Monuments are often deeply symbolic… but ultimately, most are usually pretty easy to figure out. Such is not the case with the Silent Heroes of the Cold War National Memorial. The air of mystery about the monument is intentional. The guy who designed it knows better than anyone how much a good mystery can draw someone in and leave an impression.
The monument itself contains a mangled plane propeller fixed to a boulder, along with inscriptions including an untranslated Latin phrase, a list of names, and a quote from JFK, in addition to a sealed vault. It begs a lot of questions. Who are the Silent Heroes? What’s in the vault? But, the only thing more bizarre than the monument itself is the tale of how it came to be.
The Silent Heroes of the Cold War National Memorial all started with the wreckage of a plane atop Mt. Charleston in Nevada’s Spring Mountains National Recreation Area. It was one of those things that had been there for so long that people just accepted it. No one knew where it came from, though. Steve Ririe had grown up hiking Mt. Charleston, and had always wondered about the wreckage. But like everyone else, he was left to merely imagine the story behind it.
That is, until years later (1998 to be exact) when he returned to hike the mountain in search of clarity during a personal crisis. What he wound up finding was a renewed curiosity about the wreckage. Thus began two years of research. This finally led him to discover the incredible true story behind the crash. Here’s what happened, according to the US Forest Service:
On November 17, 1955, at 7:25 a.m., USAF military aircraft 9068 departed from Burbank, California, with a crew, engineers, scientists, and CIA personnel on a routine flight bound for Watertown, Nevada, now known as Area 51. At 8:40 a.m. the aircraft was reported missing.
Due to the super-secret nature of the work being conducted by the 14 men aboard the doomed flight, their fate remained classified for over 40 years following the crash. Also classified as top-secret was the account of those who risked their lives when they braved subzero temperatures at 11,500 feet in elevation during rescue and recovery operations on Charleston Peak.
Family and friends endured years of uncertainty following the disappearance of their loved ones—their grief lacking a true sense of closure—until Las Vegas resident and Boy Scout leader Steve Ririe succeeded in uncovering the story behind the wreckage that littered the mountain slope near the Charleston Peak summit—debris that he had seen often during decades of hiking on Mt. Charleston.
Ririe’s two-year investigation involved seeking records from the USAF, National Archives, and the CIA. Eventually he found the official accident report that the CIA had declassified, released, and sent to Maxwell Air Force Base in September 1998, ironically the same month and year that Ririe had first felt compelled to research the crash. Marian Kennedy, a Las Vegas resident with a talent for finding people, helped locate the 14 families who finally learned the circumstances surrounding their loved ones’ deaths. Learning the truth surfaced painful memories but offered opportunities for closure.
Ririe found out that the plane was taking the passengers to Area 51 to work on the U2 spy plane. He took it upon himself to call the families of the victims. He wanted to let them know exactly what happened to their loved ones. Many of these families had been kept in the dark or had been warned to leave the deaths alone.
Ririe wasn’t done after the mystery was solved. He and his Boy Scout troop set out to build the Silent Heroes of the Cold War National Memorial. It’s dedicated to those who died in the plane crash, and to the unknown others who sacrificed themselves to keep America safe during the Cold War. Or, as Steve puts it, “those who worked in secret to keep the nuclear missiles in their silos.”
Mementos and personal objects from the families of the crash’s victims are inside the vault. Inside is also a flag that flew at the memorial’s dedication and some white roses. The Silent Heroes of the Cold War National Memorial brought closure to the families of the crash victims.
TheSilent Heroes of the Cold War National Memorial is just as much a monument to the victims of the crash as it is to the tenacity of Ririe and people like him. It’s thanks to him that the Silent Heroes have a voice and won’t go forgotten.
More incredible history…