Detroit pilot, his remains frozen in glacier for 70 years, finally laid to rest

Tonja AndersonEvents, In the News, News

Despite harsh weather, time, elevation and the odds: Identity.

It was a fingerprint found in the ice last year that led to the discovery of 31-year-old Detroit U.S. Air Force Capt. William “Bill” Coombs, whose prints were left on a mile-long glacier that he’d touched in the mountains of Alaska more than 70 years ago during the Korean War, officials said.

The C-124 Globemaster II cargo plane he occupied, along with 51 others, was returning from Washington state to Alaska when a blizzard threw it off course, plummeting the aircraft into Mount Gannett on Nov. 22, 1952, according to the St. David’s Episcopal Church in Southfield.

Weather conditions, according to officials, delayed initial rescue operations and eventually buried the crash site.

There were no survivors.

The effort to identify and recover the remains and personal items from the crash site was aided by Tampa resident Tonja Anderson-Dell, president and founder of Honored Bound, a nonprofit that retrieves remains and personal effects from military planes lost outside of conflicts.

It was a personal mission for Anderson-Dell, as her grandfather, 21-year-old airman Issac William Anderson Sr., was among the 51 onboard with Coombs. Anderson’s remains were identified four years ago.

Cronin said his team has conducted recovery efforts each summer in grids. At one point in 2018, as he observed which area they’d probe next, he looked down and saw “a sliver of silver,” which later was identified as Anderson-Dell’s grandfather’s dog tags, hanging halfway out of the ice. They also recovered a tooth, which was later confirmed as belonging to her grandfather.

We’ve all just become family,” Anderson-Dell said. “This family has waited 71 years for this type of closure.”

Cronin said that once a war loss from a past conflict has been identified, his branch informs families of fallen service persons that they’ve located their loved ones.

The downed aircraft that carried Coombs and 51 others, Cronin noted, was a “mission loss,” which is not considered a “past conflict.”

“These are different criteria for the government because there is no funding for mission losses,” Cronin said. “(The government) formulated an organization called DPAA (Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency) to search for our war losses, but nobody’s been formulated to search for our mission losses,” he added.

According to the U.S. government, the Korean War resulted in the deaths of 54,246 veterans. A report released by the Veterans Affairs Department added that 33,739 accounted for battle deaths, 2,835 involved in-theater deaths and 17,672 accounted for non-theater fatalities. In-theater deaths, according to, “refers to the geographic area in which wartime operations occurred.” Non-theater deaths “refers to all other areas worldwide.”

Cronin said search and recovery efforts happen initially when incidents occur, but if nothing is found, “it’s closed.” The average cost for one search and recovery initiative for war losses is $1.5 million, he said.

“I don’t think it’s enough (money),” Cronin said of the value of recovering lost loved ones. “I get it because I see what the end result becomes,” adding that such discoveries bring peace to families.

Jakkar Aimery: The Detroit News