It was the late summer of 1956. The Korean War was over. But, the Cold War was in full swing. The Soviet Union and United States were locked in a nuclear chess game, each trying to checkmate the other without turning the world into an orbiting cinder.
One of the strategies was to use every means possible, short to military confrontation, to find out where the other was in nuclear technology. Above-ground testing of nuclear weapons was still taking place. Those tests often filled the upper atmosphere with telltale particles.
Capturing and analyzing those particles was central to building that store of clandestine knowledge. And, what better way to perform such a task than with so-called weather reconnaissance flights close to the Soviet border, out of Alaska, and over the Bering Straits.
Aug. 31, 1956 "The Golden Heart," a WB-50D weather reconnaissance plane, actually a modified World War II B29, took off from Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska. An hour into the flight it crashed killing all 11 on board.
Among those were co-pilot Maj. Dale Richardson, of Arlington; 1st Lt. William John Wolters Jr., of New York; and Airman Melvin O. Lindsey, of the Gum Springs community in Mount Vernon. They are all buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Last Saturday, to mark the 50th Anniversary of their deaths, families of the three gathered at the cemetery's Old Amphitheatre to mark the occasion and celebrate their lives. At the time of their funerals, Cold War warriors passed silently into eternity so as not to admit one side or the other had lost a pawn on the chess board international intrigue.
"We come together today as a community on behalf of a nation to honor, to celebrate, and most of all to remember the lives and service of 11 airmen who died in the line of duty 50 years ago. In doing so, we honor the service and sacrifice of all those brave Americans who perished during the untold battles of the Cold War," said State Del. David Englin (D-45) in opening the hour-long service.
"President John F. Kennedy once said to a group of graduating midshipmen at the United States Naval Academy, "When there is a visible enemy to fight in open combat, many serve, all applaud, and the tide of patriotism runs high. But when there is a long, slow struggle, with no immediate, visible foe, your choice will seem hard indeed," Englin related to family members seated before him in the soaking rain above the eternal flame of the late president's grave.
"Those who served and especially those who performed classified missions during the Cold War knew they faced risks that the rest of us might never know. So it was for the men of The Golden Heart," Englin said.
"Now that the Cold War is behind us and these missions have been declassified, we must honor them publicly and share their stories. It takes a special kind of person to go into harm's way to protect others. People who do it knowing their stories will probably never be told hold a unique place even among those other heroes who serve," Englin said.
JOINING ENGLIN at the rain-drenched podium was Andrea Richardson Stowers, daughter of Maj. Richardson, and the moving force behind organizing the anniversary recognition. An Alexandria resident, Richardson Stowers was only 7 when her father died. But, her tireless research into the crash and reaching out to family members of the other airmen made Saturday's event a day to remember.
That was nowhere more apparent than at the reception following the cemetery ceremony. Gathered in the fellowship hall of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Mount Vernon were nearly 60 family members of the three airmen, sharing their stories and photographs of the last five decades.
Airman Lindsey's mother, now using a walker, told the crowd, "It's nice to be home again. This is home to me. Thank you Andrea for making this happen," said Thedessa Weaver, who now resides with her sister in Fuquay-Varina, N.C.
"My son was born in May 1936 and grew up in the Gum Springs community. Much against my wishes he joined the Air Force when he was only 17 by changing documents to say he was 18. I told him if anything happened to him, I'd never forgive him," Weaver said. The Golden Heart went down when he was only 20.
As noted by Englin, who also served as an officer in the U.S Air Force and grew up in an Air Force family, it was remarkable that Lindsey, who served as the radio operator on the Golden Heart in 1956, achieved that status as a young black man.
"Looking back at what the country was like when these men died, Airman Lindsey's achievements were remarkable. In 1956 the Montgomery Bus Boycott ended. Yet the crew of the Golden Heart was integrated. These airmen were brothers in arms," Englin said.
When Lindsey died his mother operated a beauty shop at 500 N. Columbus St. in Alexandria, "Weaver's Beauty Nook." That ended when she got the news of her son’s death.
"I retired after that. I just couldn't work anymore. He had come home only once after joining the service. He called me and said he planned to drive home but he needed some money to make the trip. I sent him $250. He said, ‘Mom you'll get it back.’ I did, but not the way I wanted to," Weaver recalled, as the money came through his military life insurance.
Dale Allen Richardson, Maj. Richardson's son, had not been born when his father died so he left the story telling to his sister and two cousins, Michael and Tom Coulter, sons of Maj. Richardson's brother. "I remember very well the day my dad got the news," said Michael Coulter.
RICHARDSON AND HIS brothers had been orphaned at an early age and ended up being separated by adoption. The major was adopted by a family named Richardson and the others by the Coulters, according to Michael.
"Dad had just been reunited with his brother at the funeral of the middle brother," he said. "On their way to Alaska, Dale and his family stopped by and spent a few days with us in upper Michigan. Not too long after he got the word Dale had been killed."
"I can remember when Dale flew into the air base near our home in upper Michigan. I remember hearing his heels click on the tarmac. It fascinated me," said Tom Coulter.
"He came to our house. I was 15 and had an old 12-gauge shotgun that was taped together. He took one look at that and said that gun's going to kill you when it explodes," Tom said.
"He took me down to the hardware store and bought me a brand new 16-gauge, bolt action shotgun. I still have that gun and my memories of Dale," Tom said.
"One year later I was at Arlington National Cemetery for his funeral. I was only 16," he recalled.
William Douglas Wolters was only three months old when his father, 1st Lt. William John Wolters Jr., the weather observer on Golden Heart, died. He was born at Ladd AFB in Alaska. Saturday's service and visit to his father's grave proved particularly emotional.
Wolters is now a resident of Centreville. His sister Wendy resides in California, she was 15 months old at the time of the crash. "After his death we moved back to New York for a while and then to Virginia when I was 2. Most of what I know has been gained through family stories," Wolters said, as he shared family photos with Weaver.
ANDREA RICHARDSON STOWERS' research was not only to bring about this 50th Anniversary gathering of remembrance. It has been, and continues to be, about finding the truth behind the missions and, more particularly, the aircrafts that flew those mission.
Three other planes of the same configuration crashed within one month of the Golden Heart, according to Tom Coulter. "There were 72 men killed while flying those modified B29's. The WD50's predated the modern weather planes. My father's plane just dropped out of the sky an hour after take off. He was a very good pilot," Richardson Stowers said.
Maj. Dale Richardson, prior to his military career, had been a stunt pilot for Howard Hughes. Following that he had a career as a detective in Fullerton, Calif. Pictures of Richardson in a police officer’s uniform next to a 1941 Ford sedan were on display at the church reception.
At the commencement of World War II Richardson signed up to be a flight instructor for the military. In 1943 he joined the Army Air Corps which eventually evolved into the U.S. Air Force. Ironically, he trained pilots to fly the B29.
Following the war, Richardson was part of project "Crossroads," an atomic testing program to increase America's nuclear arsenal. Leaving the military, he joined the Office of Strategic Intelligence but returned to the U.S. Air Force in 1956. That's when he first came in contact with the WB-50D.
It was a chance encounter in California two years ago that led Richardson Stowers to Wolters, who was involved in his own quest. Through research and interviews with veterans they discovered the crew had been sent to "test the hot clouds," gathering fallout from Soviet nuclear tests.
The particles captured by the plane were returned to the United States for analysis of the Soviet Union's nuclear weapons capabilities. Like many others assigned to the 58th Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, the Golden Heart crew was well aware of their true mission.
On June 9, 1956 Golden Heart was christened as a newly refurbished "weather reconnaissance" plane and put into service. Twelve weeks later she and her crew enter the classified annals of The Cold War. Last Saturday at Arlington National Cemetery and later in Bethlehem Baptist Church Andrea Richardson Stowers, Thedessa Weaver, William Douglas Wolters and a host of other proud family members gathered to celebrate their service and sacrifice. But the quest for truth continues.