ELLSWORTH AIR FORCE BASE, S.D. --
Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth, and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings; Sunward I’ve climbed and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds, and done a hundred things you have not dreamed of, wheeled and soared and swung high in the sunlit silence. Hovering there I’ve chased the shouting wind along and flung my eager craft through footless halls of air. – John Gillespie Magee, Jr.
Jeff Wandel has waited approximately 20 years to revisit the memorial plaque inscribed with these words. Under those words, the name of his older brother, Sgt. David M. Wandel, and three of David’s fellow crewmembers – Capt. Martin E. Graham Jr., Capt. Joseph M. Furda and 1st Lt. Darwin M. Plucker – are inscribed.
On Dec. 7, 1975, David and his crew were aboard a 28th Air Refueling Squadron KC-135 Stratotanker, when it crashed just south of Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. The Ellsworth-based crew was on a mission to follow and refuel a Boeing RC-135. Investigators determined that landing gear problems and the extremely cold weather conditions were to blame for the crash.
David, a boom operator, was only 21 years old. He left behind his mother, father, sister Francee and his kid brother Jeff.
Jeff has always had fond memories of his big brother’s service.
“When I saw him in [his] uniform it was always a fun time for me, a proud moment for me,” said Jeff. “He loved being in the Air Force – he found his niche and really enjoyed it.”
Jeff remembers being pulled out of class, just 10 days shy of his 16th birthday, to find out David had passed. The family traveled from their home in Northern California, to attend the funeral in South Dakota.
In June 1976, a dedication ceremony was held at the 28th ARS Building. Four trees were planted alongside a stone and plaque, in remembrance of the four Airmen aboard the KC-135.
Several years passed and, in March 1994, the 28th ARS was inactivated. Over time, the plaque was moved from its original location. Jeff grew older and eventually began to question the location of the plaque.
“I always knew [the plaque] was there, because my parents let me know,” said Jeff. “Then life happened. You become 18, 19, 20 years old, date and get married. Things happen – and then you start to wonder about your brothers’ memorial.”
Jeff’s search began in the late 90’s. An associate of his got in touch with the then-active-duty 28th Bomb Wing historian, Master Sgt. Robert D. Atchison.
“You can ensure your friend that even though the original memorial is not intact, his brother is not forgotten,” Atchison wrote in a letter dated Jan. 14, 1998. “The four crewmen from the accident will be included in the new memorial.”
The new memorial now sits in Ellsworth’s Memorial Park, and includes the names of all Ellsworth Airmen who have lost their lives in the line of duty since 1947.
After years of searching, and communicating with the current base historian, John Moyes, the plaque was found in 2016. Moyes and the staff at the South Dakota Air and Space Museum located the plaque in the museum’s inventory. Moyes had promised the Wandel family that David’s service and memory would not be lost or forgotten.
“I don’t think the word ‘everything’ is the right word,” Jeff explained when asked what finding the plaque meant to him. “I’ve succeeded in my mission, there are no words to describe [my family’s] gratitude.”
On July 30, 2019, Jeff was reunited with the original plaque dedicated to his brother David and his fellow wingmen. Jeff visited the new memorial as well. He had not been to South Dakota since his brother’s funeral, and his return visit was very emotional.
“His legacy is being our brother, and being a member of a group of four men who sacrificed everything to make sure we are safe,” said Jeff. “He would have been a fantastic father – he was a fantastic brother. [To] describe him as a person – [he is] exactly what honor and integrity is.”
Jeff remembers David’s love of snow skiing and cars – he remembers David as his older brother. A man who respected his country and his family. The Air Force will remember David as a hero and a man who paid the ultimate sacrifice for this country.
“[David] made the ultimate sacrifice – along with his crew,” said Jeff. “His death was not in vain, and he’ll never be forgotten for what he did.”
Up, up the long delirious burning blue, I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace, where never lark, or even eagle flew; and while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod the high un-trespassed sanctity of space, put out my hand and touched the face of God.