Squadron continues tradition of honoring fallen comrades

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Aaron Cram
  • 353rd Special Operations Group
A 1st Special Operations Squadron Combat Talon II crew departed from Kadena Air Base Feb. 26 on a unique mission to commemorate their fallen brethren who were lost 31 years ago when a 1st SOS MC-130E, call sign STRAY 59, crashed during an exercise killing eight of nine crew members and 15 special operators that were passengers.

The crew flew more than three hours to reach the exact coordinates of the crash site to release a ceremonial wreath in commemoration of the sacrifice made by the men of STRAY 59 Feb. 26, 1981. The memorial flight has been flown every year since the tragic accident and the crew members are grateful to pay tribute to their fallen comrades.

"Each year we fly this mission to honor the crew of STRAY 59 and their special operations brothers that perished that fateful day over 30 years ago," said Lt. Col. Andrew Lewin, the 1 SOS commander. "Our fallen comrades helped build the heritage of this unit. This flight is a small way for us to pay tribute to those Air Commandos that came before us."

The members of the 1 SOS share their commander's feelings toward their unit and the crew of STRAY 59, and feel a great sense of pride in honoring them. This is especially true for the crew members who have flown these memorial flights in the past and the aircraft commander for this year's flight.

"I am deeply humbled to honor our fallen brothers and their families," said Maj. Jeremy Bergin, the aircraft commander. "As the squadron's 59th Combat Talon II crew commander, I carry the call-sign GOOSE 59 and unfortunately this is my last flight with the 1st SOS. Some may not realize how important heritage is, but it means a great deal to me. We can't understand where we are headed if don't know where we have been. I can't think of a more fitting way for me to pay tribute than for one 59 to honor another on our last flight with the 1st SOS. I am filled with a great deal of pride to carry on this tradition and carry the call-sign GOOSE 59."

"This flight has great significance, not just to me, but to the 1st Special Operations Squadron and the Talon community as a whole," said Staff Sgt. Ian MacGregor, a 1 SOS loadmaster. "I am deeply honored to be a part of this and proud to honor the fallen."

In February 1981, crews from the 1 SOS were responsible for the airlift during Special Warfare Exercise 81, an annual joint exercise in the Philippines hosted by the U.S. Navy SEALS. The squadron established an Air Force Special Operations Base at Naval Air Station Cubi Point, Philippines, and crews flew day and night missions involving low-level, psychological operations, infiltration and exfiltration of forces.

Maj. James M. Kirk commanded STRAY 59 and a crew from the 1 SOS that was responsible for a total of 12 missions during the 16-day exercise. STRAY 59 was scheduled to be his crew's final mission during the Specwarex 81.

The morning of Feb. 26, 1981, the crew's takeoff time for the mission was slipped from 1:05 a.m. to 4:30 a.m. due to an extended crew day on their mission a day before. STRAY 59, executed a non-tactical departure from Cubi Point at 4:28 a.m. and executed a tactical landing back at Cubi Point at 5:06 a.m. to quickly load 15 personnel participating in the exercise. STRAY 59 executed a tactical departure two minutes later. The crew made their operational normal call six minutes into their low-level flight with a ground radio station. The second, and last, transmission from STRAY 59 was received at 5:21 a.m.; and there had been no indication from the crew to indicate a problem with their aircraft.

Minutes later, a local fisherman watched the aircraft impact the water and explode. Eight crewmembers and 15 special operators were killed instantly. One crew member from the 1st SOS, the electronic warfare officer, was thrown from the wreckage and rescued by a local fisherman.

The investigation conducted on STRAY 59 could not pinpoint the exact cause of the accident. The lack of physical evidence following the crash hindered the investigation. Minutes after impacting the ocean the wreckage sank to a depth of 240 feet.

The 1 SOS members lost Feb. 26, 1981, during the STRAY 59 crash are Maj. James Kirk, aircraft commander, Capt. Norman Martel, pilot, Capt. Thomas Patterson, navigator, Capt. Gregory Peppers, navigator, Tech. Sgt. Stephen Blyler, radio operator, Tech. Sgt. Barry Chumbley, loadmaster, Tech. Sgt. Gary Logan, loadmaster, and Staff Sgt. John Felton, flight engineer.