Fifty years later, western Iowa remembers harrowing incident

Our People
2010-01-16T22:15:00Z Fifty years later, western Iowa remembers harrowing incidentBy Tim Gallagher - Sioux City Journal

CARROLL, Iowa -- "The Day the Music Died," occurred on a snowy night, Feb. 3, 1959, when a plane carrying music stars Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson crashed in a cornfield near Clear Lake, Iowa, killing everyone aboard.

It's a tragic chapter in Iowa history.

What many don't know is that less than one year later, history darn near repeated itself. On Jan. 18, 1960, an airplane carrying the Minneapolis Lakers basketball team crash landed in a snowy cornfield north of Carroll.

Twenty-three people on-board survived. Stars like Elgin Baylor and Rodney "Hot Rod" Hundley emerged from the plane and went on to storied careers.

Folks in Carroll will gather Monday for a social hour and program to commemorate what they calling the "Miracle Cornfield Landing." Co-pilot Harold Gifford, now of Woodbury, Minn., plans to share his memories.

Gifford, a World War II veteran who spent a career in the air, calls the four hours of flight that night his most harrowing.

"It makes an impression on your mind that doesn't go away," said Gifford, 86. "I still wake up and think of what if we would have hit that grove of trees (13 miles north of Carroll). The entire Lakers organization, except for owner Bob Short, would have been wiped out."

Problems arise after takeoff

The Minneapolis Lakers in 1960 weren't known for stellar basketball. The team lost twice as many games as it won in its final season in Minnesota before moving to Los Angeles.

The club dropped a game in St. Louis the night of Jan. 17, 1960 and boarded the team plane at Lambert Field in St. Louis, bound for Minneapolis.

At 8:30 p.m., pilot Vern Ullman, a retired U.S. Marines pilot, lifted the 1930s-era DC-3 off the ground. Two generators failed five minutes later, cutting all electrical power.

"We had no lights, no fuel gauges, no instruments," said Gifford, the copilot. "But the engines worked and we broke out on top (above cloud cover) and it was a beautiful night. As long as we continued north, we figured we'd be in good shape."

A storm system had different designs. Over central Iowa, a cold front collided with a warm air mass and made for a snowy mess from Des Moines north. The plane, operating without heat, defrosters, lights and radio, dropped lower to avoid icing. It would then climb higher in an attempt to find the North Star and continue north.

The storm forced the plane off-course. Five hours into the flight and not certain of the quantity of fuel left, Ullman and Gifford searched for airports at which they could land. The best they could do? They located Highway 71 northwest of Des Moines and followed it to Carroll.

"I could see the two last letters on the Carroll water tower, but I wasn't sure if it was Carroll," Gifford said, adding the other letters were hidden under snow. "We circled the town a few times and people began turning their lights on."

Jim Herzog, then 29, rose from his bed. A pilot, Herzog realized anyone flying that low in a blizzard was in distress. He threw some clothes over his pajamas and raced out the door.

At the fire station downtown, Herzog met mortician Barney Sharp, who doubled as an ambulance driver. Sharp reportedly said he'd be getting some business that night.

Nearly did. The DC-3 chugged north from Carroll following Highway 71 when Gifford lost the highway's path as it turned west at Auburn, Iowa, 13 miles north of Carroll.

"I'm looking for the highway when Jim Holznagel (a pilot-in-training who accompanied the crew) yelled 'Look out!' as we were in a bank almost plunging into a grove of trees," Gifford said. "I instinctively pulled up as hard as I could and we got back up into the clouds."

All 23 survived

The crew turned back, found Highway 71 and circled Carroll several more times.

Baylor, the franchise star and future Hall of Famer, grabbed a blanket and stretched out on the floor at the back of the plane minutes before it landed. He told his teammates if he was going to die, at least he'd go out in a comfortable position.

Ullman and Gifford used farming backgrounds to their advantage. Sensing a corn field would be free of ditches, they decided to put the plane down in a field of unpicked corn four-tenths of a mile north of the city limits. Those rows of corn provided a guide for the pair to set the plane down straight in two feet of snow.

The area is now Veterans Park, a small green space in a housing subdivision on Carroll's north side. A sign commemorating the landing will be posted there spring.

It's a celebration that's long in coming, according to former Laker Dick Garmaker, now 77 and living in Tulsa, Okla. "The landing wasn't rough at all," Garmaker remembered.

All 23 aboard survived. The traveling party stayed at The Burke Motor Inn motel that night and left Carroll the next morning via bus. Pilot Ullman stayed with the DC-3 for a couple of days while it was fixed. He then flew the plane out of the field and back to Minneapolis.

"I hadn't started my family yet," said Garmaker. "My wife and I had two sons and they've had a nice life. The guys on that team who went on to have children and grandchildren, none of them would be here if those pilots didn't get us on the ground safely. Those guys performed a miracle."

"I'm no more a hero than a doctor who performs a successful operation," Gifford said. "You do the best you can with what you've got to work with. That's what we were trained to do."

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