Tragedy on Middleton Island
The following is the account of four young airmen that were died on Middleton Island. Some reports say the airmen drowned but that was not the case. It was revealed later that there were no water in their lungs and the men had frozen to death.
The names of the four men are;
The date was Saturday .February 22, 1958
A/3c Travis Robert Downing, A/3 18, New Bedford, MA.
A/1c Frank B. Slaughter Jr. 26, Married and a Father of 4, Home town, New Bedford, MA.
A/1c William C Crouch,
A/3c James M. Rawlson of Lumpton City, TN. My deepest thanks to SSgt Frank Sawyer of the recovery team for the information
I am writing this with some difficulty but I feel it is necessary so as to keep this information from being lost and that the four airmen will never be forgotten and may God bless them and their families....A/2c Armand Biron
It started out as a beautiful day to walk the beach, which many of us had done during our stay at Middleton Island. It was a great picture opportunity and a chance to pick up glass fishing floats which usually washed up on the beach from Japan. The four airmen started out on the beach on the south east side of the island while several airmen also walked along the top of the cliff sometimes within hollering distance.. A/2c Wiliam (Bill) Price, who was part of the recovery team writes;
"The fellows were walking the islands' shore at low tide....However...It was a freak accident as there was an earthquake somewhere in the Gulf of Alaska or Pacific ocean and there was an unexpected tidal wave that came in while the fellows were walking around the island shore. This unexpected rise trapped the fellows below the 100 feet high plus cliffs with no way of escape. The tidal wave went back out after about two hours, then was immediately followed by the high tide coming back in at the regular time."
The same beach at high tide
William "Bill" Price was one of the recovery team members and along with Harold Ackeret placed ropes hangin down the cliffs face as a safety measure. When I arrived in 1959, the were still remnants of two of the ropes but none of them were maintained.
Here is a good view from the top of the cliffs in the area where the airmen lost their lives...It was later reported that in 1962 a geologist fell from the top of the cliff and was killed Photo by Bill Price
This is William "Bill" Price on one of his ropes
Carrying the HEavy ropesClick here to add text.
A/3c Jerry R. Hugard wites; ...."That was indeed a sad day. I was a good friend of Frank Slaughter. I also remember how much he was looking forward to seeing his new born baby for the first time. Frank informed me before the drowning that he and some others were going to walk the island and take pictures before he returned to the states. I agreed that I would join the group, however, I worked mid shift that night and when I got off work in the morning I found Frank and I told him I was really tired and I would not join the group that day. This incident had an adverse impact on my brother, Jimmy, for the remainder of his life. As some may recall, either two airmen were able to scale the cliffs or an airman heard the cries for help and came back to the barracks for help. In the haste and confusion of the moment, no ropes or a vehicle with a (winch) was taken back to the cliffs. Two airmen were still clinging to the cliffs and my brother, who had been a professional acrobat working the trapeeze among other things before joining the Air Force, pleaded and begged the person in charge to have everyone tie together parkas , trouses etc and lower him over the cliffs so that he could help bring the men to safety. His request was denied, likely for fear of loosing another man. Given the facts and circumstances, it is still my opinion that whoever was in charge made the correct decision that day. At any rate my brother was angry and cried on and off for days. Jimmy (Hugard) was also one of the airmen that helped recover the last body which was found on the other side of the island 3 days later" A/3c Jerry R. Hugard
A Most Probable Culprit to the Incident
There has been several possible causes that have been speculated over the years but the one that makes the most sense is that the airmen experienced a tsunami. William (Bill) Price A/2c has done some fantastic research on this and has come up with information that it may have been indeed a tsunami that resulted in the wave that claimed four innocent lives.
Bill Price, through many hours of research has discovered that an earthquake had occurred in the Aleutian Islands that fits the time to the tragic event. Bill writes:
Circlr Search Earthquakes 2
Circle Center Point (Middleton Island Alaska),
Latitude 59.430N Longitude 146.300W
Search Radius from Middleton Island Alaska 3500 Km
Catalog Used: USHIS
Date Range 1958/02/21 1958/02/23
USHIS 1958 02 22 Origin Longitude and Latitude 50.32N 175.49W magnitude 6.7, Distance from Middleton Island, 2,692 Km (1,673) miles.
Bill further writes that the times are within the parameters of the event on Middleton Island.
IE; "Quake Center at 1,673 miles away, traveling at 400 Miles per hour = 4.8 hours to get to Middleton Island"
Traveling at 500 Miles per hour = 3.35 hours to get to Middleton" .... Bill Price
My sincerest thanks to William (Bill) Price for all his help and research....Armand
Airman Tony Lusk, another one of the airmen who helped retrieved the bodies writes:
" One of the things I remember was standing Honor Guard at the door of the little shack that kept our boys that died that day. It was a typical winter night with rain and high winds. I was standing near the door late that night. The old shack was pretty spooky to a raw 19 year old and when the diesel engine from the power plant kicked into high gear I almost pulled a runaway it sared me so badly. I just knew one of the guys wanted out and I was in the way. I also remember when the Air Force Search and rescue SA-16 (helicopter) tried to land on the coast, close to the tragic site. It was very windy, cold and the waves were high. It tried many times before giving up....."
"" I also remember a Capt. Harmon as he was trying to recue the bodies from the angry sea, he broke his ankle and was flown out on the SA-16 to Elmendorf AFB.".....Tony Lusk
My deepest thanks to all that have contributed to this article. If anyone has any other relevant information or photos that may be added to this article please let me know via email or by making an entry in our Guest Book...thank you, Armand
Airman Jimmy Rawlstonck here to add text.