It was 1946 and World War II had just come to an end.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Alfred Warm was on his way home. An entire life – limitless in possibility – lay ahead of the 19-year-old.
Warm was smart and athletic. He spent his childhood playing pickup stickball and handball games in his Brooklyn neighborhood. He was an Eagle Scout, and planned to be the first in his family to go to college.
“His father was a letter carrier, a postman, and immigrant,” said Alfred Stettner, Warm’s nephew who is named after him. “He didn’t come from a family of means.”
Warm enlisted in the Coast Guard as soon as he was eligible. He trained as a radioman and was assigned to a long range aids to navigation station in Greenland.
“He would send pictures home and write funny notes on the back,” said Stettner.
After completing his tour, Warm was ready to return home to start his civilian life.
Warm hopped on a B-17 Flying Fortress out of Greenland. They were bound for Westover airfield in Massachusetts, which sits in the shadow of the 1200-foot peak of Mount Tom. He and 24 other passengers and crew made the long trip only to circle the airfield for two hours before being cleared to land.
Finally, at around 10:30 p.m. on July 9, 1946, with a light rain falling, the B-17 began the final descent dropping to 800 feet.
They were on a direct collision course with the mountain.
All 25 lives, including 15 Coast Guardsmen, each with unique stories and hopes for the future, were lost upon impact. For fifty years the crash site went unmarked until a group of dedicated volunteers decided that the 25 departed deserved more.
Today nestled near the site of the crash is a memorial remembering those who died – so close to returning home.
For years hikers made makeshift memorials. They would stack pieces of the plane in piles near the crash site. Eventually one man, Norman Cote, decided something more should done.
“Norman came into my office saying there had been a crash up on Mount Tom 50 years before, and that nobody had ever put any kind of a memorial up,” said Robert Cahillane, co-chairman of the B-17 memorial committee and former director of the Center for Veteran Services in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Cahillane remembers Cote being persistent and described him as the original driving force for the memorial.
Cahillane thought a plaque or a marker along the hiking trail near the site would be appropriate, and decided to reach out to his veteran’s services counterparts in the bordering towns of Holyoke and Easthampton.
From there the project grew bigger as the story of the crash resonated with more people.
“Seventeen of the best people came out of the woodwork and said ‘I want to be part of this – I want to help’,” said Cahillane.
Soon the small marker turned into a tree lined path and a granite stone listing all 25 names.
The group also tracked down family members of each of the men, including Dorothy Stettner, Alfred Warm’s sister, who was 15 years old at the time of the crash.
“When my mother got the call back in ’96 that some local people were building a memorial on the site, it was a literally life changing event,” said Stettner. “My mother used to say it was her mission to keep their memories alive, and now the memorial is doing that.”
For Stettner it was another way for him to connect to his namesake, the uncle he never met. He grew up hearing stories from his mother about her older brother, who she idolized.
“It’s interesting how someone can become a part of your life like that, even though I never knew him,” said Stettner.
With plans drawn up and family members notified, it was time to break ground near the site of the crash.
“The day they backed up with the memorial – one of the workman jumped off the back of the truck because he saw something shiny,” said Cahillane. “It belonged to a gentleman by the name of Roe, it was his ID bracelet. I say it was like the hand of God pushing it up from the ground for us to find. We cleaned it up and returned it to the family.”
By 1996, 50 years after the accident, the memorial was complete.
Today, a row of 25 birch trees line the path that leads to the circular clearing and the etched granite monument.
“When we had the first ceremony on the mountain it was very emotional and really something,” said Stettner. “We go back every year, and every year it’s very emotional to talk about him and remember his life and their tragic deaths at an early age.”
“It’s been a labor of love,” said Cahillane adding that a new generation of volunteers has started to take over from the original committee.
One of those people who has picked up the torch is Debbie Malek, a Veterans Services Officer for the city of Holyoke.
“I went to one service and have been drawn to go back every year,” said Malek.
Though Malek had no personal connection to any of the men, she says she has come to know each one through the stories that have been passed by their family members.
“How can I not give tribute to men who lost their lives serving their country and were on their way home and never got past Holyoke?” said Malek.
According to Malek, the memorial is primarily maintained by a pair of hikers that came across it one day.
“They felt the love that surrounds the place, and painstakingly work every year to keep it pristine,” said Malek.
Stettner and his family continue to be moved by the fact that strangers have taken it upon themselves to build and maintain the memorial
“The community built a memorial out of true altruism,” said Stettner. “So many people still recognize and appreciate the sacrifice these young men made – it still resonates with people and always will.”
Seventy years after the crash, the memories of Alfred Warm and the 24 other service members continue to live on because of the humanity and love of strangers. As years pass and memories fade this memorial will stand as a peaceful salute to the promising lives that were cut short, and enduring power of respectful remembrance.