“I knew he had died during the war —
actually I know it was right after the war, in a secret mission”
David Upham, son of Colonel Upham, died in B17 crash
“I really had the feeling that after 64 years
I was finally attending my father’s funeral”
Anne Cobb, daughter of Major Cobb, died in B17 crash
In the morning of November 1st 1946, a USAF B17 bomber took off from Naples, headed for London. It never reached its destination, and the eight crew members were declared missing.
A huge search found nothing. The following summer, the remains of the plane and its crew were found by chance by a French Alpine Patrol on the Estellete Glacier, Mont Blanc. Snow and ice shrouded the wreckage which was soon absorbed by the glacier. It became lost and forgotten again, just one of many whose papers disappear into the secret depths of military archives.
With the gradual retreat of the glaciers, which began to accelerate from about the 1970’s, aircraft parts, personal effects and sometimes human remains began to re-emerge from their icy tomb.
Today, some 65 years later, thanks to a through analysis of the relevant documentation and contacts with the families of the crew, the facts and the faces have been reconstructed through a window onto that last tragic flight. Dignity has been restored to the crew members and their memory has been perpetuated through a moving ceremony hither to denied to their relatives, children and grandchildren.
The B17 crash occurs on Mont Blanc, a few months after the end of World War II and during that post-war period characterized by the Marshall Plan and the Cold War.
Ice and military secrecy helped hide the nature of the accident for many years, while the names of the crew members risked remaining in a long-forgotten file in the Pentagon.
The relatives of the victims and their children received only one official letter of condolence which declared that their relative was “missing, non-combat casualty”.
The scenario is Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe, the immense glaciers, and an American bomber on a “special mission” not far from the fringe of the Iron Curtain.
These are the enormous and overwhelming elements somewhere between fear and attraction addressed by a number of young visitors to the mountain in spite of themselves: mountain guides, escorts and hikers witnesses of a mystery too heavy merely to retain for themselves in their hearts and minds.
Today these once-carefree young people have become adults, some even grandparents, but the memories and emotions related to that B17 are still alive, lightened only by the sharing of experiences through the Internet. An informal group with a common purpose has formed, quite spontaneously, seeking information through a series of exponential documentary and historical researches in Europe and in the USA.
This has allowed a plausible reconstruction of what happened, finding and contacting relatives of the crew members and commemorating the fallen with two touching ceremonies at the foot of Mont Blanc.
Its spin-off has been an extraordinary series of local public commemorations for the individual members of this very crew in their home towns and a remarkable, albeit belated, recognition of these fallen airmen after so many years.
Its lasting effect is the creation of an extraordinary trans-national friendship among the direct participants in this homage to the brave.
Images of B17 crew: Colonel Fair, Colonel Upham, Major Cobb, Lt. Ramirez, Sgt. Dobovich, Sgt. Cassell, Sgt. Gilbert
Why make this documentary
The history of the B17 of Mont Blanc starts with a plane crash. An iconic aircraft, symbol of American endeavour and resolve during World War II, inexplicably deviates from its planned course during a “special” mission and equally inexplicably crashes headlong into the Aiguille des Glaciers, only a few meters from the top, on the western shoulder of Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe.
In over 60 years, apart from a rapid board of enquiry in 1947, no real attempt has been made up until now to re-examine the dynamics of the flight and its purpose. What was its mission? Why were the most senior members of the European Air Transport Service aboard? Why did it abandon the planned route without communication? How could it possibly be over a hundred miles off course? Who was actually flying the plane? Did they know where they were? If they did, why were they at 12000 feet in the vicinity of a 15000 feet mountain?
There are many unanswered questions.
But the goal is not to attempt an accurate reconstruction of the accident, nor to determine the answers to the many mysteries surrounding it, nor to confute the official thesis nor to invent new ones for the sake of sensation.
Instead, to tell the great story of life, of peace, of the extraordinary friendship that has deeply bound together a group of people who had never met before, some of whom had been touched by this crash in different ways, from their very youth.
For some it would be a leap into the past - for fatherless children it would be painful or nostalgic to learn about that tragic night in November 1946, for young hikers, mountain guides and adventurous boys, finding themselves unwilling witnesses to a military accident.
That of “our” B17 is also a story of memory. A memory in which each person concerned must sooner or later stand and be counted, giving a sense to the past and a hope for the future. It is also a collective memory that all too often, dangerously, we tend to overlook.
Anne Cobb, daughter of Sgt. Cobb died in B17 crash, when she was just born, and Edoardo Pennard, alpine guide who found the B17 propeller in 1972 at 50 meters to the top of the Aiguille des Glaciers (3820m).
The story of the B17 crashed on the highest mountain of Europe is absolutely interesting, and it involves veterans, historians, journalists, military and mountaineers of three countries: Italy, France and United States.
What You Get
You can get a copy of the documentary, t-shirt, even a small piece of the plane rests, founded in glacier, and a guided tour on the Aiguille des Glacier (Mont Blanc) between the wreckages of the B17.
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