George R. Sanderson – Captain, United States Air Force

Captain George Sanderson and his family were already in Alaska when we arrived. He and Phyllis were older than the rest of us; they had school-aged children. Sandy took his work seriously and we suspected he might be a perfectionist. After each mission we scored each other’s weather observation worksheets, and monthly scores of the percentage of error-free observations were posted. Sandy’s monthly scores were usually 100% – perfect.

We noticed that Sandy’s handwriting on his worksheets was often shaky, as if his hand trembled as he wrote. We guessed that he was nervous about making a mistake and his shaky handwriting reflected this inner tension. We shrugged it off, but when we got to McChord, Sandy began to show other signs of anxiety. He became convinced that he had prostate cancer. However, we still didn’t recognize his behavior as dangerous symptoms.

One day in March of 1959 I went to the base commissary and passed Sandy as he was loading his groceries into his car. I’ll never forget how pale, even ashen, he looked. We exchanged a few words and he left for home. I never saw him alive again.

Sandy went home first to unload his groceries, and then drove out into the country and took his own life. He brought a vacuum-cleaner hose with him and used it to pipe exhaust fumes into his car. I heard the news later that evening. We were all stunned and immediately began to think about what we had been watching. Suicide is extremely painful to survivors, even non-relatives. I felt guilty that I hadn’t been more pro-active that afternoon when I saw the, now obviously, disturbed Sandy in the commissary parking lot.

A few of us went over to be with Phyllis that evening. While I was there Phyllis asked if I would please accompany Sandy’s remains to Arlington National Cemetery for burial. She explained that she didn’t feel she had the strength to meet with Sandy’s family that soon. Phyllis’s request surprised me, but I understood and agreed to go.

The next day I met with the base chaplain who was adamant that I do my best to convince Sandy’s family that the Air Force regarded his death as honorable. He asked me to do everything I could to help his family avoid feeling any shame over what had happened. He offered no answers for me to give Sandy’s confused dad and sisters. There would never be any satisfactory answers; Sandy left no note that I was aware of. We were left to guess for ourselves what had driven him to his untimely death.

Sandy and I would travel by rail – the first two days on the Great Northern Railroad to Chicago.

Feet-first most of the way

Protocol required that I travel in uniform and wear a black armband of mourning. Protocol also required that Sandy’s coffin be flag draped with the field of blue over his heart, and it was strongly emphasized that I make sure that his casket traveled feet first. At the train station I stood by while Sandy’s casket was loaded into the baggage car, and was reminded by the chaplain to be in the baggage car when we reached Chicago and changed trains to assure the time-honored feet-first custom was followed. I was young and I worried about this point. I didn’t want to dishonor my fallen comrade.

On my first day out of Seattle I sat next to an interesting 85 year old gentleman. He recognized the obvious: I was an Air Force officer in mourning and he asked me what happened and I explained. We carried on an interesting conversations most of the day that helped pass the time. My companion had retired from the Great Northern many years earlier and frequently used his free pass to visit a remote station in central Montana where he had spent decades of his life as a
telegraph operator.

His mind was sharp and memory keen, and I sat intrigued, listening to him relate his experiences as a U.S. Marine signal-corpsman stringing communication lines in China during the Boxer Rebellion at the turn of the century. Chinese soldiers armed with bows and arrows began shooting at U.S. Marines from the top of the city wall as his unit approached the city gates of Beijing. All of a sudden I was linked to the past, listening to someone who actually saw such ancient weapons used in warfare. He also asked some very intelligent questions about modern warfare, a few of which I could respond to with some knowledge or opinion. I was sorry to see him get off the train.

Sandy’s coffin was moved correctly in Chicago, feet first, and loaded aboard a Pennsylvania Railroad train bound for Washington, DC, but during a stop over in Baltimore my efforts to honor protocol were sabotaged. We pulled into the station and sat for about thirty minutes while they changed engines. When we started up again I realized to my horror that we were traveling backwards and Sandy was traveling head-first! The new engine must have connected to the rear of our train.

I sat dumbfounded, not quite knowing what to do. Shall I rush back to the baggage car and spin Sandy’s casket around? Who will meet me in D.C.? What will they say if they realize Sandy traveled backwards? This all seems silly to me now, but I assure you I was gravely concerned at the time.

There was no need to worry. When the train pulled into DC’s Union Station, no one seemed to notice or care. An Army hearse met us and Sandy and I were quickly driven to Arlington to meet with the assigned chaplain to describe the circumstances so that he could talk intelligently with the family before Sandy’s funeral, scheduled later that day. After our meeting. I left Arlington and next met with Sandy’s family at their hotel, anticipating many questions that I was still
unsure how I would answer.

Not surprised, I found a very distraught Sanderson clan. It’s been over  thirty-seven years since our tearful encounter and I can no longer recall exactly what we said, but I can still recall their pain and also my determination to answer honestly. I believe that I successfully conveyed the message that Sandy died an honorable death.

Sandy’s dad asked the larger question: Why? I told him I didn’t know why, and that no one back at McChord knew why either. I said that his friends would probably forever remain just as confused as his family. I told him how stunned we had all been.

We then left the hotel for Arlington where we again wept together, this time through a dignified and impressive funeral service. At the end, the flag was folded and the chaplain offered it to Mr. Sanderson with the traditional remarks: “Please accept this token of thanks from a grateful nation for your son who gave his life in the service of his country.”

When rifle volleys are fired at a military funeral it feels as if your heart is being wrenched from your chest. When they fired this salute to Sandy I decided that I want similar honors when my time comes.

The elder Mr. Sanderson looked even older and leaned on my arm as we walked back to the limousine. Through his tears he repeated his still unanswered question, “Why? Why? Why?” I told him once again that I’m not sure that anyone will ever be able to give him an answer.

Back at the hotel we said our good-byes and by then I felt like a member of the family. They invited me to visit them in Barre, Vermont, at anytime. I told them I would, but I’ve never made it up there. Phyllis moved back home soon afterwards and we exchanged Christmas cards for some years. I often think of her and the children and still have no satisfactory answers.

— Jack Sharp (From “Cold Fronts”)

DATE OF BIRTH: 01/05/1925

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