Las Vegas Sun

October 22, 2019

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Silent heroes: As Cold War secrets emerge, infamous 1955 Mount Charleston crash remembered

The first time Grace Hatton traveled to Las Vegas from her native New York last year she didn't visit the glitzy Strip landmarks the city is famous for.

Instead, she watched in amazement as the twisted propeller of a 1950s-era military aircraft was brought down the side of Mount Charleston.

Hatton's older brother, Terence O'Donnell, a CIA agent, was aboard the C-54 Military Air Transport Service plane when it crashed near the mountain's peak Nov. 17, 1955.

O'Donnell and 13 other passengers, which included Air Force personnel, engineers and scientists, all died in the crash. Rescue workers long ago removed the bodies and returned them to the families, but for Hatton, this day brought a familiar feeling.

"Seeing the propeller was very emotional and moving," Hatton said. "This was my big brother. He was only 22 when he died."

O'Donnell and the other passengers will be remembered Saturday at the Ranger Station at Kyle Canyon during a tribute by the Silent Heroes of the Cold War National Memorial Committee and the U.S. Forest Service. A plaque dedication will follow at the West Sahara Library, 9600 W. Sahara Ave.

The memorial will mark the first time artifacts salvaged from the wreckage will be on display to the public, including the plane's steering wheel and propeller, which weighs about 1,200 pounds.

Family members of those who died in the crash are also expected to attend.

Hatton, now 64, was a junior in high school when her brother's plane went down. Because the aircraft was reportedly bound to Area 51 -- where the military was said to have housed one of its most secret Cold War projects, the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft -- all information about the crash remained classified for more than 40 years.

"In the beginning it was all secret," Hatton said. "Back then you just believed what your government told you. We knew it was a plane crash, but we never knew where they were going and why."

The crash occurred near the 11,500-foot level of the mountain's peak. A news report describing the site shortly after the crash said the plane's wings were burned away and the forward portion of the fuselage was crushed.

According to other newspaper reports published that day, the Air Force initially told the media the aircraft, which is believed to have departed from Lockheed Air Terminal in Burbank, Calif., was headed for a base in Indian Springs.

Steve Ririe, chairman of the Silent Heroes committee, has spent the past several years trying to fill in the blanks on the details. He has gathered information from the Air Force, CIA and National Archives. The Air Force sent him the official accident report two years ago.

The aircraft's passengers, some of them Lockheed Martin employees, were working on the U-2 project, Ririe said. The plane was used to transport workers to and from the testing site for seven weeks before the crash.

The government declassified information about the crash in 1998.

Ririe, an insurance agent, said he started Silent Heroes of the Cold War after seeing the debris from the crash as a child during hiking trips to Mount Charleston with his Boy Scout troop.

As an adult in 1998 Ririe hiked alone to the mountain's peak and sat among the debris. "I'd always wondered who these people were and what happened to them," he said. "But suddenly I had this really strong desire to find out more."

"There were over 40 planes shot down covertly that were never reported," he said. "These were people who gave their lives to protect us. The Cold War was the most dangerous war this country has ever faced."

Mariane Kennedy, the committee's historian, tracked down the families of each passenger by consulting obituaries and research libraries across the country.

"It's a hard thing for them to overcome," she said of the surviving families. "I wanted them to realize the importance of that family member that never reported back home."

The committee is working in collaboration with the Cold War National Museum in Virginia to preserve the Mount Charleston site and other Cold War sites nationwide.

The group is raising money to erect a marble memorial at the crash site.

Hatton, who called seeing the propeller last year "incredible," won't be attending Saturday's event.

Her son, Terence Hatton, a firefighter killed in the Sept. 11 attacks, is being memorialized at Madison Square Garden the same day. Terrence Hatton was named after his uncle.

"This is all a little overdue," she said. "But I'm glad they are finally getting the recognition they deserve. This was a phenomenal caliber of men, the cream of the crop."