WILMINGTON — After takeoff from Clinton County Air Force Base (CCAFB) on Aug. 9, 1968, an airplane stalled and then crashed on the Griffith Farm off Berlin Road. Six U.S. Air Force Reservists died in the military air disaster, and a bronze Ohio Historical Marker now stands as a lasting way to commemorate the tragedy and honor the servicemen who perished.
The state historical marker was unveiled Saturday during a well-attended dedication ceremony at J.W. Denver Williams Jr. Memorial Park hosted by the Clinton County Historical Society.
The event included memories from three local men who responded and assisted at the crash site at the age of 16.
The aircraft, a Fairchild C-119G “Flying Boxcar”, had as its destination Otis Air Force Base in Massachusetts so that occupants could complete an annual two-week active duty training. Including the crew, there were 31 people on board.
Those killed were: Technical Sgt. William B. Hansford III, Sgt. Ernest L. Arehart, Sgt. Richard N. Hall, Sgt. David A. Husinga, Airman First Class Paul L. Ruschau, and Airman First Class Michael L. Wiford.
The daughter of Hansford — Carolyn “Cari” Hansford Middleton — initiated the effort to secure a state historical marker.
The three men who assisted at the emergency that August day 51 years ago are Kirby Tolliver, Mark Cowman and Larry Fisher.
Tolliver said the crash occurred during the week of the 1968 Clinton County Fair. He remembered it was a very rainy fair, with plenty of fair-goers’ cars getting stuck in mud.
The family’s tractor at the fairgrounds had a flat tire and so a trip back to the farm for another tractor tire was necessary.
The farm was near the air force base which gave the Tollivers plenty of opportunity to see parachutists and aircraft overhead.
After going to the farm in search of a good tire, a now-deceased classmate Pat Peterson was in the barn and asked “What was that? What was that thump?”
Tolliver replied, “They’re doing stuff at the air base all the time. It’s hard telling.”
But when they got to the truck, they saw a column of black smoke.
“It had just started. It was less than a mile from us so we took off and went over there,” related Tolliver. He remembers there was no tail on the crash-landed aircraft.
“We just started doing what we were told,” he said.
Cowman, for his part, said he mostly carried water that day because that was the first thing the people wanted after exiting the aircraft.
The survivors would dip their hands in the water, “taking the water and embracing their face with it and their body with it,” said Cowman.
One of the men sitting in the field said, “Hey kid, bring that bucket over here,” Cowman recalled. As it happened, Cowman had a brother about five years older than himself and his brother’s friends would sometimes call out to him “Hey kid.” It was not his favorite expression.
“But you know when that gentleman said ‘Hey kid’ to me, it didn’t bother me in the least, and I don’t think that ‘Hey kid’ ever bothered me again,” Cowman commented.
Fisher said when he first saw the crash scene, the rescue had just begun.
He acknowledges, “I had no idea that burning metal could be so hot.”
Fisher remarked further, “I could tell that every man there felt that they had lost a brother.”
“I hope that all who lost someone that day, or witnessed it, will find peace in knowing that it will never be forgotten [thanks to the historical marker],” said Fisher.
Ed Kienle, U.S. Air Force Reserve, retired, Clinton County Air Force Base, had the honor of sounding a large bell following the name of each of the six Reservists being read aloud at the sunlit park grounds.
Megan R. Brooks, who is a great-granddaughter of TSgt Hansford and a junior at Wilmington High School, played “Taps”.
Ed Myers, the Goshen Deputy Fire Chief and former Wilmington firefighter, played the bagpipes including the Air Force Anthem as well as “Amazing Grace”. Several members of American Legion Post 49 in Wilmington posted and retired the colors during the ceremony.
Among other ceremony participants were historian and local resident Gary Kersey who gave the invocation, Ohio History Board Immediate Past President Robert “Bob” Lucas, Wilmington Mayor John Stanforth, and a spokesperson for U.S. Rep. Steve Stivers who had military duty on Saturday.
Reach Gary Huffenberger at 937-556-5768.