Bartholomew County has done right by many of those who have gone before through a series of memorial markers scattered about the county.
Two of those markers were dedicated last week in a ceremony at St. Paul Lutheran Church. They commemorated the lives of Revolutionary War veterans John Carney and Nicholas Jones, who lived out their remaining years in Bartholomew County.
Next month another marker — this one honoring the 95ers, a grass-roots group that has played a pivotal role in numerous projects having to do with the area’s history — will be unveiled at Columbus Municipal Airport, formerly the Atterbury-Bakalar Air Base.
These are only a fraction of the commemorative reminders of people, groups and events in local history scattered around the county. Many, like the 95ers marker that will be part of a display on Bakalar Green at Columbus Municipal Airport, are stationed in easily accessible areas. Others, like the markers for Carney and Jones that are in small private cemeteries, are in less accessible areas.
I suppose that latter description fits the resting place for the marker dedicated to Thomas Heavern and Robert Macholtz. It’s a simple, flat headstone that barely pokes above the ground in a field near the Columbus Fire Department training building at the airport. Only a handful of local residents know its location and even fewer are aware of what it represents.
That’s because Heavern and Macholtz had few, if any, local ties. Both were Kentucky residents and on Sept. 15, 1984, were members of an Army medevac unit based at Bowman Field in Louisville.
They and hundreds of other military and public safety officers were in Columbus that weekend to participate in a mock disaster training exercise. One of the pretend disasters dealt with a collision of Army and civilian airplanes at the Driftwood fishing site near Camp Atterbury.
The exercise went well, and upon its completion, the participants gathered at the fire department training site for a pig roast. As the picnic neared its end, the members of the medevac unit from Kentucky boarded helicopters to return to Bowman Field.
Two of the Huey helicopters rose from the ground. Heavern and Macholtz were on Flight 223. Tragedy struck moments after their liftoff. The Hueys had headed south, their red lights blinking in a salute of goodbye. Some on the ground said later they were traveling in close proximity to each other. The rotors touched, and both fell to the ground.
Fifteen of those aboard were injured. Heavern and Macholtz were killed.
The accident took a dramatic and emotional toll on many of those who were on the ground. Jim Pridgen, then one of the emergency volunteers, recalled earlier conversations with Heavern.
“Actually, he wasn’t supposed to be there,” Pridgen said this week. “He had been sick all day, but he was determined to help out on the exercise and came anyway. I remember that he wanted to be home early.”
Military investigators were quick to arrive on the scene, and within a few days of the crash, all of the wreckage had been removed. What was left was an empty field with practically no evidence of the disaster that had occurred earlier.
“One day Jim Miller (former Columbus fire chief) and I were talking, and we both agreed that there needed to be something at the site to serve as a reminder of what had happened,” Pridgen said. “We weren’t sure how to go about it, but we did contact Don Anderson, who owned the Rust-Unger Monuments company. We told him about the situation, and as we talked, it sounded like he was holding back tears.”
Anderson told the men he needed time to think about the situation, but in a few days he called them back and asked them to stop by his business. When they arrived, he presented them with a gift, a marker etched with the names of Heavern and Macholtz and a brief description of what had happened that September day in 1984.
The marker has been in place for almost 28 years. It’s still fresh in the memories of people like Jim Pridgen, but few outside those who knew about its initial installation are aware of it today.
Pridgen is one of those who think the marker deserves better recognition.
He has considered asking that it be moved to Bakalar Green, where a number of other markers relating to the history of the air base are located, but that is quite a distance from the site of the tragedy.
Perhaps something as simple as a white fence around the stone monument would suffice to at least make it easy to locate. It could be similar to the fence that is wrapped around the graves of the Joseph Cox family (the first white settlers of Bartholomew County) on Middle Road.
Ironically, some like Pridgen still receive tangible reminders of that awful day in 1984. Recently a friend contacted him to report that three pieces of the wreckage were unearthed near the site.
It served to bring two men with few ties to Bartholomew County closer to this community.
Harry McCawley is associate editor of The Republic. He can be or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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