THERMAL, Calif. - An incredible story that takes us back to 1945 connecting a local family with their past right here in the Coachella Valley. 72 years ago a military plane with ten U.S. servicemen onboard crashed into the mountains above thermal. Nine were killed, including Corporal Frank B. Kerrigan. We follow along as the Kerrigan family hikes to the crash site and discovers pieces of the wreckage, learning more about their loved one's last moments.
More than a dozen people gathered to get instruction on a three-mile round trip hike from G. Pat Macha of Project Remembrance. The volunteer group, for the past 30 years, has helped next of kin get information about lost loved ones in plane crashes, and take them to the site.
"We're here to honor the service and sacrifice of our airmen and women and in this case, 9 men died in that terrible accident," says Macha. "And, again we always say to next of kin, we say if you want to take a small piece, we always say to family, you own it."
On Sunday, February 19th, the Kerrigan family, hiked through rough and rocky terrain hoping to find pieces of the B24J Bomber that crashed into the lower Santa Rosa Mountains in 1945 carrying their loved one, Corporal Frank B. Kerrigan, a gunner on the plane.
Kathy Miller was born five years after the crash and never knew her uncle. She says her father talked about his younger brother's tragic death with sadness.
"The subject of his death was never known except that he crashed in a training flight out of March Air force base," says Miller.
The family had been told Corporal Kerrigan's plane crashed in Carmel, California. It wasn't until the decades later they found out it was Thermal. With that bit of news, the family was able to find a front page article about the crash at the Indio library.
"To find out that he died basically in my back yard in the Coachella Valley where I've been living and playing golf, here my namesake is here to be memorialized here today, it's very moving and it's fulfilling."
Dr. Frank Kerrigan is the nephew and namesake of the Airman killed. Dr. Kerrigan owns a medical group in Palm Desert. The opportunity to get near the crash site with family brings some closure about a subject that brings raw emotion every time it's discussed.
"The fact that I never knew my namesake is hard, but knowing how much I loved my dad it's just great," says Dr. Kerrigan.
According to military records, Corporal Kerrigan was on a high altitude camera bombing mission. At 20,000 feet, severe turbulence began to break apart the plane as it started into a dive. The sole survivor was thrown from the plane and he parachuted to safety. He watched as the plane continued to break apart, fall into the mountain and explode.
Kathy Miller says her uncle was 19 years old when he died. She says he was a great athlete. Kerrigan played football and basketball through high school in Saginaw, Michigan. He had a full-ride scholarship to go to Syracuse for basketball, but he enlisted instead. He wanted to be like his two older brothers.
After hiking for about a mile into the Santa Rosa Mountains, the family began to see quite a bit of debris from the plane crash. Large pieces of the plane, rusted and wedged into rocks were there. They found pieces of landing gear and a propeller.
Dr. Kerrigan found a gun turret that he says he will take with him to keep in his home as a reminder of his uncle.
Members of Project Remembrance had scouted the site years earlier. A member of the Kerrigan family found the information on-line
and got in touch with the group who agreed to take them to the site. Family flew out from Michigan and Colorado to help memorialize it with flowers, American flags, and a plaque.
After a moment of silence, G. Pat Macha radioed from the bottom of the war grave site with this message to Corporal Frank B. Kerrigan's family.
"We commend your efforts on behalf of your next of kin, you have honored him and that entire crew on that B24J. You have done good service, your efforts are so commendable that plaque outstanding, we salute you."
The Kerrigan family feels a sense of closure after finding their loved one's crash site. The plaque is hidden in the area and the family has vowed to keep the location of the debris a secret.