At 1 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 10, the silence of the Dungeness Cemetery will be broken. A bugler will fill the air with a mournful rendition of “Taps” and family and friends who have gathered will say goodbye to an American hero.
Seven rifles will fire thrice in unison.
And finally a comrade-in-arms, serving for the moment as a representative of the president of the United States, will deliver a folded flag to the grieving family along with these words: “We offer this flag for the faithful and dedicated service of Airman Second Class Conrad Neil Sprague.”
Memorials with full military honors are rare, but this one is even more unusual: Airman Sprague died on Nov. 22, 1952 — just shy of 60 years ago.
The long-delayed service has come about due to the efforts of Neila J. Cameron, Sprague’s niece and namesake.
Even though Cameron has no memories of her uncle — she was just a toddler when he died — “I have always had a soft spot in my heart for him,” she said. “My mom has always talked about him.”
Like her brother, whom she calls “Bud,” Edith Ann Sprague Becker was born and raised in Sequim. She not only has kept her brother’s memory alive through stories, but also is the keeper of the records. A dozen years ago Cameron found a cache of information among her mother’s many documents and photographs, including articles that recount that Airman Sprague was killed on a military flight that went down at the border of Alaska and Canada. His body, and those of 51 additional servicemen on the flight, has never been recovered. Sprague was 23.
“It bothered me that he never had a grave or even a headstone,” Cameron said.
A few months ago she decided to do something about it and brought the story to the attention of the Air Force. Her work was made more difficult, she said, because Sprague’s records had been lost by the National Personnel Record Center in a 1973 fire.
Nevertheless, Cameron plugged on. This June a new headstone was approved by the Department of Veterans Affairs and as of three weeks ago it is freshly in place in the Dungeness Cemetery.
Two weeks ago Cameron received a call from Staff Sgt. Trevor Maiden, a member of the McChord Honor Guard at McChord Air Force Base.
“What job did your uncle have in the Air Force?” he asked.
Cameron told Maiden she had faxed him copies of the newspaper articles regarding the crash and they had all the details.
Maiden pulled the articles, read them and provided Cameron with some news. “The newspaper clippings say he was flight crew,” he noted. “That’s a whole different thing,” he said.
Because Sprague was on active duty status when he died, he was entitled to be buried with full military honors. The memorial service has been scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 10.
When she was asked about the memorial service, Becker simply shrugged. She said it’s “all right with me.”
Of greater importance, she explained, is the fact that “Bud already got what he wanted. He wanted to fly airplanes.”
Sprague signed up for the military in 1946, joining the Marines when he was just 17.
“He had to drink milk shakes for three weeks to gain enough weight to get in,” Becker said with a laugh.
But Sprague was disappointed with his service in the Marines where he was a flight engineer, not a pilot.After a little more than two years with the Marines, he left that branch. “He joined up with the Air Force as soon as he could,” Becker said.
Four years later Becker’s father, Newell Sprague, received a letter from Maj. William A. McLaughlin, at the time the commanding officer at McChord. The letter, a follow-up to a telephone conversation, explained that Airman Sprague had been killed while on a “routine transport mission.”
“The information I have indicates that the principal factor contributing to the crash was extremely high winds at flight altitude which had not been forecast, with a secondary factor of poor radio reception in that area due to the violence of the weather,” he wrote.
The winds were reported to have been “close to 100 miles an hour,” McLaughlin said.
A search party sent to bring back any remains was driven back by the storm. “The ground party has been returned and the efforts to evacuate the remains have been suspended,” McLaughlin said. “Should further efforts be made to recover the remains you will be notified.”
Thanks to a loving niece, 60 years later Sprague’s sacrifice will be formally honored and a memorial in stone will forever remain here in his hometown.
Reach Mark Couhig at firstname.lastname@example.org.