In the past 70 years, 101st Airborne Division troops have fought in numerous combat actions and wars, flying to the far reaches of the globe.
One tragic flight, however, stands out in the history of the legendary Screaming Eagles.
In 1985, the 101st sent 248 Soldiers on a six-month peacekeeping mission to Sinai, Egypt, as part of the Multinational Force and Observers duty. The troops were from several different military units at Fort Campbell, all attached to 3rd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade.
The MFO monitored Egypt and Israel’s compliance to the terms of the Camp David Accords, a treaty that laid out the framework for peace between the two enemies. The United States and other nations deployed forces to the Sinai, a large triangular peninsula connecting the two nations.
The morning of Dec. 12, 1985, after six months overseas, the 2nd Brigade Soldiers were on their way back home just in time for the Christmas holidays.
Arrow Air Flight 1285 was on the last leg of a journey that began in Cairo with a fueling stopover in Cologne, Germany, and at Gander, Newfoundland, Canada.
Just after take-off from Gander Newfoundland International Airport, the plane crashed, instantly killing all 248 troops and the eight crew members aboard.
According to Canadian Transport, the airplane got no higher than 1,000 feet into the air before crashing. Canadian aviation officials later ruled that ice on the wings caused the crash.
Rumors of the tragedy spread across Fort Campbell and to the ears of then-Chap. (Capt.) Roger Heath, the Division artillery chaplain.
A year prior, Heath had deployed to the Sinai with the Rakkasans (then the 4th Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment).
“The tradition was each year you meet the [chaplain] who was coming back,” said Heath, who is now a retired colonel. “I was meeting the guy from 2nd Brigade. Chaplain [Capt. Troy] Carter was on the flight.”
Details of the crash were sketchy. Heath stood and waited for news in the gym with Family members and friends who had gathered to welcome their Soldiers home.
Second Brigade Commander, Col. John Herrling, walked to the middle of the gym floor and announced that the plane carrying the Soldiers had crashed. “There are no survivors,” said Herrling.
As screams and cries of relatives filled the gymnasium, Heath said other chaplains and chaplain’s assistants on site did what they could to help.
“We just stayed with Families and held them and talked to them most of the morning,” he said.
The Dec. 12, 1985, crash of the Arrow Air charter flight at Gander still remains the worst peacekeeping mission air tragedy in the history of Canada and the United States military.
The recovery operation took several weeks, Heath said.
“There was just a lot of waiting,” he said.
Major Gen. Burton Patrick, 101st Airborne Division and Fort Campbell commander at the time of the crash, insisted that the remains of the Soldiers who died at Gander be escorted by 101st Soldiers.
“So every Soldier, once they left Dover, had an escort to take them back to their home town or back to Arlington National Cemetery or wherever the Family wanted them to go,” explained Herrling in a 2010 interview.
Just days after the crash, several Soldiers with the 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade, were notified that their holiday leave was canceled and they were to prepare for funeral detail at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
“I recall arriving at Dover and seeing a large hangar filled with flag draped coffins. It was very quiet. All were in formation just as if they were awaiting orders to stand down,” said Jeff Hummel, a Missouri native and a former member of the 2/502nd, in a 2010 interview.
Even after the New Year, Company CO’s and XO’s, along with platoon leaders, were still taking part in the on-site funeral details after Dover.
“We rendered the same honors to everyone on that plane. No matter their rank. It was a privilege and an unfortunate highlight to my military career,” said Bob Courtney, a New York native, and former member of the 2/502nd, in a 2010 interview. “I will never forget the experience.”
Honoring those fallen service members with proper funerals and taking care of their grieving Families was bigger than Fort Campbell could handle, Heath said. The post reached out to other Army posts and other branches of the military to get the job done respectfully and efficiently.
“With the number of chaplains at Fort Campbell there was no way that we could take care of 248 funerals and Families by ourselves, so it became an Army-wide and a DoD-wide mission where other posts had to chip in and help. The Air Force, the Navy, Marines and other Army posts all chipped in to help take care of Families,” Heath said.
That one tragic moment at Gander changed the way the installation and the Army deployed and how medical and personal records for deploying Soldiers are handled, Heath said.
“The medical records were on [Arrow Air Flight 1285] with the medical officer. Those records were burned – dental records, medical records …,” Heath said.
“It was a real zoo trying to collect dental records from all over the world to positively identify remains.”
Heath noted that the use of email and the Internet to store and share information was not a viable option 27 years ago.
“We didn’t have the technology in those days that we do now,” he said. “In those days it was all paper, hand-carried copies. If you lost it, it was gone.
“[Gander] kind of changed the way the military looked at those precious records. We didn’t have to do that before. Somebody kept them somewhere,” Heath added. “When entire units deploy, it became important to separate the deploying Soldier from his records in case something like this happened.”
Heath said the need for all Soldiers to finalize their wills and establish powers of attorney before deploying became more evident after Gander.
“Some of those things were not nailed down very good. We just assumed the guys did it,” he said. “That now, it’s just an iron-clad ‘you must do it.’ I think that’s a good thing. It took a tragedy, probably, to reinforce that, but it’s something the Army learned from.”
Canadian Janice Johnston Nikkel was only 15 when she heard the tragic news of the crash at Gander. The teenager from Oakville, Ontario, wanted to reach out to the Families of the fallen Fort Campbell Soldiers.
She wrote to the Toronto Star newspaper that she planned to donate her babysitting money to buy trees to plant as a living memorial to the Soldiers who died in her country.
Word of the memorial idea and Janice’s $20 donation to the cause spread globally. World leaders and celebrities commended the teen’s efforts with phone calls, telegrams, letters and $1,700 in donations.
On Sept. 20, 1986, Janice’s dream for a living memorial became a reality.
The 16-year-old and her family traveled from Canada to Fort Campbell to formally dedicate the grove of Canadian sugar maple saplings during a special memorial ceremony.
Dedicated were 256 trees representing the 248 Soldiers and eight crew members who died at Gander.
The grove of trees is located on the installation between Normandy and Screaming Eagle boulevards.
Patrick noted that the gift from Janice and Canada honored those who died.
“To be forgotten is to die in vain,” Patrick said. “Today [Janice and her fellow Canadians] have seen to it that our fallen Soldiers will not be forgotten.”
The division commander and Janice read the inscription on a bronze plaque she had bought to mark the grove site. The plaque reads:
“Donated by the People of Canada to the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) in memory of the 248 courageous Soldiers who died in Gander, Newfoundland, December 12, 1985. Each tree stands as a living memorial. The forest testifies to their united commitment to global peacekeeping. Blessed are the peacemakers. St. Matthew 5, verse 9.”
Janice and her family visited the mature grove in the summer of 2010, nearly 25 years after the crash.
“To the Families who lost a loved one 25 years ago, my hope was that this Memorial Park would be like a living memorial testifying to the sacrifice your loved ones made in service for your country,” she said.
“We wanted you to know that as Canadians, we cared. They are not forgotten.”
Each Dec. 12, Soldiers with 2nd Brigade Combat Team gather at the grove of trees to remember those who perished at Gander.
At the annual ceremony, troops place a wreath at the stone memorial at the edge of Wickham Avenue to honor their fallen brothers in arms.
Many Family members and friends of the fallen attend the ceremony each year and visit their Soldier’s tree.
Each tree now has a plaque at its base bearing the name and rank of the fallen Soldier.
This December will mark the 27th anniversary of that fateful day.
“It really is a tragedy and it just points out the fact that they were on a peacekeeping mission and keeping the peace is sometimes a very difficult thing to do,” said Herrling, just before the 25th anniversary of the crash.
“Sometimes there’s a price to keeping the peace and in the case of those Soldiers they paid a very dear price and so did their Family and friends for their service in the Sinai.”
Heath said the Gander tragedy impacted his Army career as a chaplain and affected many Soldiers and Families’ lives forever.
“It kind of took our innocence,” Heath said.
“We realized tragedy can happen not just on the battlefield, but also on the way to or from. [With] any kind of peacekeeping [mission] or [on] battlefields, tragedies can happen.”