TAMPA — They came to MacDill Air Force Base in 2002 to mark the death of Airman Isaac Anderson Sr.
A bugler played taps. An honor guard fired a salute of guns. A flag was solemnly folded and handed to next of kin who accepted the thanks of a grateful nation.
But this timeless ritual of honored military sacrifice would not close the book on the Tampa resident's life and death.
His was a funeral without a body.
Anderson was presumed to have died in the crash of an Air Force cargo plane in the mountains of Alaska in 1952, one of 52 people lost on the flight. The ceremony came belatedly after the granddaughter Anderson never saw said she started asking the Air Force why his remains were never recovered.
Then this month, Anderson's family learned the military may have recovered some remains at the isolated crash site. And now, Tonja Anderson, 41, of Tampa, said she is praying that at least some of her grandfather's remains might be identified using DNA.
She now wonders if he may finally be coming home.
• • •
Isaac Anderson was about to head to the war in Korea in November 1952. He was on leave in Tampa to visit his wife, Dorothy. Not long before he left for a flight out of Florida, he posed with his wife for a picture.
Anderson looks sharp and confident in his Air Force uniform and tie. He's 21. Dorothy is 20. They had a boy, not seen in the picture, who was not yet 2.
The boy grew into a man who hated flying all his life because of what happened just days after this picture.
A four-engine C124A Globemaster departed from Seattle for a flight to an air base just outside Anchorage. The weather in Alaska was worse than expected. Controllers soon lost communication with the flight.
Later, the wreckage of the plane was found at about 4,000 feet on the Colony Glacier 40 miles east of Anchorage. Military teams tried three times to reach the site, but bad weather forced them to turn back.
A small Piper aircraft did manage to land near the site and identified the plane. It's two-man crew found blood, and smelled decomposing human flesh.
The plane had apparently hit a mountain at full speed, exploding, according to news reports.
Someone who saw the wreck was asked if it was feasible to retrieve anything. In a 1952 report, he said, "Anything is feasible if one is willing to spend enough energy, time and money."
It is unclear why, but the remains were never retrieved.
• • •
In 2000, Tonja Anderson became curious about her father's side of the family. So began 12 years of research about her grandfather's death.
She said she immediately questioned why the military, which often boasts that it leaves no man or woman behind, had not recovered any of the remains of the 52 people who died in the crash.
She said she started writing letters to the Air Force and to members of Congress. The Air Force sent her reports of the crash. About this time, Dorothy Anderson became ill with cancer. She still believed her husband might not be dead.
Tonja Anderson said her grandmother, not long before her death, gave up that hope. "I'll take the flag now," her grandmother told her, referring to the military custom of giving the flag draping the coffin to the family. "He's not coming home."
Dorothy Anderson, who still lived in Tampa, died not long before the MacDill funeral. At the funeral, that long-ago picture of the young couple stood on a pedestal in the base chapel.
The flag was given to the lost airman's son, now 61. Isaac Anderson Jr. gave it to Tonja.
"She deserved it," he said. "She never gave up."
• • •
Tonja Anderson cried at the funeral. But it wasn't full closure.
Anderson, an operations manager at a communications company, said she never quit the search for more information.
Her mother, Grace, and other family members teased her, calling her Della after Perry Mason's ever-resourceful secretary.
"People think of MIAs as being in a foreign country," Anderson said. "But my grandfather was MIA in his own country."
A few weeks ago, somebody sent Anderson a link to a Web item about the wreckage of a plane found on Colony Glacier. She felt a shiver of recognition.
The wreckage was found June 14, the Associated Press said, by an Alaska National Guard helicopter on a training mission.
Army Capt. Jamie Dobson warned, "We're still at the very beginning of this investigation. This is … not the finish line."
Anderson said she has been told by the military that the wreckage has been confirmed as her grandfather's flight. And she said fragments of what appear to be bones have been sent to a lab to see if they can be identified.
"They said it could take six months or six years" to identify the remains, Anderson said.
Anderson knows few of her grandfather's remains could be recovered.
"I don't care if its one bone or one dog tag.
"He's coming home."
William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3432.