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In memory of a plane crash

An Air Force bomber crashed on Emigrant Peak in 1962. Remembering the men who died has become one man's mission

It was nighttime, July 23, 1962. Jim Larkin and his future wife were in his car on Swingley Road, headed to go swimming near McLeod. For some reason, Larkin decided to stop the car.

“To this day, I’ve never figured out the why,” Larkin said recently. “It was just something wasn’t right.”

He turned around and drove to the Forest Service office in Livingston, where he worked on trail crews and fought the occasional fire. His boss was in the office, and he was glad to see Larkin, who was 22 at the time. There was work to do.

An Air Force B-47 bomber left Dyess Air Force Base near Abilene, Texas, around 6:30 that night for a routine training mission through Montana. Four men were on board. Radio transcripts and maps of the flight path show they flew around Dillon and crossed the Paradise Valley. They were supposed to turn to the northeast, but instead their plane slammed into the southwestern slope of Emigrant Peak, about 8,500 feet up, creating a fireball. 

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This story was produced in collaboration with Jule Banville, who produces Last Best Stories, a podcast about the people and places of Montana at lastbeststories.org.

A separate audio version of the story is embedded below.

All four of the men died in the crash, their lives cut short more than a thousand miles from their base. There was Capt. Bill Faulconer, a one-time Price is Right contestant from Kansas who thought he’d start farming once he left the Air Force. There was Lt. Fred Hixenbaugh, a West Virginian who used to prank his sisters and loved baseball. There was Lt. David Sutton, from Oklahoma, who was exactly one month into his second year as a full pilot. And there was Lt. Lloyd Sawyers, a Texan who would save the box dinners he got on missions for his two young daughters.

None were over 30, and all of them were married.

Officially, the cause of the crash is undetermined. Air Force documents obtained by the Chronicle through a public records request say the most probable cause is an error by some member of the crew, but they can’t say for sure. More than 20 pages in the investigation are blacked out, and it’s likely no one will ever know exactly what caused the wreck.

Debris scattered everywhere. The explosion started a wildfire, which the Livingston Enterprise reported grew to about 40 acres. Larkin’s job was to run supplies to and from the fire. On one trip down, he brought a finger and wedding ring to the Air Force crews that had arrived.

That stuck in his mind, and once the work was over, he didn’t go back.

“After you’ve picked up parts of a human being and done a few things like that, I just really didn’t want to go back to that site,” Larkin said.

Damage from the fire was fairly minimal, but the wreckage spread out across a good chunk of the mountain, about 2,500 feet below the top. Clean-up crews didn’t pick up everything they found, so remnants of the plane are still there, now as much a part of the landscape as the trees themselves. 

In the years afterward, the crash was little more than an afterthought for most people in the valley. They talked about it from time to time. Most know it happened and that the airplane parts were there. But nothing much was done to recognize it — until now.  

Bryan Wells, who lives at the base of Emigrant Peak, has spent the last year trying to change that, to make sure it isn’t forgotten for good, and that people remember the four veterans who died there 54 years ago. 

The spark

Last year, a retired lieutenant colonel from the Air Force called the Park County Sheriff’s Office looking for information about the crash. The office referred him to Bryan Wells.

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Air Force Plane Wreck on Emigrant Peak

Old Chico resident Bryan Wells is planning a memorial for four men who died in a 1962 Air Force bomber crash on Emigrant Peak.

Wells, a tall 61-year-old known by his long gray beard, lives in Old Chico at the base of Emigrant Peak. He has rental cabins, a butcher shop and works a few odd jobs around the valley. He’s lived in the area since he was 9, and much of that time has been spent hiking and exploring the mountains near his home, something that still fascinates him. He would be the guy to call.

Wells heard about the crash when he was a kid, and when he was 15, he decided to hike to it. It isn’t easy to find, but his family leased a cabin nearby when he was young. His dad taught him to hunt there, so he knew the area well enough to make a good guess. He gambled on a route up and picked his way across.

“And I found it. It was pretty crazy. All the trees were cut off from the wings, where it came in, you know," he said. "And then there’s debris everywhere.”

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Air Force Plane Wreck on Emigrant Peak

A U.S. Air Force bomber crashed on Emigrant Peak in 1962, killing four men. The wreckage still remains on a remote section of the peak, seen here on Tuesday, June 14, 2016.

After that, the crash stayed on his mind, but he didn’t do anything with it until he got that phone call.

The retired airman wanted to see if the crash was visible from a plane, so he and Wells got on their computers together and found the coordinates on Google Earth. But the cameras couldn’t show them the wreckage, an indicator that it probably wasn’t visible from a plane.

That disappointed both of them, and it inspired Wells to go back and find it. The day after the call, he let the airman know he was going back up there.

It took two tries, but he got there. He has been up there a few times in the last year, and now he knows the route well. No trail goes there, so Wells relies on memory and instinct. He starts at Gold Prize Creek, and from there it’s a matter of choosing the right draws and creek drainages to climb. Once on the right ridge, he heads west, going slightly downhill.

There, the debris appears in small pieces at first and then multiplies. Rusted out cans, shining aluminum, panels with bolts stuck in them, engine pieces. Some of it’s big, some of it’s small. It's everywhere, and it doesn't seem to stop. 

After returning there for the first time in decades, Wells began to wonder. Why isn’t there a bronze plaque or something up there to recognize those guys? The four airmen who died on duty? Or to explain what the piles of metal are? It all felt incomplete to him.

“I thought, I’m gonna do it. Somehow, I’m gonna get that done,” Wells said.

He asked the local U.S. Forest Service district office if putting a plaque there was a possibility, but the answer was no.

Marna Daley, a Forest Service spokeswoman, said size and merit of memorials don’t really matter. She said the problem is that any memorial would take up a piece of public property for one reason only and that would prevent other people from using that particular portion of ground.

“The intention of those public lands is that they are available to everyone,” Daley said.

Also, she said, they worry about setting a precedent.

“We receive requests from folks to put memorials on public land regularly, and we just can’t accommodate that,” Daley said.

A roadside memorial was another option, but Wells said he was told developing one would take several years — time he’s not sure he or the remaining family members of the four men have.

He wasn’t done. He had an idea for a place on private land that would work: the Chico Cemetery, off a dirt road near his house, Emigrant Peak looming to the East.

The cemetery board OK'd the idea one day and picked a spot the next.

“That’s the kind of bureaucracy I like,” Wells said. “And it just kind of has blossomed from that.”

He started making plans. A gazebo needed built, the plaque needed designed and a dedication ceremony needed to be set up. He wanted living relatives of the four men to come to the ceremony, but he needed to find them first.

That’s when he called his cousin’s husband, Keith Joiner, an amateur genealogist who lives in Hot Springs.

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Air Force plane crash on Emigrant Peak

Keith Joiner and his wife's cousin have been working for more than a year to create a memorial for the four men who died in an Air Force bomber crash on Emigrant Peak in 1962. 

Joiner started with the names of the four guys, their ages and where they were from. With that in hand, he sat down at the computer.

“I just started Googling,” Joiner said.

Finding family

Brenda Simmons had just returned home to Sistersville, West Virginia, after spending some time in Florida when the call came. It was someone from the Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter in nearby Fairmont. A man from Montana wanted to talk to her about her brother, Fred Hixenbaugh.

“I was like, just sort of stunned,” Simmons said.

Finding Simmons was one of the more challenging searches for Joiner. Others he tracked down online, but there were too many Hixenbaughs in West Virginia to narrow it down.

So Joiner, a veteran and VFW member, e-mailed a few West Virginia VFW posts and got them doing legwork for him. Word got around to the right place, and Simmons gave him a call.

She heard all about what was going on in Montana, that someone wanted to commemorate her brother’s death and they wanted her and anyone else to come for a ceremony.

“We had no idea that anything like that was going to happen,” Simmons said.

Simmons, who is now 73, remembers the day the crash happened. She was at work at the Viking Glass Company in New Martinsville, a town not far from Burton, where they grew up on a farm. There were four kids, and Simmons was the youngest.

Her oldest brother, Charles, came to the office and asked her if there was a place they could talk. They went downstairs into the break room and he told her Fred’s plane had gone down and he hadn’t been found. 

“And then I went home and I stayed at home,” she said.

For a few days, they held out hope. All they knew at first was that Fred was missing. Maybe he ejected, they thought. Maybe he would be OK. But about a week later, a strange car came to the house.

“When the men got out of their car in their uniforms we knew for sure what it was,” she said.

Margaret Culp, the sister of Bill Faulconer, was home from college at Wichita State University when the call came. They lived in El Dorado, Kansas, where their father ran a dairy.

Her mother was out getting her hair done when Culp’s father answered the phone. He waited until his wife was home to tell everyone the news. Like the Hixenbaughs, Culp and the family held out hope.

“I guess we didn’t think too much about it. They just said the plane was lost and we were thinking perhaps there were survivors,” Culp said.

Eventually, though, the terrible possibility became the assumption, and then the assumption became reality. Culp said they had a funeral with an empty casket, probably nothing more than a uniform inside.  

For a few years after the crash, Culp lived with Faulconer’s widow, Myrna Fair. Their lives went on. Myrna remarried, and Margaret, who is now 75, eventually had a family of her own.

That’s how it was for each of the families. Life went on, tragedy fading to the background but never completely out of sight. They could never forget the men they lost.

That’s why Culp, too, was happy to get Joiner’s call. She will pack up this week and travel to Montana from her home in California.

“I don’t quite know what I’m going to,” Culp said. “But I decided I would show up because I think it’s a nice tribute.”

Simmons is one of a number of her family members planning to make the trip. Her sister who lives in Florida plans to come, as do Fred’s widow, Donna, and his son Bryan.

Simmons said the ceremony and plaque might be good for them. Her brother was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, but Simmons said the funeral was so regimented and rigid that she didn’t feel they got closure. The ceremony this coming weekend might change that, even if it rekindles old sadness.  

“I know Saturday is going to be kind of hard,” Simmons said.

Lifting the weight

It would be easy to miss the Chico Cemetery. Cars rumble past on a gravel road, and it takes close eyes to spot the gate for the road to the collection of headstones. A small sign on the gate was the only clue that anything was out there until a few weeks ago.

Wells has built the gazebo and put up a flagpole, both visible from the gravel road.

Inside the gazebo will be a plaque, designed by Wells’ daughter-in-law. On it, there’s a picture of the peak and the plane, complete with the right tail number, and a short description of what happened there on July 23, 1962.

Saturday is the big day. Military officials, politicians, folks who worked on the fire or search and rescue – they’ll all be there. A band will play taps and a singer will do the national anthem.

In chairs up front, Wells will reserve spots for the 25 or so family members he estimates are making the trip. They’re coming from Texas and West Virginia and California and from wherever else they ended up in the past five and a half decades.

He has talked with some of them and he said the crash is still an incredible weight on them, all these years later.

“It reminds you the sacrifice families make,” he said. “It is huge. It is so huge. More than a guy ever really realizes.”

The day after the ceremony, he plans to take a group on a hike to the wreckage. His instinct and memory will guide them up the game trails and draws and across the ridges to the never-ending field of debris, the true final resting place for four young men.

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Air Force Plane Wreck on Emigrant Peak

Old Chico resident Bryan Wells hikes toward the debris field on the slopes of Emigrant Peak.

Decades ago, the year after the crash, three of the widows tried to reach the site. They met up in Kansas and drove to Livingston, where they arranged a trip to up there with the Forest Service.

Jim Woodhull, who recently died of a heart attack, was one of two men who took them there. He wasn’t so sure it was a good idea.

“I tried to talk the ladies out of going,” Woodhull said. “You know, that’s an emotional thing.”

But they wanted to go. Myrna Fair, Bill Faulconer’s widow, was on the trip. She said that didn't really matter. They wanted to see it.

“We just were curious,” Fair said. “When they are killed somewhere else … you want to go up there.”

They drove there and started walking. Fair, who is now 81, said only one of the three made it to the wreckage. She brought back small pieces of the plane for the others.

Fair keeps hers in a coin purse.  

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Emigrant Peak

Morning light shines over Emigrant Peak in June.

Michael Wright can be reached at mwright@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2638. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1. 

Michael Wright covers the environment and wildlife issues for the Chronicle.

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