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Marines to note 60 years since Rainier crash

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Thirty-two Marines died when their transport plane crashed into Mount Rainier in December 1946 and the men remain on the mountain face, forever entombed by decades of snow and ice.

Every year, members of the local detachment of the Marine Corps League honor their memory with a ceremony at Veterans Memorial Park in Enumclaw. This year's event is special, commemorating the 60th anniversary of the tragedy.

The Mount Rainier Detachment will host this year's ceremony beginning at noon Saturday. As always, the public is invited, along with family members of those killed on the mountain 60 years ago. Because the 60-year ceremony takes on added significance, the crowd is expected to be larger than usual, with more family members than ever, a Marine Corps major general, representatives for both Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell and active duty Marines attending.

Major Gen. Michael Lehnert, commanding general of Marine Corps Installations West, has agreed to be the keynote speaker.

Enumclaw's annual ceremony commemorates and tragic event that began Dec. 10, 1946, when six Curtis Commando transport planes - carrying more than 200 U.S. Marines - departed California en route to Seattle. The aircraft encountered poor weather over southwest Washington, causing four to turn back and land in Portland; one managed to land safely in Seattle while the other continued on.

That sixth plane, carrying 32 Marines, soon vanished. Search-and-rescue aircraft were grounded due to the inclement weather and searchers on foot found nothing. After two weeks, the hunt was suspended. The Navy determined the aircraft was blown off course by high winds and flew into the side of Mount Rainier, a theory validated in July 1947 when Bill Butler, a Mount Rainier National Park employee, spotted wreckage on South Tahoma Glacier. Search parties examined the debris and confirmed that it came from the missing plane. Four weeks later, the bodies were found high on the face of the glacier, but extremely hazardous conditions forced authorities to abandon plans to remove them for burial.

In memory of those Marines, a stone memorial was placed at Round Pass on the west side of the road, within sight of the glacier.

Because it became increasingly difficult for the public to access the memorial - it can be seen now only by those willing to tackle a difficult 4.5-mile hike - the local Marine Corps League detachment decided to place a nearly-identical stone at Veterans Memorial Park. Each year, at the site, the detachment honors the memory of the deceased Marines with a ceremony.

Jack Warren, who has been active in both the development of the park and the memorial, recalls three promises made nearly a decade ago. First, it was determined all 32 Marines killed on the mountain would be made citizens of Enumclaw, a step quickly accomplished by decree of then-mayor George Rossman, and second, it was decided all 32 would forever be carried on the roster of the Mount Rainier Detachment of the Marine Corps League.

Promise No. 3 was much more ambitious and proved difficult. Warren went national with a desire to see the federal government issue a medal to the next of kin of anyone accidentally killed while on active duty (as was the case with the 32 on the mountain). That goal has gone unfulfilled. However, the local detachment, working on a smaller scale, has had special medals created for the 60th anniversary of the Mount Rainier tragedy and will be passing those out to family members, and others, during Saturday's ceremony.

Kevin Hanson can be reached at khanson@courierherald.com.

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