MOSES LAKE - It was a few days before Christmas in 1952, and dozens of servicemen at the former Larson Air Force Base were eagerly preparing for a long-awaited trip home for the holidays.
Many had won a lottery to be part of "Operation Sleigh Ride," an Air Force program designed to bring servicemen home for the holidays during the Korean War. Others were given their seats on the C-124A Globemaster plane designated for the operation by friends who had, for one reason or another, decided to stay in Moses Lake for Christmas.
No matter how the servicemen on Operation Sleigh Ride received their seats, they were all anxious to see the families they had gone years without seeing. But tragedy struck before they could make their journey home.
As the plane carrying 115 passengers and crew attempted to take off the morning of Dec. 20, 1952, headed for Texas, a mechanical issue caused the plane to crash shortly after takeoff.
Eighty-seven airmen died in that crash and the accident was considered the world's worst air disaster up to that time.
The crash was a tragedy for the Moses Lake community at the time, and members of the Forgotten Heroes' Memorial Committee want to make sure that the community continues to remember that piece of history.
The committee has worked on getting a permanent memorial constructed to honor the lives lost during the crash for more than a year.
A ground breaking for the memorial was held in September of last year, and committee co-chair Jeniel Cramer said she was glad the Forgotten Heroes' Memorial was completed in time to commemorate the 60-year anniversary of the event.
Dozens of community members gathered at the Grant County International Airport Thursday to honor the servicemen who died in the crash, and to see the newly constructed memorial.
"I'm just really thrilled to see so many people here," said Cramer. She said that she hopes people continue to share the story and visit the new memorial throughout the year.
Cramer recognized the students and instructors at the Columbia Basin Job Corps for their hard work during the construction of the memorial.
"We are so proud of the Job Corps," she said. "Without them this memorial would not have been done this year."
Moses Lake city councilman Dick Deane said he remembers the day the crash happened. He was headed home from an early practice at the high school with his brother, and they could see the smoke from the airfield across the lake from their Mae Valley residence, he said.
"We saw all the smoke and all the activity," said Deane. "Everyone was wondering what had happened."
Deane said it took a while for the information to get out, since there was no television station and only one radio station at the time. But when his family did hear the news, they were stunned, he said.
His older sister was engaged to an airman at the base, said Deane, and his family knew several other servicemen since they would come to his house from time to time. His sister's fiancee was supposed to be on that flight, but gave up his seat to spend Christmas in Moses Lake.
"When this all went down, it was a definite shock to our family, and to our community," said Deane.
Rep. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, also spoke during the commemoration, and told the story of another servicemen who also gave up his seat on the Operation Sleigh Ride flight at the last minute.
Airman Tommie Tindell was selected to go home for the holidays, she said, but was engaged to a girl from Othello. At the time, she told him to give up his seat on the plane because she had a bad feeling about the flight.
Warnick said Tindell ended up giving his seat to his best friend. Tindell was present during the memorial's ground breaking, where Warnick heard his story.
Tindell died this year on July 4, otherwise Warnick said she knew he would have not missed the commemoration for anything.
"They have been called forgotten heroes," said Warnick. "But thanks to some wonderful folks here in the community and the state, they are not going to be forgotten any longer."
Warnick said she is glad there is a permanent memorial at the airport to commemorate the historic event.
"Our future generation will know that freedom is not free, and we live in the land of the free because of the brave," she said. "And those folks were brave men."