B-47 crash victims not forgotten
In February 1963, a six-engine, turbo-powered United States Air Force B-47 bomber from Lincoln Air Force Base, Nebraska suffered a catastrophic engine failure and crashed three miles north of Comfrey in Bashaw Township.
The crash killed four crew members: Pilot Capt. Donald J. Livingston (31), Navigator Lt. Thomas Hallgarth (22), Commander of 98th Armament and Electronic Squadron Lt. Col Lamar Ledbetter (41) and Lt. Michael R. Rebmann (23). Ledbetter had no ejection seat and died in the crash. Livingston, Rebmann and Hallgarth managed to eject from the plan, but due to extreme negative temperatures none made it to the ground alive.
The crash site is located near Comfrey on land owned by Floyd Bowman. The land has been donated as a perpetual memorial site for the public, but finding it is a struggle. In order to find the crash site visitors need to turn off Highway 16 onto a low maintenance road. No official signage exists along Highway 16 to indicate where to turn.
In order to direct visitors to the site and raise awareness of the incident American Legion Post 244 Commander Stanley Schotzko and Veteran Service Officer Greg Peterson brought a request to the Brown County Commissioners to place three road signs on county roads to direct visitors to the site. The Commissioners unanimously approved the placement of the signs.
The Brown County Veterans Council offered to pay the $1,500 needed for the three signs. Peterson said it only took the Veterans Council three days to raise the necessary funds.
“It’s the right thing to do,” he said.
Comfrey tried to fund the memorial for some time, but citizens faced resistance from the Air Force. Schotzko said the Air Force was reluctant to publicize that one of their planes crashed due to engine failure.
Peterson said this was not the first incident in which a B-47 Stratojet crashed due to a mechanical error. Between 1955 and 1963, over a dozen B-47s crashed in the United States. Some of the accidents were the result of human error, but others were due to malfunctioning equipment.
Schotzko remembers the crash well. He was 20 years old and working as a gas station attendant. The B-47 flew over Comfrey expelling smoke. The crash caused a shockwave throughout the town. Schotzko said he first though some farming equipment had exploded.
In the weeks following the crash Comfrey was crowded with Air Force and law enforcement personnel. The Schotzko’s gas station remained open 24 hours a day for the military and police vehicles patrolling the crash site.
Fifty years after the accident the town of Comfrey erected a memorial to the four men that perished in the crash. The monument includes four polished black granite monuments, each with a portrait of the fallen crew members etched in the stone.
Schotzko said the plan for the monument came after meeting Tammy Maher the daughter of Lt. Thomas Hallgarth. Maher never met her father as she was not yet born at the time of the crash. In fact, at the time of the accident three of crewmen had pregnant wives.
Maher wanted to visit the crash site and asked Schotzko to show her the location. It was after this visit that Stan and his wife Marianne began efforts to construct the memorial.
Marianne wrote approximately 200 donation solicitation letters to fund the Comfrey memorial. Numerous donations from friends, family and veteran’s organization help make the memorial possible. In ten months the Schotzkos raised $22,000.
In 2013, 50 years after the crash, the monument was completed and an anniversary dedication ceremony was held. Over 200 people attended. An interpretive sign was placed at the memorial giving the location of the crash, but no other signage exists to direct citizen the crash site.
The recent decision from the Brown County Commissioners will fix this oversight. The three signs will be placed on County roads near the crash site. Two of the signs will be placed on County Road 16 and the third will be on Country Road 20.
Those visiting the crash site today will find a flag marking the impact crater. Fragments of the plane are still embedded in the ground. Some rise to the surface following heavy rains. It’s a continual reminder of the past.
Marianne said the incident hit close to home and is a continuing reminder of the sacrifice made by those in the military.
The community of Comfrey continues to honor the sacrifice of the crew members and their family. Each year a scholarship is presented to two graduating Comfrey High School seniors.