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Decades after crash, fallen Michigan veteran receives military honors

A photo of Air Force Cpt. Willam Coombs is displayed on Monday, June 17, 2024, at the Veterans of Foreign Wars building, in St. Louis, Mich.
Ellie Frysztak
A photo of Air Force Cpt. Willam Coombs is displayed on Monday, June 17, 2024, at the Veterans of Foreign Wars building, in St. Louis, Mich.

In November 1952, a non-combat military plane crashed into Alaska’s Colony Glacier, taking the lives of 52 service members.

For years, the remains of the veterans were not found, leaving family members and friends unable to fully grieve or bury their loved ones.

Back in 2012, an Alaska National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk crew was flying during routine training when they spotted debris in the glacier. A recovery operation confirmed the remains were from the crash.

Since 2012, efforts to recover the remains of the fallen veterans has been dubbed “Operation Colony Glacier”.

On Monday morning at the Veterans of Foreign Wars building in St. Louis, Air Force Captain Williams Coombs was posthumously bestowed military honors.

His nephew Jeff Barker accepted the four medals on behalf of Coombs’ family: The Air Medal, The European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with the Bronze Star attachment, The World War II Victory Medal, and The Honorable Service Lapel Button from World War II.

Captain Coombs was a World War II and Korean War veteran. He was among 42 airmen, eight soldiers, one Marine and one sailor who passed away during the crash, according to the Department of Defense.

The remains of Captain Coombs were discovered in 2022, and the family was able to bury him in 2023.

Coombs was identified through his dog tags, personal effects, membership cards, wallet, and a fingerprint, according to U.S. Rep. John Moolenaar’s (R-Caledonia) office.

Despite the ability to identify and bury Coombs, receiving military honors was not as simple. Barker says that it was a tough road to the medal ceremony.

“We tried to find these and every time I made inquiries, I was told there were no records. It’s kind of the last chapter. I was four when it happened. It's been a long time,” Barker said.

“In 1973, National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis (MO) caught fire, an estimated 75% of Air Force personnel records of those who served from 1947-1964 were lost. No duplicate copies of these records were maintained,” said a spokesperson for Moolenaar's office.

Barker reached out to Moolenaar for help.

Moolenaar was able to be the liaison between Barker and the Department of Defense, allowing for full honors to be given.

“William was an exceptional service member's true hero and made the ultimate sacrifice. It's always important that we remember those who have lost their lives and service to our country," Moolenaar said.

Barker says that the medals represent the telling of military stories.

“It's important to have these reminders. When we hear these stories that inspire you. It inspires a wave of patriotism in all of us as Americans. Especially in the next generation, to learn about the heroes who fought for our freedoms.”

According to Department of Defense, as of June 2022, the remains of 44 of the 52 victims have been recovered.

Ellie Frysztak is a newsroom intern for WCMU.