McKINNEY — More than 45 years after an Air Force bomber crashed into a Lincoln County hillside, residents gathered Saturday to dedicate a roadside historical marker near the site and honor the three crewmen who died.
The dedication drew about 200 people, including some from California, Colorado, Florida and Texas. Among those attending were 45 members of the Patriot Guard Riders, motorcyclists who escort military funerals.
Rob Blakeslee, a son of the pilot, Maj. Richard F. Blakeslee, said he never would have guessed that so many people would come out to remember his father and the other two crewmen.
"Obviously for us, it's very personal," said Rob's sister, Diane Blakeslee, "but for the community, it's part of their history and symbolizes the fears and commitments of that time."
John Lunt, 72, who lives near Dallas, was making his first visit to the site where his brother, Capt. Clarence Dale Lunt, died.
"It's just overwhelming. Who would have thought 46 years later that the whole crew would be remembered in this way?" Lunt said. "This is hallowed ground for me, I'll say it like that."
The third crewman who died was the navigator, Maj. Floyd E. Acker.
A small American flag marked the site where the crew's B-58 "Hustler" went down on Dec. 12, 1966. The cause of the crash was never publicly released.
The world's first supersonic bomber, the B-58 commonly carried nuclear weapons during the Cold War, but an Air Force spokesman said at the time that the plane that crashed did not.
Able to fly at twice the speed of sound, B-58s "carried some of the most sophisticated military systems yet developed," the New York Times reported last year in the obituary of its designer, Robert H. Widmer. "The Russians had nothing that came close. Bomber pilots passed up transfers with pay raises and promotions just to fly it, Popular Science reported."
This particular plane was on a training mission from its base near Peru, Ind., when it crashed about 90 feet from the right-of-way of two 30-inch natural gas transmission lines. The plane dug a crater about 30 feet deep and 70 to 100 feet across.
"Farmers still find pieces of it when they plow their fields, and hunters, when they're walking through the woods, they still find pieces of this plane," said Chris Bennett of Columbia.
Bennett and a friend, soon-to-be Adair County schools Superintendent Alan Reed, researched the crash, conducted interviews with residents who remembered it, began a Web site called B58memorial.com, and helped raise $2,500 for the historical marker.
Memories of the crash and its aftermath are still vivid for those who lived near the site.
Darrell Hovious of Cincinnati, formerly of Lincoln County, said he and his parents "were watching The Big Valley and suddenly we lost power. And the sky grew red through the window, and the house seemed to lift up off its foundation briefly. The power quickly came back on, and I ran to the window facing east, and I saw what looked like a Christmas tree in the distance, a shower of debris.
"We got in our old Rambler red station wagon and drove over and saw the tragedy that had occurred," Hovious said. "That night we had a first-hand lesson in the idea that freedom is not free. Incredible sacrifices are made daily and hourly by our military families."
The Rev. Donald Scilley, pastor of Moreland United Methodist Church at the time of the crash, was cleared by the Air Force to have unlimited access to the site and to counsel those at the scene.
Scilley said he remembers the Air Force base commander going down into the crater, which was belching fumes and gases from the crash the night before. "Another officer said, 'Sir, I don't think you should be in there. It's not safe.' He ignored it, kept looking, hoping for a miracle, but he didn't find it.
"Why do I tell that? Because that's one of the stories that tells me that the United States of America Air Force, and I'm sure all the other branches, care about their men and women, and they were concerned about the men that had been on that plane, and they weren't concerned about their own safety."
The roadside marker on Short Pike (Ky. 1562) west of McKinney joins about 2,100 other historical markers in Kentucky. Bennett said he and Reed thought there should be something to commemorate the spot, which until Saturday was unmarked.
"Those guys, their lives were important, and their families had to give up a lot when they lost those men," Bennett said. "And the children have all suffered because one day they had a father, and the next day they didn't."