A search for answers

Published 10:50 pm Friday, April 6, 2012

On January 26, 1950, a young soldier held his 23-month-old son in his arms as he kissed his pregnant wife goodbye. He was sending his family back to the states and far away from the bleak military outpost near Anchorage until their second child was born.

Later that afternoon, the C-54 Skymaster, USAF Flight 2469 disappeared somewhere over the Yukon Territory never to be seen again.

The story of Master Sgt. Robert Espe and the loss of his family resonated across the country. But that was not the whole story of Flight 2469.

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In a sleepy hamlet in Louisiana, Bessie Lee Gibson (Andrews) heard a car door close. She pulled back the curtain to see two military officers remove their caps and tuck them under their arms. Her heart broke and her life crumbled at the sight.

Staff Sgt. Clarence Anderson Gibson was one of 44 crewmembers and passengers on ill-fated Flight 2469. He left behind his wife, and two small daughters, ages two and five, and baby girl yet to be born.

Now, 62 years later, Judy Gibson Jackson of Brundidge is still holding to hope that the Skymaster that disappeared over the Yukon can be found, bringing closure to her and to the families of the other 43 passengers who were lost.

“My mother was pregnant with me when her husband was lost forever,” Jackson said. “I had hoped that one day the plane would be found before she leaves this earth. It had been my mother’s hope that she would know what happened to the love of her life before she dies. All of us, my sisters, brother and I, had hoped and prayed for that – for our mother, for us – to know what happened to our father.”

Sadly, Jackson said her mother will never know.

“Mother is 93 years old and an Alzheimer’s patient,” she said. “Her one hope was to know what happened to her husband, but she will go to her grave not knowing.”

To Jackson and her siblings, her mother is a saintly woman who picked up the pieces of a broken life and put it back together.

“Mother said she almost lost her mind, not knowing what happened to our father,” Jackson said. “For a while, there was hope. In time, hope was gone and turned to despair.

What the families were told was that two hours after the plane took off, it crossed the Yukon/Alaskan border. At 3:09 p.m., the plane sent a message as it flew over Snag. That was the last time anything was heard from the flight.

When the plane failed to show up at Great Falls that evening, a massive land and air search began.

“That’s wilderness country and icy conditions and snowstorms kept many search planes grounded,” Jackson said. “There were several reports from people who said they had seen the plane. One man near Snag said that he had seen a plane flying low and then heard a thud that shook his cabin.”

Jackson said during the first 72 hours after the plane went missing, more than 55,000 square miles had been searched by aircraft and soldiers.

“They didn’t find anything then but, a few days later, the Air Force picked up some faint radio signals but nothing came from that,” Jackson said. “It was said that no one on board knew Morse Code, but my father did. He was a radio operator in World War II and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. He was very patriotic. He loved his country.”

The search for Flight 2469 was one of the largest ever on North American soil. Two planes went down during the search but no lives were lost.

“That was a blessing,” Jackson said. “More loss of lives would have compounded the tragedy that all of us who lost loved ones have had to live with for so long.”

Jackson said her mother loved her father so much that she wanted to move back to Alabama so she could raise his children near his parents who lived in Grady.

“We couldn’t have our father’s love growing up but we could have the love and caring of his parents,” Jackson said. “Mother wanted us to know our father through them.”

Jackson said her mother shouldered the burden of the lost of her father with unimaginable strength and courage.

“I would have loved to have my father,” she said. “I never even got to see him. Not one time. Children that have both parents all their lives should be thankful every day.”

Jackson’s mother remarried when she was 3 years old.

“My stepfather died when I was 14 year old, leaving my mother with a 6-year-old son,” she said. “Yet, we were blessed with a wonderful mother who loved us and taught us right from wrong. She worked all of her adult life making sure that we were taken care of. We were never rich money wise but we had a good home and we were close and we had each other.”

Jackson said she and her siblings stood close by their mother as she drifted into dementia.

“We cared for her at home for seven years,” she said. “Seven months ago, we just could no longer take care of her at home. It broke our hearts to have to put in a nursing home but we no had a choice.”

Jackson said her mother told her children many times, “You are my life.”

“She is so dear to all of us,” Jackson said. “As I look at her, I think how much she hoped and prayed to know what happened to my father. Even though, she wouldn’t know now, it is my hope and prayer to know for her, for us and all for all of the souls who lost loved ones when that Skymaster went down.”

Jackson said it is now her mission to petition the Air Force to initiate another search for Flight 2469.

“With all of the technology that we have now, there’s a chance that the plane could be found,” she said. “There are those who think the plane might have landed on a frozen lake and sunk to the bottom when the lake thawed. If that happened, we may never know. But if it went down in the mountains, there’s a chance it could be found. I know what that would mean to me, to my family and I’m sure to other families of those lost on January 26, 1950. Knowing is hard but not knowing just tears your heart out.”