The RC-135 was in a holding pattern over Shemya Island on the night of March 15, 1981. Tiny Shemya, at the western end of the Aleutian chain, was below minimums in fog, blowing snow, and sleet, compounded by strong crosswinds. Aboard were 22 members of the Electronic Security Command’s 6981st Squadron, based at Eielson AFB near Fairbanks, Alaska. TSgts. David Gerke and Tommie Wood, both sitting in the rear of the plane, had been there before. They were well aware of the hazards of flying in that area, where the warm Japan Current meets the cold waters of the Bering Sea to produce some of the worst weather in the world.
At last Shemya tower cleared the -135 to land in marginal conditions. Everyone aboard knew this would be a rough one as the big jet, wracked by turbulence, descended through the pitch-black murk. Then, over the intercom, they heard the navigator shout to the pilot that he was too low and off to the left of the runway. Too late to take it around, the pilot started a shallow right turn just as the aircraft smashed into the ground. Nos. 3 and 4 engines on the right wing exploded in a ball of flame. As the -135 careened across the runway, the aft section of the fuselage broke off, catapulting Gerke and Wood out of the wreckage, still strapped in their seats.
Wood’s first thought as he regained consciousness was to get away from the burning wreckage as quickly as possible. Struggling painfully to his feet in the knee-deep snow, he heard a cry for help from the debris. Lt. Loren Ginter was trapped there, his clothing on fire. Wood, with four broken ribs, a fractured left wrist, and deep cuts on his face, crawled to Ginter and threw snow on his burning legs. Injured as he was and on the verge of unconsciousness, Wood did not have the strength to pull the big lieutenant out of the flames.
A few feet away, a dazed Gerke released the safety belt holding him to his seat and started uncertainly through the waist-deep snow-drifts toward the lights of the approaching rescue vehicles. Over his shoulder, he glimpsed someone in the aft section of the fuselage. Plowing through the snow, he found Wood and the trapped lieutenant.
Gerke knew that in their condition, neither he nor Wood alone could get Ginter out of the wreckage. He told Wood to take Ginter’s shoulders while he worked to free the lieutenant’s legs. With the lieutenant almost free, a second explosion hit Gerke full in the face, inflicting second- and third-degree burns and blowing him out of the torn fuselage.
Momentarily oblivious to the pain in his face and neck, Gerke made his way back to the crash scene and succeeded in freeing Ginter’s legs. He and Wood somehow managed to drag the 200-pound lieutenant away from the fire. While Wood remained with the critically injured man, Gerke fought his way through the heavy, wet snow toward the oncoming rescue vehicles.
When he was sure the rescue crews knew where to find Wood and Ginter, Gerke allowed himself to be taken to the base dispensary. Medical technicians did what they could to care for Gerke’s burns, which threatened to cut off his breathing, and for Wood’s and Ginter’s injuries.
The following day the weather improved enough for Air Force doctors to be flown in and for the two men to be evacuated to Elmendorf AFB at Anchorage. Wood was able to return to duty in a month, but Gerke spent weeks at the burn clinic of Letterman Army Medical Center in San Francisco before he was released. Sadly, Ginter, for whom they had risked their lives, succumbed to burns and smoke inhalation, the sixth to die in that crash
Both Wood and Gerke were awarded the Airman’s Medal. The following year, they were honored as recipients of the Cheney Award, presented annually for “an act of valor, extreme fortitude, or self-sacrifice in a humanitarian interest performed in connection with aircraft.”
Gerke and Wood demonstrated again that valor is as much a part of the Air Force tradition in time of peace as it is in war. At the award of his Airman’s Medal, Gerke put it in a nutshell: “I’d like to think that I’ve never flown with anyone who wouldn’t have done the same for me.”
Published December 1989. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.