By Edie Schmierbach
Free Press Staff Writer
— “Plane crashes near Comfrey,” “Ground search continues for fourth member of crashed B-47 jet bomber crew...,” “Body found in tangled parachute.”
Those were the front-page headlines in the Feb. 21, 1963, edition of The Mankato Free Press.
Douglas Wall told a reporter the day of the horrific plane crash near Comfrey that it looked as if an atomic bomb had been dropped.
All four members of the B-47’s crew died.
Wall saw the plane crash to the ground about three miles northeast of Comfrey. He had been traveling east on a county road near the Carl Renburg farm when he saw from a distance of less than a mile an engine fall off and a huge plume of smoke. Wall remembered particles of ash were everywhere — one struck an eye. (Wall died in December at age 85.)
Investigators found debris more than a mile from the 50-foot crater the crash created in a meadow on the Renburg farmsite.
Lt. Col. Lamar Ledbetter, Capt. Donald Livingstone, 1st Lt. Thomas Hallgarth and Lt. Michael Rebmann died in the crash. The bomber crew was on its way to a site near Heron Lake during a low-level training mission, according to the Minnesota Wing of the Civil Air Patrol’s records.
Two crewmen had attempted to parachute to the ground after its engine mount failed — the remaining two were unable to escape the plane.
Three of the men were expectant fathers the day of the crash.
Lt. Hallgarth’s wife was seven months pregnant. In an online tribute, Tammy Josephine Maher described an old suitcase that was filled with mementos of the father she’d never met. “USF wings, hats, pins and buttons ... many notes of condolences including letters from President Kennedy and the mayor of Comfrey.”
Mayor Arthur J. Lilla addressed his letter to the family of Hallgarth. “...We, the people of the village of Comfrey, and also the nearby farming area, feel that these men so guided their plane until the last moment to avoid crashing into the village, because of this effort, their bravery saved many lives.”
Marianne Schotzko said after detailed reports of the crash were released, it was apparent the crew could not have controlled their craft. Regardless, townspeople were affected by the events of that day.
Schotzko was a junior at Comfrey School, about two miles from the crash.
“The building shook, we heard a loud noise, we ran to look to the north and saw a mushroom-like cloud.” An unsettling sight during the Cold War era, she said.
For weeks afterward, Schotzko observed Air Force and law enforcement in town investigating the site and protecting crash evidence from souvenir hunters.
Recently, as the 50th anniversary of the crash approached, survivors began to make inquiries about the site where the crewmen died.
Their requests sparked Schotzko and her husband, Stan, to spearhead efforts for establishing a monument to honor the airmen. The couple are members of the Comfrey Legion and its auxiliary. Stan is the commander.
The Brown County Veterans Council offered “seed money” to place a plaque at the crash site in hopes that other organizations will add to its $1,000 appropriation.
As of Friday morning, a total of $8,000 had been raised.
“More than 60 organizations and individuals have contributed,” Marianne Schotzko said, pleased that plans can now proceed.
“There are going to be four granite stones,” she said. The committee plans to add information about the crewmen and would like to have their likenesses on the markers.
A dedication ceremony is planned July 14 as part of Comfrey Community Days.
In the meantime, the Schotzkos and other volunteers will continue fundraising. From 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Feb. 24, they will be serving chicken sandwiches and holding a silent auction at the Comfrey American Legion.
Others interested in the project may send donations to: B-47 Memorial Fund, P.O. Box 98, in care of Choice Financial Bank, Comfrey, MN 56019.