The backstory of the B52 crash – Final Mission, The North Woods

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GREENVILLE—If you drive north of Greenville on the road to Kokadjo you might notice a modest sign on the right hand side with an image of a plane and the words B52 Memorial. It commemorates an event that took place almost 60 years ago on January 23, 1963, when a hulking, 185,000-pound B-52 Stratofortress took off from Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts as part of an Air Force test of the eight-engine jet’s ability to handle low-level flight. 


Hours later, in the frigid afternoon, the monster plane crashed into the side of Elephant Mountain not far from Greenville. This plane was longer than half a football field with a wingspan of 185 feet, and the fact that any of the nine crew members survived was nothing short of miraculous. Two did – thanks to a dramatic rescue effort involving many volunteers from the area.


The B-52 Memorial sign on the Kokadjo Road north of Greenville


I have been to the site a number of times and I’m always struck by the fact that it feels very much like hallowed ground but, I did not really know much about the particulars of the plane, the crew or the rescuers. That has changed since I’ve been introduced to Final Mission, The North Woods, a book recently authored by Dr. Joseph R. Wax, a physician, medical researcher and educator from southern Maine.


 I was curious and had an opportunity to speak with him recently. He told me that he and his family had hiked to the crash site about 25 years ago and were stunned by the huge pieces of wreckage strewn throughout a forest clearing.


“It was a very unsettling experience but moving at the same time,” he said in our phone interview. “We were really drawn by the site – but had so many questions. Why was a B-52 flying over northern Maine? Who were the men and what were they like? We looked for more info and had trouble finding much.” 


Years went by with those questions going unanswered until recently Wax discovered he had a bit more time on his hands. “I decided that this was something I wanted to pursue so I took a deep dive into not just the facts of the story but also the personal stories of the families and who survived this awful tragedy.” The result is this extraordinary book.


Dr. Joseph R. Wax


When he began his daunting research, he was plagued with several bouts of self-doubt. “How would my letters of inquiry be received,” he mused. “Would there be a backlash due to painful memories? Would I be greeted with open arms?” Universally it was the latter response. Thanks to the support of the families involved Wax was able to put fingers to keyboard and the amazing backstory eloquently unfolded.


He claims his start was just dumb luck. “I started online and when I found that wasn’t enough, I tackled the local libraries in Greenville and Bangor. I looked for newspaper articles of the day and the Bangor library was stellar in helping me with that.” 


Wax pored through microfilms from the Portland Press Herald and after chasing down the crew’s hometown information found the names of children and spouses. “I’d send out letters of inquiry and hope that I’d found the right person – fortunately the approach was the right one and I was very successful.” 


At the time one of the survivors, Capt. Jerry Adler was still alive, and he invited Dr. Wax and his wife for a visit. “Within the week of his receiving my inquiry he gave me a call,” Wax said. “And then, when I was out west for a work conference, he said why not come to me – so my wife and I went and visited Jerry and his wife in Davis, California. We spent an amazing day with them looking over scrapbooks, photos and artifacts. It was just an incredible visit and as luck would have it, Jerry had stayed in touch with many of the folks involved and passed their information along to me – before you knew it, we had found everyone – kids and so forth.”


The cover of the book Final Mission: The North Woods


Enhanced with many photographs, Final Mission, The North Woods reads like an action story – I had trouble putting the book down once I started it. So many questions are answered, and the people involved leapt to life on the pages. Dr. Wax’s book is both thoughtful and thorough and if you are contemplating a visit to the crash site, you’ll find it such a rewarding read. 


“Most of all I wanted to be sensitive and respectful,” Wax said. “It was kind of difficult water to navigate at first, but fortunately from the all the responses we got, we were able to make it work. There’s a list of credits at the end of the book –dozens of people, all of whom made this book possible. For me it was such a moving story I couldn’t help but get drawn into it,” he added.  “It became a personal mission to see this through and to see that these folks have a tangible permanent recording of the events.”


Final Mission, The North Woods is available online at Amazon and You can also find copies at The Corner Shop and Kamp Kamp in Greenville, or just down the road at the Moosehead Historical Society shop in Greenville Junction. 


Dr. Wax is scheduled on May 20, 2020 for a presentation and book signing at the Bangor Public Library in association with the Piscataquis County Genealogical Society. The Moosehead Historical Society and the Shaw Public Library are cosponsoring a presentation and book signing in downtown Greenville on Wednesday, July 15, 2020.

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