In 2009, HBO featured the movie “Taking Chance” in which Marine Lt. Col. Michael Strobl, portrayed by actor Kevin Bacon, escorted the remains of Marine Pfc. Chance Phelps back to his home town from the Iraq war. At Dover’s Port Mortuary, Strobl received his instructions regarding the procedures for escorting the fallen Marine and he prepared for his mission. He would travel from Dover Air Force Base by hearse with Chance’s remains to Philadelphia International Airport. From Philadelphia Strobl would fly commercial air to Minneapolis, Minnesota. Then they would travel to Billings and finally, by hearse to Phelps’s Wyoming home. Strobl escorted Chance’s remains all along the way to ensure that Chance’s remains would be handled in a dignified manner. This procedure was similar to escorting the remains of the fallen during the Vietnam War. However in the 1950s escort duty, in some cases, was more difficult due to the lack of cooperation and communication by the civilian transportation authorities.
In April 1955, concurrent with the final move of the C-124 transport squadrons from Westover AFB, Massachusetts to Dover AFB, the Port Mortuary responsibilities were also transferred from Westover. The mortuary was set up in a temporary building and this would be its home until it would relocate to a more permanent facility. At the time, the remains of the fallen would arrive in Dover by rail, military aircraft and, in some cases, by hearse for processing and preparation for departure to their final destinations. From Dover the remains were shipped by train from the Loockerman Street railway station. In 1957, I was the escort for the remains of a pilot who was killed in an aircraft accident in Europe. Our destination was San Francisco, California.
My first introduction to what would be a most unusual mission for me was meeting the casualty assistance officer who briefed me on my duties as a military escort. I was then given the name and the rank of the officer. The briefing covered my duties from the time I departed Dover to the time I returned. My mission was to ensure that the pilot’s remains were safeguarded and properly moved from Dover until I delivered them to the receiving funeral home in California. The casualty assistance officer emphasized the importance of my assignment and the requirement that I maintain the highest standards of conduct and courtesy. I was instructed not to discuss the purpose of my travel with anyone other than the carrier’s agents and their representatives. I was not to discuss with anyone rumors, speculation, or circumstances of the incident surrounding the death of the fallen. My uniform during the entire trip was class “A”. As the escort officer, my rank was required to be equal to or above that of the deceased and a representative of the same military service. We were both Air Force first lieutenants.
I was issued a train ticket and itinerary to my final destination prior to leaving Dover. I also received a Government Bill of Lading for the remains. These documents authorized transportation for me and the lieutenant to San Francisco and my return trip back to Dover. A head card was affixed to the head portion of the shipping container containing the casket, along with an envelope with the transit burial permit that I would give to the receiving funeral director. I was informed prior to my departure that if there was a change in the train schedule of more than two hours I was to call the receiving funeral director to inform him of this change. I was authorized to make official telephone calls to the casualty assistance officers both at Dover and San Francisco and the Casualty and Memorial Affairs Operations Center in the event that I was detained overnight or if some other emergency should arise. I hand carried the interment flag during my escort mission.
Following my briefing, I prepared myself for the trip departing Dover the following day. At the train station the lieutenant’s remains were waiting for me. I then gave my ticket to the ticket agent and the ticket issued for the remains and in return he gave me a ticket for my transportation and a claim check for the remains. I would retain this claim check and give it to the agent at my final destination. I supervised the loading, rendered a hand salute as the remains were loaded into the baggage car and then took my seat on the train. At each stop along the way of my three-day journey to San Francisco, I would check to make sure that the railway baggage car carrying the remains accompanied the train that I was on, as there were several train changes along the route.
In 1957, Dover’s train service was provided by the Pennsylvania Railroad. Our initial route was from Dover to Wilmington then on to Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station via coach. There we changed trains with Pullman accommodations for me the rest of the way to California.
My trip from Philadelphia took me through Harrisburg, Altoona, over the Horseshoe Curve and after a night on the train, arrived at Union Station in Pittsburgh. As we passed through Pennsylvania I had time to reflect on my younger years growing up in Hollidaysburg and entering the Air Force in Harrisburg. Our family Sunday afternoon drives would take us to see the steam engines going in and out of the roundhouses in Altoona, the mile or more of trains going around the Horseshoe Curve or a drive to Tipton Airport for an afternoon of barnstorming. I wondered what the lieutenant might have done on his Sunday afternoons. Arriving in Pittsburgh, my Pullman car and the baggage car with the lieutenant’s remains were assigned to another Pennsylvania Railroad consist that would take us to Chicago, Illinois. This required me to exit the Pullman and supervise this transition to make sure we remained together.
At Chicago we changed trains from the PRR and boarded the Union Pacific. This again required a change in my Pullman accommodations and a different baggage car for the lieutenant’s remains. Up until this point everything was running smoothly, but as I was briefed at Dover, there was a possibility that a snag could occur. Here at Chicago’s Union Train Station, I was met with not too helpful baggage handling personnel. As the remains were offloaded from the PRR train there was confusion as to their final destination although all of the paperwork was in order. I found this to be a problem further along in our journey. While awaiting the transfer of the remains and my baggage onto the Union Pacific train, there was a woman with two children, one in her arms and the other in a stroller, running down the platform to a train that was about to pull out of the station. She was not going to make it! And, I saw no one willing to help her! As I watched her I had to do something. So, with one eye on the baggage cart, I took the stroller from her and we ran together and got her onboard. No one else on that Chicago platform was willing to give a hand. In almost 60 years, my unfavorable feelings for Chicago have not yet healed. Following this incident I, along with the lieutenant, boarded the train and now we were on our way.
The Union Pacific passenger service in the 1950s was a first class operation. Shiny new diesels, top notch Pullman accommodations with a private compartment, with sitting/sleeping area, lavatory and shower, observation cars with scenic views, good food in the dining cars and pleasant and helpful Pullman porters. (At my briefing at Dover I was encouraged to tip the porters as they would be my go-tos along the way.) On the UP we traveled from Chicago through Des Moines, Iowa; Omaha and North Platte, Nebraska; Cheyenne, Wyoming and then Ogden, Utah, passing through some of the best scenery America has to offer. At Cheyenne’s Union Pacific Depot, on the track side of the train station, there was a restored stage coach, now a thing of the past. At Ogden’s Union Station and two days into our journey, my Pullman and the baggage car would now join a train consist of the Southern Pacific Railroad. Like the Union Pacific, it was another first class operation! However, on this route to California, I would experience my first real set of problems as an escort and had to telephone the CMAOC. Train telephone operations were quite different in the 1950s, as they were done by radiotelephone. To make the call, the operator did the dialing for me. The operator may have been on the train or located at another site.
Departing Ogden, we traveled the Southern Pacific’s Overland Route crossing over the Great Salt Lake’s 12 mile trestle, then on to Reno, across the Sierras, to Sacramento and then to San Francisco, or so I thought! At Dover I was not told that the SP did not go all the way to San Francisco. I was informed by the porter it would terminate at Oakland’s Central Station. At this point I placed a phone call to CMAOC. I was told that I was to inform the receiving mortuary of the estimated time of my arrival at Oakland and the hearse would meet me at the train station in Oakland.
After three days on the train, we were now at our final destination and the lieutenant was almost home. At the station’s freight section we were met by the funeral director and cargo representative. I removed the head envelope and the burial permit from the shipping container and gave them to the funeral director. Together we removed the casket from the shipping container and checked it for damage. We then draped the interment flag on the casket with the stars over the left shoulder of the remains and placed the casket into the hearse.
Having crossed the Oakland Bridge into San Francisco we arrived at the funeral home. Upon arrival we removed the flag and again checked the casket for damage. The funeral director inspected the remains and I was informed that the remains were not viewable due to their condition. He informed me that previous arrangements had been made for the lieutenant to be buried in Golden Gate National Cemetery and a military friend of the family would present the flag to his family and that I no longer would be needed. However, the funeral director suggested I remain in San Francisco for a few days, just in case I might be required for any further assistance. I was finally released by the family to return to Dover.
The train trip home was more relaxing. What was a complete surprise happened in Chicago. I found that my train ticket authorized travel on the Pennsylvania Railroad’s premier service “The Broadway Limited” to Philadelphia. Finally, having spent six days on the train with several days in San Francisco, I was finally home in Dover. Recounting the last days, I felt very satisfied with what I had done for the family of that fallen Air Force pilot.
In contrast, between 1957 and today, the government contracts Kalitta Charter Flights to fly the remains from Dover AFB to their final destination. Kalitta maintains two small jets at Dover providing dedicated transportation for fallen service members and their escorts. The flight crew stands by before takeoff as volunteers from the 436th Airlift Wing place the flag draped casket onto the airplane. The plane carries the remains and the escort to a local airport near the final resting place. Always an honorable mission.
Sometime in 1973, from Little Rock AFB, I was selected to escort the remains of an Air Force Major killed in an automobile crash to his home in New Orleans. I remember little of the details of the train trip, but I do recall the sincere gratitude of the Major’s family as they released me for the return trip. I was glad to have performed this seemingly mundane duty.