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McLaughlin Air National Guard Remembers the 65th Anniversary of 21 Fallen Airmen

  • Published
  • By Capt. Rachel L. Hughey
  • 130th Airlift Wing
April 8, 1951 is the date of a tragic event in West Virginia history that altered the lives of 21 military families and brought great grief to a community.

Their story begins with the loss of Major Woodford "Jock" Sutherland who was one of the West Virginia Air National Guard's best pilots. Major Sutherland, along with other pilots and ground crew, were at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida when a ground collision of two Mustang Fighters resulted in Sutherland's untimely death.

Two Douglas C-47B aircraft left Godman AFB in Kentucky to bring unit members home for Sutherland's funeral.   It was a Sunday morning, the weather was bad, and visibility was low. Sadly, just 5.5 miles from the airport one of the C-47s impacted a ridge ending the lives of 19 men and critically injuring two others. Despite heroic efforts to reach the aircraft's remote crash site, only two men survived the impact (Capt. Harry K. Blackhurst and Maj. Isaac E. Bonifas). Both later succumbed
to their injuries at Staats hospital. The second plane piloted by then Lt. Col. J. Kemp McLaughlin, founder of West Virginia Air National Guard, was instructed to turn back.

This past October family members of the crash victims joined with current members of the 130th Airlift Wing, local citizens and West Virginia dignitaries to dedicate the new Coonskin Bridge in honor of the fallen Airmen. In the future a memorial similar to the one that stands atop the hill at McLaughlin Air National Guard Base in Charleston, WV will be erected at the bridge.
The family of Major Isaac E. Bonifas came as far as California to attend the bridge dedication ceremony and spent the next several days researching more information about the father they never really knew. They were given a base tour and were able to sit down with Brig. Gen. McLaughlin USAFR (Ret.) to discuss his perspective on the events of that tragic day. He said, "It [the accident] was so shocking to me that I almost quit aviation.." They were very grateful for the hospitality of the city of Charleston during their stay. You can read their article here: GZ04/151029776

Sixty-five years later the 130th Airlift Wing still pays tribute to these men for giving the ultimate sacrifice. They are gone but not forgotten.

Staff Sergeant Kenneth C. Amick             Sergeant Richard F. Hazeltine              
1st Lt. Harry B.Kesler                               Captain Harry K. Blackhurst
Major Isaac E. Bonifas                             PFC James R. Lewis
Corporal Charles E. Cobb                        Corporal Dennis I. Meeks
Sergeant James E. Creasey                    1st Lt. Charles R. Michaelson
1st Lt Drexel E. Crites                              Corporal John R. Price
PFC Jimmy Dolan                                    Staff Sergeant David E. Rollyson, Jr.
1st Lt Lyle L. Finley                                  Sergeant Winson A. Schoonover, Jr.
1st Lt William J. Frank                              Tech. Sgt. William H. Shelton
Corporal Columbus Van Linden Hall       1st Lt. Herman F. Winter, Jr.
                                                     Captain Edwin K. Wittington