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Six Decades after Crash on Glacier, Lost Waukesha Airman Laid to Rest

Soldiers search for aircraft wreckage, remains, or other personal effects on Colony Glacier, Alaska, June 25, 2012, while conducting recovery operations at an aircraft crash site near Anchorage, Alaska. (U.S. Army photo by Capt. Jamie D. Dobson)
Soldiers search for aircraft wreckage, remains, or other personal effects on Colony Glacier, Alaska, June 25, 2012, while conducting recovery operations at an aircraft crash site near Anchorage, Alaska. (U.S. Army photo by Capt. Jamie D. Dobson)

Waukesha -- For more than six decades, Thomas Condon and 51 others aboard an Air Force cargo plane were lost on an Alaskan glacier.

It was not to be Condon's final resting place.

Four years after an Alaska National Guard Blackhawk helicopter crew on a training mission spotted the wreckage of the C-124 Globemaster on Colony Glacier, Condon's remains were returned to his hometown. Finally, he is no longer missing in action.

Condon's family laid him to rest in a solemn ceremony Wednesday at St. Joseph's Cemetery in Waukesha beneath an American flag flapping in a breeze, flags of all five military branches and the MIA/POW flag.

Joe McGavock, 84, grew up next door to his cousin, who was a year younger.

"He was a helluva good guy, he had no enemies. He was a charming guy," recalled McGavock.

Condon loved playing baseball and going to stock car races at State Fair Park with his buddies on Tuesday nights. He was a gear head who enjoyed working on cars and learned to drive at a young age. He bought a Jeep to help him deliver his paper route in Brookfield and the Calhoun neighborhood of New Berlin, and worked nights at a drive-in theater.

After graduating from Waukesha High School in 1951, he enlisted in the Air Force and bought a motorcycle, which he drove to his base in Texas, said McGavock.

McGavock saw Condon for the last time at McGavock's wedding while Condon was home on leave. A year after Condon joined the military, McGavock was drafted into the Army and sent to Korea with an artillery unit.

"I was in Korea at the time and he wrote me a letter that he was going to Alaska," said McGavock.

On Nov. 22, 1952, Condon boarded the C-124 at McChord Air Force Base in Washington state, one of 41 Air Force and Army passengers and 11 crew members. The plane headed northwest to Elmendorf Air Force Base 1,400 miles away near Anchorage. When it didn't arrive, the military sent out search planes that combed the rugged terrain. Hampered by bad weather, they found nothing.

Finally, six days later, the wreckage was discovered on the south side of Mount Gannett, the tail section sticking out of the snow. It appeared the plane had slid down the peak and exploded, triggering avalanches that buried the plane. The passengers were considered unrecoverable.

"Tommy had wrote me a letter that he was going to Washington and then to Alaska. I read about the crash in Stars and Stripes and I thought 'Oh, I hope Tommy wasn't on that plane.' All I could do was pray," said McGavock, who later received a letter from his family confirming his worst fears.

Finally home

On June 9, 2012, the Alaska National Guard crew spotted aircraft wreckage and related debris. Another team landed at the site three days later to photograph the area. They found artifacts at the site pointing to the 1952 C-124 Globemaster crash, and later that month members of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command began recovery operations.

The wreckage was found on a melting Colony Glacier, nearly 14 miles from the crash site, and roughly 40 miles northeast of Anchorage in an area known as the graveyard of planes. The snow and ice had melted enough to make recovery now possible. Still, teams had only a short window of two months during the summer when they could search for remains. In 2014, the military asked Condon's younger brother Bill for a cheek swab to test for DNA.

On Wednesday, the 19-year-old airman second class was honored at a Mass at St. Joseph Catholic Church, the same parish Condon attended as a boy growing up in Waukesha and where a memorial service was held for him in 1952. They sang hymns and patriotic songs, including "America the Beautiful" and "God Bless America." The church's bells tolled at the end of the service as Condon's remains were taken to a waiting hearse.

At the cemetery, an honor guard from Scott Air Force Base in Illinois held open the American flag that covered Condon's casket and bowed their heads during the short ceremony in front of a black granite monument with the words "They rest in honored glory."

Elderly men wearing veterans caps saluted and Condon's family held their hands over their hearts as the honor guard fired a 21-volley salute and listened to a bugler play taps. Among them was McGavock, grateful to the military for its pledge to never stop looking for its lost and missing.

"We're so thankful to have Tommy home," he said.

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