Current Commentary

February 20, 1963-
February 20, 2003
A Tribute to
1st Lt. Thomas Joseph Hallgarth
By: Tammy Josephine Maher

Editor’s Introduction

Here we see three 98th Bomb Wing B-47s enroute from Lincoln AFB, NE to Lakenheath England, in late 1955. The lead aircraft was from the 343rd Bomb Squadron, the squadron that Lt. Thomas Hallgarth was assigned to when his life, and the lives of his fellow crewmembers, ended so abruptly in February 1963.

A Daughter’s Reflection

I started wondering how 40 years can come and go so quickly when it occurred to me that I have almost outlived my father by 20 years. He would have been 63 years old two days ago with his last sun setting at the age of 23. His B-47 and crew perished 40 years ago today. He would have made a career in the Air Force. His career spanned a mere few years. His mission now complete, mine is to find out more about him, and his crew. It’s the anecdotal information that is the most priceless to me.

I am almost 40 years old, married fifteen years and have three children of my own. I thought about the questions that have haunted me since I was 7 when my parents told me that I had another Dad, one that was in heaven. My wish since I was a child was what the other surviving children experienced and whether we had much in common because of the loss of our fathers.

My 9-year-old son fell in love with the Air Force after I took him to an aviation museum in Sacramento at McClellan Air Force Base March 1, 2003. Like a ghost town, we explored the outdoor tarmac with great enthusiasm. As he ran from plane to plane, he could hardly contain himself. Is it genetic? Was my Dad that excited when he went to flight school? I read letters from him to his friend back home and all he talked about was getting the highest scores and the pressures to be in top physical condition. He was so determined.

Oh the stories those planes could tell if only they could speak. We thought we heard their whispers as we visited them. My boy played with the radar equipment on one large ‘babe’ like he lived there and knew ‘her’. My son really liked the nose-art. He’s a boy, what can I say? My son is an old soul who possesses his grandfather’s eyes. I bought him a flight jacket and a pencil sketch of a B-47. I tried to answer all his questions about his grandfather. My Dad trained at Mather AFB in Sacramento, not too far from McClellan AFB, completed Navigator school in Texas and died serving at the base in Lincoln, Nebraska. He rests in Golden Gate National Cemetery. He expected to retire with the military. He probably would have served in Vietnam. Then waxing nostalgic, I pulled out an old suitcase my Mom gave me about six years ago that contains all that I know about 1st Lt. Thomas Hallgarth, and I showed the Lieutenant’s grandkids the stuff that he left behind.

There are the USAF wings, hats, pins, and buttons. There is the Air Force Officer’s Guide, as fresh as the day he got it I suppose-I doubt he had time to read it. Just off the Cuban Missile Alert of October 1962, he was still new to Lincoln Air Force Base and his crew, February of ‘63 when he died. The many notes of condolences from President Kennedy to the Mayor of Comfrey, Minnesota, all mailed on official looking stationary to my Mom, who refused to open her door when the car pulled up to their house on the base that day, Feb 20, 1963 when they came to tell her that he wasn’t coming home from the simulated low level training flight of that morning.

There are the pictures too. The ones of a newly married couple-just starting out-and the pictures the Air Force took of my Mom receiving a Commendation medal – 7 months pregnant with me and all alone on the tarmac at Mather AFB. There are the little trinkets – mostly of a life short lived, of a savings passport book, a wallet, a key chain, a Catholic Missal, a patriotic song book, pictures of his sisters and parents?. It’s easy to romanticize the feelings he had as the Air Force took their official portraits of him in his uniform, the serious officer, the smiling navigator, and the one I like with the parachute. I inherited his eyes, his nose and his sense of humor. While filing through his personal effects, most specifically his pictures, I experience the feeling of looking in a mirror and seeing someone you think you’ve known all your life but haven’t met yet.

Who am I? Who was he? Whatever happened to the families of Capt. Donald Livingston, Lt. Col. Lamar Ledbetter and Lt. Michael Rebmann, the crew that didn’t return. One thing I found out recently was that all three crew members (except Col. Ledbetter) were expecting babies at the time of their deaths “and we were all born afterwards” all girls celebrating their 40th birthday this year.

My Dad was born and baptized at Sacred Heart Church in New Jersey in 1940. He was a good student, especially in math & science, which makes for a good navigator. He was a real Boy Scout who loved big band and rock and roll music and he played the drums. He hung around the Jersey shore and went to the same High School as Jack Nicholson, the actor. My Dad loved playing in his garage band, The Rockets, and could do a pretty awesome drum solo, according to school chums I was able to find. They played all over the Jersey Shore and in Ocean Grove. I can only imagine what a clown he was or so people have told me. He was the consummate entertainer. In many ways, we are so much alike. His best friend from High School, Bill Stanford, found me eight years ago, and his stories from the High School years are priceless. Bill said the “Rockets” were asked to audition for the Ted Mack Amateur Hour but weren’t selected to appear on the show. They were beaten out by a musical spoon act. I never would have known that story had he not told me. We are great friends now and having Bill in my life has been such a blessing. Each little story is but a small window into the life that was my father.

One of the things most treasured in my Dad’s suitcase is the letter from the Mayor of Comfrey, MN dated March 5, 1963

To the Family of Lt. Hallgarth,

The past Saturday afternoon, March 2, our community held a memorial service at the site of the B-47 crash, the place which has truly affected your lives. I am trying to express our sympathy to you and yours. Words have a futility at such a time as this but it may be said that never has a community been more united in wishing to convey its’ most sincere expression of sympathy to the wives and families of these men who gave their lives in the service of our country.

We, the people of the village of Comfrey, and also the nearby farming area, feel that these men so guided their plane until the last possible moment to avoid crashing into the village, because of this effort, their bravery saved many lives.

I’m certain it could be sincerely stated –“Greater Love Hath no Man – than he who gave his life for his country or his fellow man.” Prayers for you and yours have been heard in churches of all denominations in our community. You, the families of these heroic airmen, have our deepest sympathy –may their devotion to duty help you in these trying times and may God give you strength to carry on for them.

Arthur J. Lilla – Mayor Comfrey

In the course of trying to find more information about those years and about my Dad, an unusual thing occurred that involved a close friend of mine, whom I have known for the last five years here in California. She and I were talking about the B-47 accident a month or so ago and she read the Lincoln Star newspaper article about the crash. She called her Mom who was raised in Minnesota and found out that it was her two uncles who recovered the pilot’s bodies from the wreckage that day. Another bond across time and space between us. A truly small world. In some way, it was a consolation for me that I was able to find out about this. The Internet also yielded a link to the Minnesota CAP (Civil Air Patrol) Wing who has a permanent ribbon citation for its members because of their involvement in the crash search and recovery of that one particular day. The members of the CAP can wear the ribbon as long as they are members even if they didn’t serve in 1963.

My story is not unique. It is a common thread running through the tapestry that is our military family in the United States of America. A story of sons and daughters, wives and mothers, husbands and fathers, who in serving their country, died for Her, perhaps never knowing their own children and leaving many grieving loved ones behind to start over. It is the Supreme Sacrifice. They are the sacred ones whose names are carved in stone in the rows of concrete which grace our National Cemeteries and move us to tears. What gets me are the ages of some of them, like my Dad & his crew members, at the twilight of life at age twenty-three. His crew members being 23 (1st Lt. Michael Richard Rebmann), 31 (Capt. Donald ?Lee? Livingston, and Col. Lamar E. Ledbetter, Sr. 41 at the time of their deaths. Did they think of us as they realized their fate? – I’d like to say indeed they did. Even in the course of duty their thoughts were on others, those they loved and those they did not know but were willing to protect. God Bless them and may they rest in peace.

How we live this gift of life is what really counts. Life had to go on and it did for my Mom, who remarried, giving me my lifelong Dad- my buddy, a new name, and a family with two sisters born in the late 60’s. I’m the odd one though, somewhat taller than they are, and just different, not better. It’s the parts of me that I can’t find in them that must be him, the man I never knew. But I get glimpses now and again in the eyes and faces of my children, his grandchildren, his legacy which has gone far beyond February 20, 1963.

As I come into this anniversary year since that day 40 years ago, some questions remain unanswered. How did Lt. Col. Ledbetter’s children fare, Lamar Jr. and Pamela Jo? What happened to Lt. Rebmann’s family, his wife Jackie and their baby girl, Michelle, born after the accident? Now that I have found the Livingston girls with a lot of help from you all through the Internet, I feel like our story could actually have a happy ending, with our bond sealed in 1963 with the B-47 crash, now blooming into life long friendships 40 years later in 2003. This is why I decided to write this in honor of my Dad and his crew. First, I wish to say thank you to all the heroes of the 343rd for serving our country. The 98th Wing was the strong arm of the Cold War Era. I feel part of your family. Your service means more than words can express. You are the United States of America. Secondly, if you are reading this and can give me any more stories about Dad or Lee, or Mike or Col. Ledbetter to share with my children and the crew members’ families, I would be grateful to hear from you. Dad liked to be called TJ and maybe that is what you called him. Funny, my Stepfather who adopted me has been calling me that for years!

1st Lt. Michael R. Rebmann
co-pilot of the B-47

I will always be a daughter of the 98th Bombardiers and hopefully a Pyramidier by proxy.

Thanks to Herb Harper, Jim ‘Keats’ Keating, Jim Jelley and Dean Goff for all the clues and to Jed Jedrziewski for the England stories. I hope to put it all in a book someday.

God bless all those who serve our Country so selflessly.

And to Mom, Josephine, Joyce and Jackie, their sacrifice was your life long heartache. There is a part of you that went with them. We know that now.

Tammy Maher
3627 Waldwick Circle
El Dorado Hills, CA 95762 USA

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