Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno honors victims of 1948 Coalinga plane crash

The Fresno BeeJune 3, 2013 

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno is trying to right a wrong for 28 Mexican citizens who died in a plane crash 65 years ago near Coalinga.

The group of migrant farmworkers -- employed in a program that allowed Mexican citizens to enter the United States to perform seasonal work and then return to Mexico -- never made it home. The chartered immigration plane they boarded out of Oakland for their return trip to Mexico lost its left wing and fell from the sky. Everyone aboard -- the farmworkers, three crew members and an immigration guard -- died.

The crew members and guard were buried at various cemeteries. The farmworkers were buried in a mass grave at Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery in Fresno -- with a bronze grave marker bearing the words "airplane accident" and no names.

The Diocese of Fresno, which operates Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery, has spearheaded an effort with author and former Valley resident Tim Z. Hernandez to install a new memorial at the grave site, bearing the names of the 28 Mexican citizens.

The diocese is planning a special Mass and dedication of an 8-foot by 4-foot memorial at 10 a.m. Sept. 2 at the cemetery.

Bishop Armando X. Ochoa, of the Diocese of Fresno, said the Mass and dedication will help correct a past wrong.

In a statement, the bishop said, "In death, those 28 lives were changed, with all the circumstances and aspects of their lives."

A plane plunges

The last evidence of the tragedy is a 4-foot-long pipe from the plane's wreckage that sits on a window sill in the Military Room at the R.C. Baker Memorial Museum in Coalinga. More than half of the pipe is smashed pancake-flat.

According to information at the display -- Fresno County's Biggest Air Disaster Happened Here in 1948 -- the plane was a war surplus twin-engine DC-3, designated C-47 by the military. It was owned by Air Transport Carriers, which was under contract with the federal immigration service.

The plane left Oakland Airport bound for Burbank on Jan. 28, 1948. The company had been making routine flights for about a year.

Inmates from the Fresno County Industrial Road Camp near Coalinga were working about a mile east of the camp and described smoke coming from the plane's left wing. The left wing separated and the plane plunged from about 5,000 feet into the canyon.

Area residents volunteered to help with a cleanup mission, burying a few scattered human remains at the scene.

That might've been the final chapter of the tragedy if not for Woodie Guthrie. The internationally known folk musician heard a media report about the crash and paid particular attention to the description of the passengers -- no names, just "deportees."

Guthrie wrote a protest song, "Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)" in 1948. The likes of Pete Seeger, the Byrds, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen covered it over the years, but it wasn't until a man with Valley ties uncovered the story that the effort to name the nameless was born.

Hernandez, an author and poet who was born in Dinuba but now lives in Boulder, Colo., was researching a new book and came across microfilm of The Bee's front-page stories and photos of the disaster.

In July 2012, Hernandez asked Carlos Rascon, director of cemeteries for the Diocese of Fresno, for the names. Rascon, who was new on the job, couldn't find them. In September, Hernandez came to Fresno to visit the grave site.

They worked together to get the names from the Fresno County Hall of Records.

Rascon said the effort pays long-overdue respect to the Mexican victims.

"To us, it's about the dignity, the respect and the treatment of them," he said. "The primary thing is making things right. But it affects people in many different ways."

Hernandez returned to the Valley in April to take part in fundraising for the memorial. He visited Dinuba High School, where a bake sale raised $200. Hernandez also spoke at a benefit concert at Fulton 55, where musician Lance Canales and others performed another rendition of "Deportee."

Hernandez is chronicling the story in a book, "All They Will Call You."

"When that accident happened, it took the media to get the word out, but it took musicians to turn it into a song," Hernandez says. "Now, an author is turning it into a book.

"Art has a way of sustaining history -- and closing history. Sixty-five years have gone by. It just needs to happen for them to find their closure."

About $9,000 has been raised to pay for the memorial ledger and expenses in staging the Mass and dedication. Rascon estimates total costs to be $10,000.

Honoring the 28

On a recent day at Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery, Rascon reached down to clean the grave marker.

It reads, "28 Mexican citizens who died in an airplane accident near Coalinga, California, on Jan. 28, 1948. R.I.P."

That's all.

Rascon said the new memorial, weighing about 4,000 pounds, will feature a picture of San Isidro Labrador, the patron saint of farmworkers, as well as the names of the 28 farmworkers. It's modeled after the one installed for Bishop John T. Steinbock at St. Peter's Cemetery.

The names of the crew members and guard also will be inscribed.

Rascon said he is overwhelmed by the generosity of people wanting to help with the effort.

Bell Memorials and Granite Works in Clovis donated inscription work and will bring it to the cemetery. Berry Construction of Madera donated the footing and the foundation work to bear the weight of the memorial.

The Woodie Guthrie Foundation in Mt. Kisco, N.Y., a nonprofit organization that serves as administrator and caretaker of the Woodie Guthrie archives, also is helping with fundraising.

Stephanie McHaney, curator at the R.C. Baker Memorial Museum in Coalinga, said she is grateful for the effort to honor the 28 Mexican citizens.

"It's special," she said. "For many years, you didn't hear about them other than the old stories. Now, it has come back to the surface. They're known now. There are names to go with the people.

"It's about respecting them. There are actual names for people who lost their lives. They're not just forgotten. They're not just lost like some people might have thought."

REMEMBERING THE DEAD

The 28 Mexican citizens whose names will be inducted on a news memorial at their mass grave site at Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery:

Miguel Negroros Alvarez

Francisco Llamas Duram

Santiago Garcia Elizondo

Rosalio Padilla Estrada

Tomasa Avena De Garcia

Bernabe Lopez Garcia

Salvador Sandoval Hernandez

Severo Medina Lara

Elias Trujillo Macias

Jose Rodriguez Macias

Tomas Padilla Marquez

Luis Lopez Medina

Manuel Calderon Merino

Luis Cuevas Miranda

Martin Razo Navarro

Ygnacio Perez Navarro

Roman Ochoa Ochoa

Ramon Ramirez Paredes

Apolonio Ramirez Placencia

Guadalupe Laura Ramirez

Alberto Carlos Raygoza

Guadalupe Hernandez Rodriguez

Maria Santana Rodriguez

Juan Valenzuela Ruiz

Wencealado Ruiz

Jose Valdivia Sanchez

Jesus Meza Santos

Baldomero Marcas Torres

Others aboard the flight:

Francis "Frank" Atkinson, Long Beach, pilot

Marion Harlow Ewing, Balboa, co-pilot

Lillian "Bobbie" Atkinson (married to Frank), Long Beach, stewardess

Frank E. Chaffin, Berkeley, immigration guard

Source: Diocese of Fresno Catholic Cemeteries

HOW TO HELP

Tax-deductible contributions toward the memorial can be made by mail to: St. Peter's Cemetery, 264 N. Blythe Ave., Fresno, CA 93706. All checks should be made out to: Saint Peter's Cemetery. Be sure to write "Attn: Holy Cross Memorial" on the envelope and in the memo portion of the check. Details: (559) 488-7449.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6304 or rorozco@fresnobee.com.

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