Published Sunday August 1, 2004

Monument to airmen's crash to be dedicated

Dedication ceremonies will be held next Sunday at 2 p.m. in Naper, Neb., for a new monument honoring 28 airmen who perished in a World War II airplane crash near the north-central Nebraska town.

At least 15 families of the airmen, from as far away as Texas and California, have indicated they will attend, said Loren Sieh of Naper, who has coordinated fund-raising efforts for a monument.

More than $11,000 has been donated toward the effort, which includes a granite marker, 24-hour lighting and a rocked road at the Naper cemetery. Valmont Industries donated three flagpoles. On one, a special "Naper 28" flag will be displayed. A state historical marker may be pursued, Sieh said.

Events will include a military flyover and speeches.

The air disaster, on Aug. 3, 1944, came during a thunderstorm as the pilots were being ferried from an air base in Bruning, Neb., to another training base in Pierre, S.D. It is the worst military air crash in state history and the second-worst airplane crash of any kind in Nebraska.

An iron cross in the middle of a remote pasture was the only previous memorial.

Naper is about 100 miles northwest of Norfolk, Neb.

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NAPER, Neb. - In 1999, Clayton Jolley left his California home for a lonely pasture in Nebraska looking for answers.

He wanted to understand how the uncle he was named for - as well as the uncle's twin brother and 26 other young pilots - had perished in the crash of an Army transport plane on the stormy night of Aug. 3, 1944. >A cross erected by the Thayer (Neb.) County Historical Society was dedicated in 2001 to mark the site where the Naper 28 died. Clayton Jolley is trying to raise money for a more fitting monument.

At the crash site, a grassy ravine southwest of Naper, Jolley found an iron cross, the only memorial to what is believed to be the worst aviation accident in Nebraska history.

He met people who had resurrected the story of the "Naper 28" from near obscurity and had contacted survivors about the before-unknown details of the tragedy.

And, in the farmyard near the crash site, Jolley found a miracle.

Mabel Sattler, whose family runs cattle at the crash site, opened up a Ziploc bag to show him a dog tag she'd found recently. The name on the tags: Clayton Jolley.

Jolley, a 45-year-old division chief for the Fire Department in Half Moon Bay, Calif., stopped to compose himself as he told the story.

"Boy, the chill that went through us, standingin that farmyard," Jolley said. "My dad had the other dog tag and had given it to me when I was 25. How in the world . . .?"

Now, Jolley is discovering a small town with a heart.

A recently formed historical society in Naper, a Boyd County farm town of 105 people just south of the South Dakota border, is trying to give the Naper 28 a proper memorial, one that isn't almost hidden in a pasture seven miles from town.

They are trying to raise $1,850 to erect a large stone monument at the local cemetery for the fliers and raise $3,000 to $4,000 more to put up a lighted flagpole and build an appropriate road to the new memorial.

"There were 28 Army pilots who lost their lives, and they're really not recognized," said Loren Sieh, a semiretired gas station owner who is heading the efforts of the Naper Historical Society. The fateful flight

The memorial, to be dedicated Aug. 8, is part of a larger effort by the historical society to keep Naper - which lost its elementary school last year - going.

The society is planning a display on the crash in a former Catholic church in Naper that it is being converted into a museum. Members also have started a town newsletter and rebuilt the town's old wooden jail.

The Naper 28 are a piece of history that had almost been forgotten.

The crash occurred during a heavy thunderstorm as the C-47 was ferrying the pilots from a World War II air base near Bruning, Neb., to another base near Pierre, S.D.

After a couple of weeks of gunnery training, the pilots were to ship out to the war.

But they never made it. Eyewitnesses saw the plane, with one wing broken off, plummet into the Sattlers' pasture upside down.

There were no survivors. The dead included Clayton Jolley and his identical twin brother, Leonard. None of the victims was from Nebraska.(Incorrect but will add names of the two others ASAP dh WEBMASTER)

The party line that rang at all the local farms alerted neighbors of the crash. It was so muddy that Connie Sattler, on whose farm the crash occurred, hooked up a team of horses to a wagon to haul the bodies out, two at a time.

Eighty-seven-year-old Irene Weickum of Naper, whose late husband, Rudy, also helped, said it was a scene he never forgot.

"He saw the bodies on the side of the hill, and it looked like they had tried to grasp the grass," she said. "It was such a terrible sight."

During a recent visit to the Sattler farm, Mabel Sattler carefully removed letters from a shoebox that her husband's parents, Connie and Emma Sattler, had received from victims' families. All made emotional pleas for any information about the accident.

During war time, the Army provided only sketchy reports about such crashes and discouraged detailed news coverage.

" . . . If only I could hear the truth about the accident, I would be so happy," wrote an anguished widow, Mrs. Charles Porter of Prosper, Texas, in October of 1944. ". . . it breaks my heart to know there was nothing I could do to help."

On Memorial Day 1946, a group from Atkinson, Neb., led by the Rev. W.C. Birmingham, erected a white wooden cross at the crash site as a memorial to airmen they never knew.

And that's the way the Naper 28 story might have ended if not for Dale Hueske, a retired Nebraska Air National Guard pilot who now lives in Wathena, Kan.

Hueske, a Hastings native, had always been bothered by the deep irony of the Naper crash.

"It was like a bunch of race drivers dying in the back of a school bus."

So he obtained the official reports about the crash, interviewed the investigators still alive and began contacting the families of the Naper 28.

The plane, he said, probably broke apart when blasted by a then-unknown "microburst" from the thunderhead.

In 1999, Hueske led a group to visit the crash site. They discovered the old wooden cross - weather-beaten, almost obscured by two cedar trees and held together by bailing wire.

That led to the dedication in 2001 of a new metal cross, erected by the Thayer County Historical Society, which was preserving the history of the Bruning Air Base.

That got folks in Naper thinking that something more needed to be done. The cross is hard to reach, on private land and two miles off the nearest highway.

"We're all getting old enough that one of these days we'll all be gone and it still won't be done," said Sieh, 62. "It's time to do it."

Sieh, frustrated by the lack of federal funding available, is reaching out for donations. "We'll do it ourselves."

Clayton Jolley said he is grateful that Hueske revived the Naper 28 story and that the small town of Naper is planning a more fitting monument.

He said that if the 28 airmen died in a plane crash today it would be a huge story but that the Naper 28 got buried in the rush to win a world war. The new monument may help change that.

"In wartime, a lot of things happened and they're just a footnote in history," he said. "I don't think it got the attention it deserved."

Donations to the Naper 28 project can be sent to the Naper Historical Society, Box 72, Naper, Neb. 68755.

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