This post is part of an archived series of blogs called The LeVine Line, written by former Ambassador Suzan G. LeVine during her time at U.S. Embassy Bern.
20 June 2014
Can you imagine what it must have felt like to be General Ralph Tate Sr. when, while piloting a search plane, you see the flare and then hear the voice of your son, Captain Ralph Tate Jr. – the pilot of the C-53 Skytrooper Dakota that went down in the Alps with your wife and 10 other passengers aboard? “Hi Dad” was all he heard from his son before communications were lost again during his and others’ search for the plane.
It was November 22nd, 1946 – 4 days after the Dakota had taken off from Vienna, Austria bound for Pisa, Italy – filled with a combination of military personnel and family members. On November 19th, amidst bad weather, Captain Ralph Tate Jr. crash-landed on the Gauli Glacier in the Swiss Alps. Here’s at least one of the many accounts of this incredible story. But – to save you the suspense, Sr. and Jr. were eventually reunited and all passengers survived.
But this isn’t just a story of fortitude and survival. It’s a story of trust and ingenuity. It’s a story of the ultimate diplomacy. You see – in 1946 relations between the Swiss and the US were strong on many fronts – especially with the foundation of us being two of the oldest democracies in the world and being Sister Republics – but they were not the strongest ever. The challenge in this instance was that the Swiss had not given permission for any military to come into/through Switzerland during the War, so when the Dakota went down and was finally located by General Tate Sr., the rescue effort required a combined effort between the Americans and the Swiss. And that’s where TRUST played a crucial role.
On Tuesday, June 17th, 2014, I had the incredible honor to help dedicate a memorial in Innertkirchen and up on the Gauli Glacier to the Swiss who enabled that rescue. It also honored the three young men who, while hiking in 2012, found the propeller up on the glacier (the plane remains buried and unfound).
Trust. The Swiss trusted the American military rescuers to come into their country to save lives.
Both up at the glacier as well as in the display area in Innertkirchen, I saw pictures of the rescue equipment amassed by the US – including Willys Jeeps and Snowcats. I also heard about air drops of food, blankets and other survival tools made by the American military to the crash victims (much of which, sadly, ended up too far away from the victims). And then I heard the chuckle from those around me. Let’s just say that Snowcats and Jeeps – while certainly of good intent, were, perhaps, not the best choice.
Trust. It’s trust that enables a friend to help you course correct.
So the Americans had to trust the Swiss who knew these mountains and these conditions like the backs of their hands. And the Swiss delivered. After 13 hours, Swiss mountain rescuers hiked to the Glacier, bringing provisions, aid, and warmth.
Now – here’s where the ingenuity comes. Yes – Captain Ralph Tate, Jr. and others were ingenious in their survival techniques to stay warm, nourished and alive. AND – the Swiss, just that week, were testing what could be done if you attached skis to a plane. Time to put their innovation into action and not just test. (it’s kind of like a Swiss Army Knife – but with wings and skis!) With this rescue, they learned that Skis + Plane = 12 survivors! This innovation also became the birth of the world famous Swiss Air Rescue Guard (REGA) that, today, saves people (usually via helicopter) all over the globe.
Trust. This shared experience became the basis for a rejuvenation in the relationship of our two nations – reminding people of what can happen when we work together and reminding our respective nations of the solid foundation from which our relationship stems.
As I was staring out at the Gauli Glacier that, while stunning, has suffered incredible recession over just the past few years, I couldn’t help but think about the incredible ways in which we are (and/or need to) collaborate to continue to save lives. Someday this glacial recession may help exhume the body of the Dakota, but that find may be bittersweet – as both a celebration of survival along with a reminder of impending danger.
Trust. Our Sister Republics have an incredible relationship built on a foundation of common values and shared success. The rescue of the Dakota is an incredible reflection that, when we collaborate and trust each other’s’ strengths and ingenuity, there’s really nothing that stands in our way.
Many thanks to Gemeinde President Walter Brog, Herr Baumberger, Hans Jürg, and others for inviting me to participate in such an auspicious and important occasion!