Families meet in Mississippi a year after 16 died in military plane crash

Plane crash anniversary
Mark Coward of Columbus Marble Works cleans the surface Thursday, July 12, 2018, of the Itta Bena, Miss., memorial built in honor of the 15 Marines and Navy corpsman who died in a July 10, 2017 plane crash.
Rogelio V. Solis | AP

A year after a U.S. Marine Corps plane broke into pieces high in the sky and slammed into a Mississippi soybean field, relatives and friends are keeping alive the memories of the 15 Marines and Navy corpsman who died in the crash.

It's an active form of memory — building, telling, hiking, running — to honor the New York-based crewmembers who flew the KC-130T military transport, as well as the special forces Marines they were carrying from North Carolina to California for training.

"All we want to do is talk about them and share who they were with the rest of the world," said Anna Johnson, the widow of Gunnery Sgt. Brendan Johnson, a crew member.

More than 200 family members and friends will gather Saturday in the Mississippi Delta town of Itta Bena to dedicate a monument to the July 10, 2017, crash of the plane, whose call sign was Yanky 72.

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Among speakers at a ceremony at Mississippi Valley State University will be Sgt. Maj. of the Marine Corps. Ronald L. Green, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant and U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith. Mississippi's Marine Corps League led an effort that raised more than $100,000 for a memorial outside a government building where the recovery effort was based, several miles east of the crash site. Mississippi lawmakers named the stretch of U.S. 82 that ran through the debris field the Yanky 72 Memorial Highway.

For many of the relatives, it will be the first time they've come to the crash site and the first time members of all families have gathered. Several praised the warmth of the Mississippi organizers.

"I'm there for a community that has been unbelievably kind to us," Johnson said. "I want to thank them for this blessing that they have given to us, to build this memorial."

No cause for the plane crash has been released, as the investigation continues. All 12 remaining Marine Corps KC-130Ts were grounded for months. Some, but not all, are flying now, said Marine Forces Reserve spokesman Maj. Andrew Aranda. The Navy is grounding its larger fleet of C-130Ts until propellers are replaced, with Congress appropriating $121 million to accelerate the work. Officials haven't directly linked the propellers to the crash, saying only that it was one of the issues identified when planes were inspected afterward.

C-130s have historically been one of the military's safest aircraft, which is part of what made the crash shocking, said Deneen Hopkins Wiske, a Wisconsin firefighter who is the sister of Gunnery Sgt. Mark Hopkins.

"We were very much lulled into a false sense of security with Mark and what he did," Wiske said. "These are beasts of the sky; they don't fail."

Nate Harris, a Special Operations Command Marine who declined to give his rank, said members of his unit shoot formal pictures now before they go to training, instead of only when they're shipping out for combat tours.

"It's really hard to come to grips with something that happened in training," Harris said. "In combat, that's what we signed up for."

Harris is leading the Marine Raider Memorial March , a group of 30 former comrades and widows of members of Marine 2nd Raider Battalion. Teams of marchers will be on the road around the clock through July 27, relaying rucksacks of dirt and sand from the crash site and memorial site over 900 miles to Camp Lejeune. They intend to plant a tree in the soil at Marine Corps Special Operations Command. It's the second long-distance march by the same organizers. The first one, covering 770 miles came in 2016. It followed a 2015 helicopter crash in Florida that killed seven special operations Marines and four Louisiana National Guard members.

"We need to bring these boys home," said Harris. "We know it's the right thing to do to honor them."

That's far from the end to memorial efforts.

Ryan Ortiz, a former reservist in the transport unit, knew several of the men, but was closest to 26-year-old Sgt. Owen Lennon, a crewmaster from Pomona, N.Y. He raised more than $20,000 for charity by selling T-shirts memorializing the crash.

"Marines are doers," Ortiz said.

Nina Baldassare, the mother of crew member Cpl. Daniel Baldassare, is moving near Stewart Air National Guard Base in Newburgh, New York — where Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 452 is based — and plans to open a cafe.

"I made it my purpose to be part of the community so I could be part of their lives," Baldassare said.

Wiske plans to run the Marine Corps Marathon this October as a memorial fundraiser for the Wingman Foundation, saying it's appropriate because her brother was a "notoriously fast" and "effortless" runner.

"I can't imagine a plane filled with 16 better human beings," Wiske said. "They remind us of the best we have to offer and they certainly led their lives by getting the most out of every day."