In August 2009, I was contacted with regard to a memorial service/plaque dedication ceremony to be held in Chanolles France. I was to be sent to provide bugler support for the ceremony, which was to be held to remember the 21 victims of 2 separate plane crashes in 1948 and honor those French citizens who helped bring the dead off the mountains. My POC was LTC Robert Ditchey, then Chief of Media Operations for the National Guard Bureau. Although I was in the retired status for over a year they were able to fund the trip and I received orders and funds through the Defense Travel System. Seems that I was still in the system.
A little background on the crash.
After WWII ended, the United States military provided the opportunity for the dependents of military personnel stationed in Europe a chance to visit their husbands. Cargo ships leaving US ports to bring back equipment and the war dead had room for family members to travel to Europe, free of charge. Despite the cramped and poor conditions, many dependents took advantage of this chance and endured the awful conditions to be with their loved ones. Ships traveled to Bremerhaven, Germany and families then took trains to Rhein-Main Air Base
Military Air transport was provided to take family members from Rhein-Main to other bases in Europe. This transport was C-47 Skytrains. Once again, there were no real comforts for the families traveling by air. If you’ve ever seen “Band of Brothers” or other WWII movie about D-Day, then you have an idea of what the C-47 looks like. The plane was designed to carry 28 personnel or cargo. They were cold, loud and, in turbulence, rather unpleasant. Family members were strapped into spartan seating along the inside of the fuselage.
On 26 January, 1948 a C-47 departed from Rhein-Main Air Base for Italy. On board were four military crew and eight civilian passengers. The youngest was 11 months old. They were to meet their husbands and fathers in Udine (Trieste) Italy. The pilot decided to make a stopover in Irtres, France perhaps due to weather conditions. As the plane left Irtres on 27 January, the weather conditions were still bad. After flying toward Pisa, Italy the plane returned to Irtres. Speculation is that the weather was worse or communications could not be established with Pisa. The last radio contact was made at 1530. They were reported missing the next day and a search began trying to find the wreck on land and the Mediterranean. One of the search planes was a SB-17G (a B-17 Flying Fortress) specially outfitted for search and rescue in the years following WWII. One of the features of the SB-17G was the motorboat affixed underneath to be dropped for sea rescues. Nothing was found for two days.
On 30 January, a C-47 spotted the wreckage on a snowy ridge near Digne and the SB-17G took off with 10 on board. Six were crew and three were reporters and cameramen, and one was a passenger. The modified B-17 offered a panoramic view from the nose, which were all windows. While circling the crash area, the SB-17G slammed into White Horse Ridge, a mountain area near the small town of Chanolles northwest of Nice. Of the ten members on board, nine were killed and one, miraculously, survived. Sgt Angelo La Salle was a flight engineer who was in the back of the plane when it crashed. He said that he had moved to the rear in order for one of the journalist to get better photographs. The photographers asked to the pilot to fly lower and just before the crash La Salle heard on the intercom the co-pilot say, “You’ve got to get some altitude.” The next thing he knew was the awful crash and he awoke half naked in the snow. He had been thrown clear of the wreckage but suffered a punctured lung, three broken ribs and some superficial wounds. Despite his injuries he crawled toward the flames of the wreck to get some heat.
Some distance below, a German POW named Heinz Horst Kupski was felling trees when he heard the crash. A former Luftwaffe pilot, he saw the smoke and knew what had happened. After climbing for two hours Kupski reached the site and found Sgt. La Salle shivering and hurt but alive. He gave the US Airman some of his clothes, rubbed him with snow and offered words of encouragement in his limited English until rescuers arrived. La Salle was treated and moved to a house in Chanolles next to a small church that was set up as a temporary morgue. A few days later Kupski was released and sent home to Germany for his actions that day.
After recovering in the United States, Sgt. La Salle returned to duty in Germany. After weeks of searching, Angelo La Salle found Heinz Kupski, the man who saved his life. The two became fast friends. Kupski even was a witness for La Salle’s marriage to a German woman and when the couple left for the United States, La Salle presented him with his Ford motorcar.
The memorial to the 21 killed was the work of Andre Besson and the ARSA. The ARSA is the “Association Phodanienne pour le Souvenir Aerien” a society formed to remember aviation events that took place in southeast France so they are not forgotten. Besson grew up near Chanolles and was a teenager when the tragedy occurred. He visited the site weeks after the accident and was moved and inspired by the events. He eventually became an engineer in the French Air Force and later in the commercial field. As the years went on he always came back to the crash, collecting articles and documents. Because of the work of ARSA, the memorial was created. He eventually became an engineer in the French Air Force and later in the commercial field. As the years went on he always came back to the crash, collecting articles and documents. Because of the work of ARSA, the memorial was created.
The journey to reach the small town of Chanolles in the mountains NW of Nice took 20 hours of plane, a wild taxi ride, train, bus (when the train broke down) and finally train again. The trip started from Dulles Washington flying to Nice where I was to meet up with Col Ditche. But somehow our wires got crossed and I wound up taking the train from Nice to the town of Digne, France where we gathering before making the trip into the mountains. I was supposed to rent a car but it didn’t work out because I can’t drive a stick.
After missing my connection in Nice with the colonel and not being able to rent a car I had to look for another way to get to Digne which was about 100 miles from Nice. A Mercedes S-Class with automatic transmission was for available for 1000 euros for the weekend but I felt that would be stretching the government budget. So I let the S car go…(sorry a little bit of bad French humor)
I found there was a train leaving for Digne at 5 pm (in about 20 minutes) so I grabbed a taxi from the airport to the train station. When I told the driver that I needed to catch that train (the last one) he sped me to the station. To say it was a wild ride would be an understatement. But thanks to him I made it and purchased a ticket for the 3 hour ride up the mountain.
If I had missed this train I would have been stuck in Nice and would have missed the ceremony,
Unfortunately the train broke down on the way up the mountain and all the passengers had to get off and wait for a bus that took us to the next stop where we boarded another train.
Interesting enough, it didn’t seem to phase anyone who, I guess, are used to this inconvenience.
After a delay we boarded another train and the trip continued with more and more passengers disembarking along the way and a rain storm starting.
I became concerned that I may had taken the wrong train and it was now getting rather late. A dinner and reception had been planned and now I was running behind schedule.
I was able to borrow a cell phone and called to make sue I was indeed heading in the right direction. Yes, I was told. Just walk over to the hotel when I arrive
I made it there around 11 pm local time having missed the reception and dinner but found many of the participants still enjoying wine and desert. So I pulled out my bugle and announced my arrival much to the delight of the people in the hotel. I’m glad someone snapped a photo of a weary, wet traveler who was happy to have made it!
After a brief rest in the hotel we departed early in the morning for the half hour drive to Chanolles to set up and and do the ceremony.
The solemn ceremony included French, German and US military, civilians and 3 townspeople who help carry the our dead off the mountain. Truly a moving day for all involved. The ceremony had the anthems of the three nations performed, speeches made, wreaths presented and the sounding of Taps for the Americans who lost their lives.
The french citizens who recovered the bodies are owed much for their kindness as well as the German pilot who rescued the lone survivor and cared for him.
After the ceremony we attended a reception at the church and then a formal luncheon. The next day we drove back to Nice where I spent an extra day sightseeing before heading back to the US.
It was a wonderful experience and has become a cherished memory. My thanks to LTC Ditchey and the National Guard Bureau for making the trip possible. It was an honor to be part of this ceremony.