On Nov. 8, 1961, Imperial Airlines Flight 201/8, chartered by the United States Army, took off from Newark, N.J., to transport new recruits for basic military training at Fort Jackson, S.C.
At 21:24 Eastern, the aircraft crashed as it attempted an emergency landing at Byrd Field near Richmond, Va.
While there were no apparent impact-related injuries, all 74 passengers and three crew members died as a result of carbon monoxide asphyxiation in the ensuing fire and smoke.
On Nov. 9, 2016, a monument was dedicated to 15 of these soldiers who came from the very close-knit community of Passaic, N.J.
Who were the soldiers of Imperial Airlines Constellation Flight 201/8? Far more than names carved into granite stone. These were vibrant, intelligent and brave young men on the very edge of young adulthood.
I was careful to say brave young men, as we know from the historical evidence that they struggled valiantly to escape their fate aboard that constellation airliner.
Their effort warrants our remembrance, and without doubt their effort merits this commemoration. Indeed, these young men were soldiers who would give up their lives in the line of duty.
Because, In the final analysis, there is no qualitative difference in the sacrifice of a young American life; whether this tragedy takes place on a mountainside in Korea, a rice paddy in Vietnam, a desolate wilderness in Afghanistan, or a routine flight en route to training.
For the nation it is the loss of our most valuable resource: the youth of this country.
For those left behind it is the same:
It is irretrievable loss, irreconcilable sorrow, a burden that their survivors will carry all their lives.
We can briefly reflect on the common cultural influences they shared.
It is often said, and it is very true, that America is an immigrant nation; everyone, either themselves or their ancestry, can trace their historical timeline to somewhere else. These young men were no different. They grew up in a widely diverse environment.
This City of Passaic lived diversity long before the term became a fashion label. It was just the natural order of things. It doesn’t seem any different today.
Many had parents and grandparents who fled European oppression, or worse. We all knew firsthand of families that of necessity left behind relatives and loved ones some of which suffered terrible fates in the cataclysmic European theater of World War II, which had ended just 16 years prior to the date we commemorate today. That experience was still fresh in the minds of the adult population of the time.
Those that were successful came to America seeking Freedom and Opportunity. They understood the concept of Freedom at its deepest and intimate level.
It would be impossible for them to trivialize or take freedom for granted.
Many had witnessed a frightening prospect in their lives; Freedom could be lost.
As a consequence of their experiences, they were acutely aware of the price of freedom; that freedom is not free. They also well understood what might be necessary to maintain that freedom.
In their culture military service was commonly viewed as honorable, necessary, and in many cases expected in some form. Almost invariably, in every home there would be photographs of young people in military uniform displayed in a place of honor. And so they raised their sons imbued with these values.
Against this cultural backdrop, we should briefly view the times that frame this event.
The Cold War was in full swing, with the United States contending with the former Soviet Union across the globe in every arena: Political, Economic, Science, and even athletics. A Technological Space Race was on, and in the early 60’s we were behind.
It was 1961, Jack Kennedy had attained the White House, and the Eisenhower years had just concluded, as the President said, “The Torch Has Been Passed to a New Generation”. This messaging resonated with the young people of the time, and there was an emerging ‘energy’ in the air that they could identify and align themselves with.
A patriotic undertone began to take hold in the nation; “...Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”. Many young men saw military service as fulfillment of this request. In this era, the draft was often viewed as part of the cadence of everyday life.
If you take a moment to view their group photo, you will not see despondency in their faces. In fact, you will generally see just the opposite. We must keep in mind that these were strong, able bodied young men, full of the confidence of young manhood.
Now how do we really know this? Well, I can attest my own experience. An evening or so before their fateful flight, two of the soldiers we honor today were in my home, as they often were. So often, that I tended to view them as an additional set of older brothers.
Patrick Purcell and Paul Soltecz were the closest and dearest friends of my eldest brother, Edward. Bonds formed in elementary school and cemented on the playing fields of this city.
My brother also a draftee, was determined to join his buddies and experience basic training with them. His name does not appear on this monument. But for the grace of God and the U.S. Army’s strict adherence to regulation, he was prevented from joining his friends and therefore missed the flight.
But that night, the three of them were facing their upcoming challenge with a totally positive outlook. This outlook is clearly shared and plainly visible in the group photograph. To hear them talk, If you didn’t know better, you would think that they were invited to a try out for some sort of athletic team.
In fact, they could sum up their outlook in a single phrase:
“We’re going to make the best of it”
Goodbyes are said to mothers, sweethearts, friends and family.
Overnight bags are packed, and lined up at the door.
“We’re going to make the best of it”.
That was their attitude that evening. And, that was their attitude on 8 November, 1961, when they boarded Imperial Airlines Constellation flight 201/8 and left their families, their sweethearts, their friends, and our community - forever.
Sons of the Legion Squadron 359
Passaic, New Jersey – Nov. 9, 2016