Sunday, May 29, 2005

There & Back Again...

Published May 29, 2005 Memorial Day

I’d like to share a letter I received a few weeks ago. This Memorial Day, I am thankful for the sacrifices made by so many families of those lost while serving in the military. Letters like these make me believe that we live in a small world with few strangers, just nice folks we haven’t met yet.

Dear Tammy Maher,

I felt I needed to write you after reading the wonderful tribute you wrote about your father, 1st Lt. Thomas Joseph Hallgarth who perished in the Cold War.

It moved me a great deal when I read it on April 4th of this year and even more so when I re-read it this evening. Your love for this dear man and his fellow crew-men who laid down there lives for our country on February 20th, 1963 rings clear to me, as I'm sure to all who read it and undoubtedly many more who know you.

(I found the piece you wrote), while I was searching on the Internet on April 4, 2005 for information about the men who piloted and served us so bravely aboard that B-47 jet on that day in February 1963.

My wife and I were traveling by plane up from northern Iowa to Comfrey Minnesota on April 4th, my birthday, the day when my mother gave me life exactly 50 years in that little town’s hospital. I wanted to see this small town again and talk to some of the people who I'd known growing up there from April 4th, 1955 - July, 1966. Most I’d never seen since nearly 40 years, since we moved away.

My parents, an older brother, a younger sister and I lived in Comfrey for those years of the 50’s – 60’s. There were many things that looked back upon that I treasure now… living in a place where I felt safe and secure. Playing ball and spend many hours outside with no worries of great significance.

In later years I learned that a great price by millions of men and women, including your father, paid the great price that allowed innocent kids like us grow up and live full lives in safety in this great country. And for that, I’ll forever be grateful.

But there was also at least this one thing that I vividly remember, the day in February 1963. If I recall, our 3rd grade class of 25 or so kids was up in the 2nd story library of Comfrey Public School at the minute when your father’s and his crew’s B-47 crashed about 2 miles directly North of our school.

It was a very windy day and yet we heard what sounded like a great clap of thunder and the old brick building shook briefly. But of course we knew there was no thunderstorm in February in Minnesota. So we didn’t know what had happened.

It was only later that day after coming home that we heard our parents tell us that an Air Force crew had perish when their jet went down so near our little farm town. It was sad to hear such news and especially to hear that they must have passed nearly directly over our town and school coming from the South. I remember them telling that the crew must have stayed with the plane to direct it away from any town or farm. Though I was only about 8 years old, I understood that this was a very great act of courage and sacrifice that these men made that spared us and our town. Now thanks to your tribute, I know these brave men’s names: 1st Lt. Thomas Joseph Hallgarth, Capt. Donald Livingston, Lt. Col. Lamar Ledbetter and Lt. Michael Rebmann.

I remember that later that spring after this accident and the Air Force had cleared the site, the snow was gone and the grass was starting to green, I went with other cub scouts and boy scouts, with adults from Comfrey to pick up thousands of small pieces of the plane to be sent back for the Air Force investigation. We did it also to help the farmer whose field it was and to make it safe for a public memorial service at that site where all of Comfrey’s churches and hundreds of people from the area came to pay tribute to and pray for the brave men who perished there and for their loved ones.

I remembered for that memorial we stopped about a ¼ mile away on a gravel country road, crossing a thick, green grassy field and walking up a gradual incline to the top, where the service was held.

The tribute written by then Mayor Arthur J. Lilla was a sincere _expression of our town’s people that Art put in such heartfelt letter to your mother.

My younger sister Louise, now a nurse Administrator, in northern Minnesota was best friends with Art Lilla’s daughter Renee. In fact, on April 4th, of this year on my pilgrimage back to Comfrey, I saw Mr. Lilla outside his home raking leaves off of some blue crocus flowers, which were poking up, seemingly too early for the weather in Minnesota, but yet at just the right time. He is quite elderly now, so I only spent a few moments talking with him. But his is a fine man of great character and wisdom. From what you’ve written about your father, they would have had much in common.

The reason I searched the Internet for the story about the men who manned that B-47 on that fateful day was that on my way out of Comfrey on April 4th my thoughts not only remembered the many good friends and childhood memories with them, but they also drew me to try and find the field where we walked up that grassy hill 42 years ago this spring. I wanted to once again say a short pray and give thanks to God for those men who sacrificed all to protect us back then.

I drove about 2 miles North of Comfrey, then turned down a gravel road that I thought might be it, though I couldn’t be sure, since it had been nearly 40 years since my family moved away from Comfrey. My wife and I and our big Yellow Labrador dog Molly drove down a mile to the West and there was a gentle sloping pasture that I thought looked familiar. When we came to the “T” in the road I knew this was the place. There on the old wooden fence posts were 4 evergreen wreaths… one on 4 different posts. I didn’t know if it was one of the families of these men or local residents who place them there. But to me and my wife these green wreaths were both a sign of eternal life we know in our Lord and a sign that these men, your fathers’ lives and sacrifices have not been forgotten.

May God continue to bless you Tammy and your families and the memories of your loved ones who have gone on before us.

For indeed, “Greater Love Hath no Man than this, than he lay down his life for his friends…”

J C. Kunnari

Tammy Maher is a resident of El Dorado Hills and bi-weekly columnist for the Mountain Democrat. You can reach her at