Memorial Day: Family seeks clues of B-17 crash in 1946

PORT ANGELES — Relatives of an Army Air Corps colonel who died in a B-17 plane crash on Europe’s Mont Blanc 6½ decades ago have gained a new appreciation for Memorial Day.

Sydney Upham Soelter of Port Angeles recently learned the exact date — Nov. 1, 1946 — that her grandfather, Hudson Hutton Upham, and seven others died in a mission after World War II.

Soelter and others in her extended family hope to attend a September dedication ceremony for a new memorial at the crash site on the slopes of the tallest mountain in western Europe on the border of France and Italy.

“It [Memorial Day] just has a lot more meaning because we’re talking about it all the time,” Soelter said.

Soelter and her brother, Jon Upham of Longmont, Colo., and father, David Upham of Sequim, are learning more about the crash through emails with interested parties in Europe. They learned that Hudson Upham was the co-pilot of the B-17 bomber that crashed into the 15,782-foot mountain.

“The weather was very bad, but they don’t know [what caused the crash],” David Upham said. “It’s a mystery as far as I know.”

Soelter said there are people are still trying to unravel the details of the post-war mission.

Mountain climbers, geologists and World War II aficionados have coordinated their efforts through the Internet to investigate the crash.

The military considers the crash as officially under investigation, David Upham said.

Melting glaciers have revealed more and more of the wreckage in recent years, including a propeller that will be used as part of the memorial.

David Upham, who was only 5 when Hudson Upham was killed, said the revelations of past several months have given him new insights about his biological father.

“My mom remarried right away, so dad was never really mentioned,” said Upham, a seven-year Sequim resident. “My dad was my stepdad. I knew that I had a real father who had died in World War II.

“Later, I found out that he was on a secret mission in the Army, and it was really after the war, but it still had to do with the war. But nobody knew what it was. I was curious, but no one ever really knew.

“Only in the last few months that I found out that its this tremendous effort being made to kind of pull the story together by people in Europe.”

Soelter said she has been “impressed and humbled” by the efforts of the Italian and French people. She said many of them appreciate what America did in the war.

“This has a really personal meaning to a lot of them,” Soulter said. “There are people who get excited about the sacrifice of soldiers and people who gave their life for the war.”

The quest for details has enabled Soelter to meet new relatives all over the country.

“It opened up a whole new side of the family tree that we didn’t know about,” Soelter said.

Soelter and her husband, Clint, have two sons: Elliott, 13, and Hudson, 10.

“I didn’t really pay attention to Memorial Day before, but now that I’ve heard about this, I like it a lot more,” said Hudson Soelter.

Hudson Soelter described his great-grandfather as a brave man who was “respectful to our country.”

“He got really excited about this,” Sydney Soelter said of the young Hudson.

In January, the family was contacted by an aeronautical engineer in Italy who said Hudson Upham’s “metal badges” had been found. The metal badges turned out to be Upham’s identification tags.

In addition to Col. Upham, other crew members were command pilot Col. Ford Fair, co-pilot Maj. Lawrence Cobb, navigator 2nd Lt. Alfred Ramires, engineer Sgt. John Gilbert, assistant engineer Sgt. William Hilton, radio operator Sgt. Zoltan Dobovich and assistant radio operator Sgt. William Cassel.

The remains of the crew were buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., under one marker Oct. 10, 1947.

“The aircraft exploded, and most of its pieces disappeared in the snow of the glaciers that descend from the mountain,” read a Dec. 10, 2010, blog post on www.armyairforces.com.

“After many years, progressively, several pieces of the wreckage started to be brought down by the melting glaciers, and still they do.”

Sydney Soelter said she looks forward to meeting and thanking the people who have been involved in unraveling clues about the crash.

David Upham said the story has revealed a long tradition of military service on his biological father’s side of the family. David Upham tried to enroll at Officer Candidate School, but he wasn’t accepted because of his poor eyesight. His son, Jon, was an Air Force captain.

“It’s heightened my realization of what a tremendous commitment our people made when they fought in World War II,” he said. “They gave the ultimate.”

Soelter said: “You can’t really measure the losses of what people gave because it carries on for generations.”

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Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-417-3537 or at [email protected]

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