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B52 Crash Site

Visitors to the recreational mecca that is Moosehead Lake may not realize that eight miles into the woods on the southern slope of Elephant Mountain is a crash site of a giant United States Air Force Boeing B-52C Stratofortress. The pieces of wreckage and aircraft debris cover several acres of forest. You are free to wander through this living memorial of a Cold War tragedy.

On a brutally cold January afternoon in 1963, nine crew members took off from Westover AFB in Massachusetts in the subsonic, jet-powered strategic bomber on what should have been a routine training mission. The aircraft, however, ran into turbulence from gusts buffeting off the mountains of western Maine. Those strong winds triggered a structural failure; part of the bomber's tail was torn off. Unable to level the B-52C, the pilot ordered the crew to abandon it.

Only three crew members - all on the top flight deck - had the time and means to eject. The co-pilot, Maj. Robert J. Morrison parachuted from the bomber but was killed when he hit a tree. Navigator Capt. Gerald J. Adler is the only person ever to survive an ejection from an aircraft without the parachute opening. He landed upright in the snow in his ejection seat, fracturing three ribs and his skull. The third survivor was the pilot, Lt. Col. Dante E. Bulli, who spent the night dangling from a tree 30 feet above the ground in minus 29-degree temperatures.

The remnants of this crash lie at the end of a tree-lined road only fifteen minutes from the town of Greenville. Lily Bay Road on the southern shore of Moosehead Lake intersects with an easy-to-miss turnoff marked with a small sign that reads: Prong Pong Road. This unpaved path is rutted and rugged, but the breathtaking landscape is worth the bumpy, jarring eight-mile trek up Elephant Mountain. Along the way, you will be entertained by an alternating dance of pine, spruce and oak trees, and every color and variety of Maine wildflower. The road is popular with ATV and snowmobile enthusiasts and there are numerous side paths that offer views of the mountains of Piscataquis County as you approach the trailhead.

The crash site is easy to find thanks to small placards at every fork and junction. A sign at the entrance to the trail placed by the owner, Weyerhaeuser, asks visitors to treat the area respectfully and leave it intact. Drooping tree tendrils beckon you into the woods and the first fragments of debris lay only 20 steps deep. It is a heady, emotional place, not the least for being in the midst of a dense old pine forest.

As you travel deeper into the woods along a wide, smooth footpath, the enormity of the tragedy hits you: there are torn and shredded bits of metal in every direction, everywhere you look: on the leaf-strewn ground, tangled in the branches of trees, in and around and under the forest. There are areas where nature has reclaimed the site, where wreckage encircles new growths and pines grow out of unidentifiable pieces of aircraft.

Beside the stripped and broken-off fuselage, a black Monson slate memorial honors the survivors and those who lost their lives that day in January 1963. The sound of the wind moving through the slender pines is resonant and ethereal, and one feels that this is indeed sacred ground.

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