LITTLE ROCK — Kevin Caid of Little Rock saw a longtime dream fulfilled Thursday when the Air Force returned the remains of his uncle, Staff Sgt. Robert Dale Van Fossen, to Arkansas nearly 65 years after Fossen died in a plane crash in Alaska.
“I had a dream,” Caid said after watching the Little Rock Air Force Base Honor Guard carry a casket containing Van Fossen’s remains from a plane to a waiting hearse at the Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport. “Somehow, some way, some day I wanted to bring him home. Through the efforts of the military and a number of people, we’re getting that opportunity today.”
Born May 3, 1931, Van Fossen graduated from Greenbrier High School in 1949, two years after joining the Arkansas National Guard. He enlisted in the Air Force after graduating.
On Nov. 22, 1952, he was one of 52 people from all four branches of the military aboard a Douglas C-124A-DL Globemaster II, nicknamed “Old Shaky,” that was en route from McChord Air Force Base in Tacoma, Wash., to Elmendorf Air Force Base near Anchorage, Alaska, when the plane crashed into Mount Gannett in bad weather.
Eight days after the crash, a portion of the plane’s wreckage was spotted on the south side of the mountain.
“Back in ’52 the military made two separate attempts to reach the crash site, and once they finally got there, there was additional snowfall, avalanches, and there was really nothing visible. Then in late 1953, they abandoned any additional searches,” Caid said.
In June 2012, the crew of a Black Hawk helicopter on a routine training mission spotted wreckage from the plane that had become visible on a glacier. The military reported the discovery to the families of the crash victims, including Van Fossen’s sisters, Wilma Jean and Linda Lee. His parents had died between the initial discovery of wreckage in 1952 and the second discovery.
Each June, when the snow and ice are at their least severe, the military has removed as many remains as possible from the site. More than 30 of the crash victims’s remains have been recovered and identified.
Caid, Wilma Jean’s son, flew over the glacier and viewed the wreckage in 2013. He said he was in contact with the military every few weeks for updates on efforts to recover his uncle’s remains.
Caid was born eight years after his uncle died, but despite never having known him, he said he became focused on the return of the remains mainly for the sake of his mother and his aunt.
Van Fossen’s dog tags were recovered in 2014 and given to his family. In March 2016, his remains were identified through a DNA match.
The identification came too late for Wilma Jean and Linda Lee, who died in September 2012 and May 2015, respectively. But Caid said he was still grateful.
“In my mind I could tell my mother that he was coming home,” he said.
About a dozen family members from across the country stood on the tarmac at the airport in Little Rock as Van Fossen’s remains arrived. Caid said a few more relatives would be on hand for his uncle’s graveside funeral service, set for 10:30 a.m. Saturday at Cleburne County Memorial Gardens in Heber Springs.
Van Fossen will be laid to rest with full military honors.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed a proclamation Wednesday declaring Saturday to be Robert Dale Van Fossen Memorial Day in Arkansas and directing that state flags be flown at half-staff in his honor through sunset Saturday.
“The state of Arkansas is proud to bring home Sgt. Van Fossen and to honor his life, accomplishments and service to his nation,” Hutchinson said in the proclamation.