The Gander memorial – Task Force 3-502nd Memorial Park – sits on the peninsula between Fort Campbell’s Screaming Eagle and Normandy boulevards.
It was established to honor the Soldiers and crew members who lost their lives in the Dec. 12, 1985, crash of Arrow Air Flight 1285 at Gander, Newfoundland, Canada.
The flight was scheduled to bring 248 Soldiers – all of whom were attached or assigned to 3rd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, “Strike and Kill,” 2nd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division – home to Fort Campbell following asix-month peacekeeping mission to the Sinai Peninsula in the Middle East. There were no survivors.
Canadian Sugar Maples stand at the site as a living memorial to the Soldiers and eight crew members who perished in the crash that remains the worst peacekeeping mission air tragedy in United States military history.
Each year on Dec. 12, now-2nd Brigade Combat Team hosts a ceremony at the memorial site where Families, veterans of 3rd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, and friends come to support one another, heal and remem- ber those lost so long ago.
“At one of the previous ceremonies, the forester walked up and noticed that the trees were not doing well,” said Chris Collins, civil engineer, Directorate of Public Works. “They were planted 20 feet apart, and are not getting sunlight and the replacement trees are not growing. They are just not a healthy stand of trees. There was a concern that the trees are not going to last much longer.”
The plan to move Task Force 3-502nd Memorial Park was introduced to Families and veterans during the 30th anniversary commemoration of the crash. Since that time plans have been finalized by the DPW, garrison leadership, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, and the Families touched by the tragedy.
The memorial’s new location is adjacent to the current site where an old World War II motor pool once stood, Collins said.
“We are going from a 2 1/2- acre site of which 1 1/2-acres are planted with trees and put it on a 12-acre site and plant the trees at a much wider interval – 40 feet – so they will have more sunlight and we have a long-term memo- rial,” he said.
The plans for the new memorial site were created with significant input from Gander widows, who were included in all of the major decisions, said Amy Gallo, Gander widow of Staff Sgt. Richard S. Nichols.
“The Families were always included in every aspect of this – that was very important to us,” Collins said.
Honoring those lost
As the news of the tragedy in Gander spread in December 1985, a 15-year-old Canadian teenager Janice Johnston (now Nikkel) wanted to find a way to honor the fallen Soldiers of 3-502nd Inf. Regt.
“I wanted these Families to know that we as Canadians cared,” Nikkel said.
She wrote a letter to the Toronto Star saying that she wanted to donate the money she earned babysitting for trees to establish a living memorial in honor of the Soldiers who died in her country.
“The trees were to be a living reminder of their loved ones – a tangible place to visit filled with beauty and life,” Nikkel said. “I feel privileged to have been part of the story of healing for so many of you, and to have been a part of the 30th anniversary was such a treat.”
Her letter and $20 donation sparked international support that resulted in the donation and planting of 256 Canadian Sugar Maple trees – one to honor each person who died in the crash. The tree-filled memorial was dedicated on Sept. 20, 1986.
Replacing the grove
The Canadian Sugar Maples were planted in a 20-by-20-foot grid pattern that did not allow room for root and crown growth, Collins said. The trees’ root systems have become intertwined and the overcrowding will eventually lead to the entire grove failing.
As the Families and veterans touched by the Gander tragedy have come to grips with the need to replace the current memorial, the planning for the new site has entered its final stage. The final ceremony at the current site will be Wednesday.
For Gallo, who has been part of the planning process for the new site since its inception, this moment is bittersweet.
“Honestly sitting through all of these meetings is probably the hardest thing that I have ever done because we are literally talking about deconstructing ourmemorial. The grove of trees – I go to that tree more than I go to his grave and he is in [Fort Donel- son National Cemetery]. When I feel like I have to visit I go there to visit my husband,” Gallo said. “This is what the Army gave us, we took it so willingly and we so understand why it has to move. That is not an issue. We are not angry or hurt or anything like that – we are just sad because after this year it will always be different.”
The original memorial will continue on in a small way, as eight trees were relocated to the 2nd Brigade Combat Team memorial on Memorial Row, Gallo said. Additional trees may be moved to Strike headquarters.
“We [the Families and veterans of the Gander tragedy] are now part of Memorial Row, a part of us is there,” she said. “I am so thankful to Chris Collins and Strike 6 [Col. Joseph E. Escandon].”
On Feb. 8, the Task Force 3-502nd Memorial Park will be decommissioned, Collins said. Work on the adjacent lot has been underway for some time and will include site prep with dirt work completed with soil from a berm removal at Campbell Army Airfield.
In April the trees and name bricks will be removed from the original site. Gallo and other Gander survivors have not yetdetermined what they will do with the harvested wood, but the bricks will be stored until the Dec. 12, 2019, dedication ceremony.
Gallo has commissioned some students from Austin Peay State University’s art department to do rubbings of the name bricks.
“I have a Clarksville framing business owner who wishes to remain anonymous who will frame one rubbing for each Family,” she said.
Because the bricks will not go into the new site, Families will be permitted to take theirs if they wish to do so following the dedication ceremony. Of the 17 members in Gallo’s husband’s platoon six do not have Family left, she said. Gallo plans to take those brick and store them for her oldest son, who will eventually construct a memorial garden in honor of his father and his platoon.
“Rick would want me to still take care of his men – you know that is what he did,” Gallo said.
Once the hardscape is in place at the new site the three black granite monuments honoring Task Force 3-502nd will be relocated to the new memorial site.
“I admit I feel a wee bit sad, but I am also excited for the vision of the new park to help keep the memories of these loved ones alive,” Nikkel said. “The memorial will be beautiful and will keep the legacy of these loved ones for many more years to come.”
The new memorial site is roughly five times the size of the original. Following the request of the widows, two sugar maples will stand on either side of the monuments representing the commander and the command sergeant major of Task Force 3-502nd – Lt. Col. Marvin Jeffcoat and Command Sgt. Maj. Hasland O. Black.
The remaining sugar maples – 254, representing the Soldiers and crewmembers – will be set back from the monuments on a 40-foot grid as if standing in formation. There will be walkways throughout the memorial with on oval opening among the trees where Gander Families hope to eventually place benches.
Although none of the trees will have name bricks, the monument itself features nine story boards about the mission to the Sinai Peninsula and the tragedy, there will be an additional board – bigger than the nine – that will have a map of the memorial site with the names of the Task Force 3-502nd Soldier above each tree.
The Gander Families are researching ways to put the names back on the trees that will be non-obstructive to mowing and maintenance, and weather resistant. A new addition to the memorial will be the inclusion of the names of the eight crew- members who also perished in the crash.
Gallo said at the time of the memorial construction bricks, the names of the crew were unavailable, and as time went by the names were forgotten. Thanks to Facebook and a visit to the Arrow Airlines page, she now has the names and their home country.
“No one knew the names and we, the widows, hated it – they are people too. After getting on that page a lot of different people got ahold of me and got the names and who they were,” she said. “They will be as memorialized as our men – it is only right to do this.”