also making the trip were John Herzog, his sister Catherine and their cousin, Camille. John, of Springfield, Ohio was very touched by the memorial services. His uncle, 2nd Lt. William Herzog was killed in the October 25, 1943 crash that also killed Galindo. He had “always wanted to have a relationship with my uncle. This is my only connection with him. It was like I was able to attend his funeral. I feel a bonding here, I feel like my grandparents are here today.”
Corporal Walter A. Divan was just 20 years old in 1944 when his plane was involved in a mid-air collision on September 8th. He was one of four survivors of that crash, and spent several days in the hospital recovering followed by 30 days of leave. He is the only still living of those four survivors and spent the weekend in Milligan.
After the marker dedication program on the highway, Divan spent a few moments decompressing in the cool semi-darkness of the Milligan Auditorium. He was overwhelmed “by the dedication of the committee and all they have done. City people are city people and they just don’t get all of this. Small town people have roots and they care about their roots.”
Divan spoke about his own grandson who has been in the service for 10 years and how proud he is of him “doing what we need to in order to have a strong country.”
When asked about the weekend memorial events he explained how much “this means to the families of those who didn’t make it. They have a better sense of knowing their soldier’s service was appreciated and not wasted.”
After his leave, Divan and the other three survivors were assigned to another crew and went overseas to fly 23 missions before the war was over. He met his wife June after the war while attending college. At his request, June had her wedding dress made from the parachute that saved Divan’s life and brought the dress with her to the Memorial Weekend where it was displayed. They and daughters Cindy Clemens and Debbie Norris made the trip from Wisconsin for the event.
Later in the afternoon the Memorial Committee and Milligan Public Library hosted a dedication program in the Milligan Centennial Garden and the Milligan Auditorium.
American Legion’s from the surrounding areas sent color guards to help open the program. According to committee member Shirley Brunkow, “our visitors were most impressed with the community support and the many honor guards who came to honor the fallen.” Brunkow was impressed with the turnout at the highway dedication, which she estimated was close to 200.
During the 3 p.m. program the Milligan Brass Band provided musical numbers as well as other community members. Featured speakers were Governor Dave Heineman, Lempke, Secretary of State John Gale and Karpisek.
Letters of the airmen who served in the area were read and the Memorial committee spent some special time recognizing the relatives and special guests of the airmen. The family members were presented with a flag flown over the airbase where their family member was stationed. Balloons holding the names of the airmen that were involved in the crashes were released after Amazing Grace was played.
After several more musical numbers, another volley salute by the Milligan Legion and the playing of Taps and Taps Echo the program was concluded by a benediction by Rev. Brian Kottas and the singing of “God Bless America.”
The Sons of the American Legion hosted a dinner in the Centennial Garden and during the evening a slide presentation on the crashes and sites was given by Penry before the dance featuring the Leo Lonnie Orchestra.