From left, Ken Becker, Bob Cox, Joe Madrid, and Hector Rodriguez pose with the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Mike Stevens, center, after the four were presented with the New Zealand Special Service Medal (Erebus) by the New Zealand Ambassador to the United States Mike Moore during a ceremony at the New Zealand Embassy of Washington, D.C. on Wednesday. (Rob Curtis/Staff)
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Four former aircrewmen received New Zealand’s highest award for foreign citizens Wednesday in recognition of their efforts following a 1979 plane crash into Antarctica’s Mount Erebus, the deadliest disaster in the country’s history.
New Zealand’s ambassador to the U.S. presented the New Zealand Special Service Medal (Erebus) to former Aviation Machinist’s Mate 1st Class (NAC) Ken Becker, retired Senior Chief Aviation Structural Mechanic (AW/NAC) Bob Cox, retired Senior Chief Aviation Machinist’s Mate (AW/NAC) Joe Madrid and Retired Chief Aviation Structural Mechanic (AW/NAC) Hector Rodriguez in an Embassy ceremony attended by New Zealand defense officials, Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (AW/NAC) Mike Stevens, friends and family.
“For a change, I have very little to say, except to apologize to our friends that this took so long,” said Ambassador Mike Moore. “Those of a certain generation of New Zealanders will never forget Erebus. We don’t forget those mates who always turn up. You represent the best of New Zealand-American relationships.”
At the time of the Nov. 28, 1979 crash, the four aircrewmen were assigned to Antarctic Development Squadron 6 as part of Operation Deep Freeze, supporting research with the National Science Foundation.
That day, a DC-10-30 carrying 237 international passengers and 20 crew on a sightseeing flight over Antarctica crashed into the continent’s highest peak, leaving no survivors. U.S. Navy aircrew discovered the crash site and spent weeks transporting New Zealand officials to the wreckage for investigations and helping fly the remains to Auckland for identification.
In 2006, the government designated a Special Service Medal for the event and began searching for eligible recipients from old lists of New Zealanders and Americans who helped in the relief effort. Moore called this medal a “special thing,” saying that New Zealand doesn’t give out many awards.
Retired Chief Aviation Electronics Technician (AW/NAC) Erich Eggers learned of the medal in late 2012, received it in summer 2013 and helped the New Zealand Defence Force track down his shipmates.
All told, about two dozen Americans have received the award, in addition to more than 100 New Zealanders.
Rodriguez, the crew chief of a UH-N1 Huey helicopter, recalled 1979 as a “banner year,” in which he turned 26 years old, his son was born, his father passed away and he witnessed the aftermath of the Erebus tragedy.
“[This medal] reminds me, as it did then, that we are all vulnerable and that none of us know when our number comes up,” Rodriguez said after accepting his award.
Another crew member spoke of the indelible memory of recovering the dead from the harshest place on Earth.
“Against all odds, my fellow recipients were as I was: Ordinary people, thrust into extraordinary circumstance, in the most inhospitable place on this Earth,” Madrid said. “With a heavy heart, I believe we can now say: Mission complete.”
The four men hadn’t seen or heard much from each other since their time together in Antarctica 35 years ago; they spent some time laughing and swapping sea stories before the ceremony. They also got some time with the Navy’s current top sailor, who shared a private moment with them after the presentation.
MCPON told Navy Times he hadn’t gotten the chance to work with the New Zealand government or visit Antarctica in his career, but he was happy to honor his fellow aircrewmen.
“This is the highlight of my day, of my week,” he said. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to come here and witness these shipmates of mine receive this award from our friends from New Zealand.”
Stevens learned of the medal ceremony because of Facebook, he said, when one of the men sent him a private message about the upcoming award presentation.
“It was really kind of touching to see them get the award, because I know as they were standing there, I can kind of see them reliving the experience,” he said.