Thirty-four years ago, the deadliest single event in the history of the 101st Airborne Division claimed the lives of 248 soldiers.
And it wasn’t in combat.
The soldiers were on the last leg of their journey home to Fort Campbell, Kentucky aboard a chartered DC-8 jet, after having finished a six-month tour in the Sinai Peninsula, part of a Multinational Force and Observers peacekeeping mission between Egypt and Israel that continues to this day.
After refueling in Gander, Newfoundland on Dec. 12, 1985, the crew of eight and their 248 soldiers took off, headed home. But what was later found to be ice on the wings of the plane caused it to crash near takeoff, killing all on board.
This week marks the 32nd anniversary of an airplane crash that killed 248 soldiers and eight crew members in Gander, Newfoundland. CWO3 Mickael Cruz talks about his father, who died in one of the most tragic events in the history of the 101st Airborne Division.
Shortly after the tragedy, a 15-year-old Canadian girl named Janice Johnston Nikkel, pledged babysitting money to create a tree park for the soldiers and crew.
Residents from Gander donated sugar maple trees to the unit, to mark each of the lives lost.
The 101st put up memorials and has held a ceremony marking the event each year since.
Two stone monuments and 256 sugar maple trees lined the small park for more than three decades.
But the memorial had to be moved this year to a new location on base because the trees’ root systems were growing together.
That prompted the relocation, which involved moving eight of the original trees,which have been replanted alongside other memorials to the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, which was the unit of most of those lost.
The rest of the trees at the original site have been removed and local woodworkers have volunteered to create gifts from the salvaged wood for families of the fallen soldiers, according to a 101st Airborne statement. The new site contains 256 new Canadian Sugar Maple trees and the monuments.
“The new Gander Memorial is a living monument to the fallen Soldiers of Task Force 3-502 and stands as a testament to the continued dedication of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) to honoring those soldiers who paid the ultimate sacrifice in service of our nation," said Maj. Kevin Andersen, spokesman for 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division.
And the trees have been far more than ornamental for those connected to the tragedy.
In a previous interview, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Mickael Cruz told Army Times how he learned of the crash, and his own father’s death while headed to classes at the local elementary school near the fort.
Then only 8 years old, Cruz didn’t grasp what had happened until later in the day when his grieving mother explained it all.
Cruz would go on to join the Army, earn his “Air Assault” wings and the staff sergeant rank his father held. He returned to the memorial whenever the Army brought him to Fort Campbell. He pounded those air assault wings into a tree marked with a plaque for his father, Staff Sgt. Francisco Cruz Salgado.
On the 30th anniversary, Cruz brought his son to the memorial to see the tree
“The Gander tragedy remains the single largest loss of life in the history of this storied division. The Fort Campbell community will continue to come together each year on this day to honor and remember the sacrifice of these Soldiers, their Families and their comrades in arms,” Andersen said.