Medal for bravery in Burien depends on finding ‘burned buttock guy’

Sep 29, 2023, 9:37 AM | Updated: 11:14 am

medal burien buttok...

The tail section of a DC-4 airliner that crashed in Burien on November 18, 1955; a Florida man who survived and rescued a fellow soldier may be eligible for a medal if someone can corroborate his story. (Archival photo from Civil Aeronautics Board)

(Archival photo from Civil Aeronautics Board)

It was November 1955 when a young soldier named Gene Casey survived a fiery airliner crash in Burien and then, in spite of his severe injuries, rescued another soldier from the burning wreckage. Nearly 70 years later, Casey may be awarded a medal – if anyone can be found to help corroborate his story.

Gene Casey is 87 years old and lives in Florida. He was only 19 back in 1955 when a chartered plane full of U.S. Army soldiers just back from Korea took off from Boeing Field and crashed a few minutes later on a snowy night into a residential area of Burien. The DC-4 had 74 people on board, and 28 died in the crash, which happened just after midnight on Nov. 18, 1955, near the intersection of Des Moines Memorial Way and South 120th Street.

Poor maintenance was ultimately blamed for the wreck, and full fuel tanks contributed to the fire that followed the impact. The plane was headed east across the country, with the first scheduled stop in Billings, Montana. Many of the passengers were headed home for Thanksgiving.

Casey regained consciousness after the impact and says he was still buckled into his aisle seat in the back of the four-engine propeller-driven airliner.

“The buckles were hot,” (from the fire) Casey told KIRO Newsradio Thursday.

The passenger who had been sitting next to him had been decapitated. Gene Casey was seriously burned on his legs, feet, and arms, and he had an injured clavicle and a fractured skull. Somehow, Casey didn’t quite realize just yet how badly he was hurt. Still, he undid his seatbelt and somehow stood up.

Another soldier was standing in the aisle ahead of Casey and was disoriented. Casey directed the man to climb out of the wreckage through a big hole in the fuselage by heading toward where they could both see the night sky. As Casey himself walked down the aisle to get out of the wreckage, he noticed there was another soldier lying on the floor of the plane.

That other soldier was also injured, and he couldn’t get up. As he lay there, Casey says, the other soldier was begging for somebody to help him.

“And I picked him up, and he slid off my slippery, burned arms,” Casey said. “I told him, I said, ‘If you pull me down, I won’t be able to get (back up).’

“So, he put his arm around my neck, and I stood up, and he stood up,” Casey continued. “And we walked through that break (in the fuselage) out to the garage (of one of the adjacent homes) and turned around looked.”

And they turned around just in time to see a fireball as “the rest of the rest of the plane blew up,” Casey said.

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Despite the snow and ice, the rescue effort at the crash site in Burien was pretty remarkable. One house had been struck by wreckage and caught on fire, while other homes became makeshift shelters for the surviving passengers and crew, with homeowners in bathrobes tending to the injured and cold.

Casey was so badly injured, he was among the first who were rushed to a hospital in an ambulance. The next day, he was flown to Texas, where he then spent four months in an Army hospital before returning home to Chicago.

In the aftermath of the crash, Casey was told multiple times that he would be awarded a medal for bravery for rescuing that other soldier despite being so badly injured himself. But somehow, the paperwork for Casey’s medal got lost, and most of his military records – along with those of thousands of others – were destroyed in an infamous fire at a government archive in St. Louis in 1973.

Since earlier this year, Congressional staffers near where Gene lives in Florida have been working with the Defense Department to try to get him a medal, but they need more corroboration of what actually happened on that snowy night behind a row of houses in Burien.

KIRO Newsradio is helping with a search to try and find anyone who might know something or who is related to someone who was aboard that plane and who might be able to confirm aspects of Casey’s story.

Casey told KIRO Newsradio he doesn’t know the names of the two different officers who told him after the crash that the paperwork for a medal was in progress. He doesn’t know the name of the soldier he rescued from the floor of the airliner, though the man thanked him at the hospital, and Casey knows the man’s injuries included severely burned buttocks.

If that soldier – let’s call him “Burned Buttock Guy” – or a descendant can be identified and located, perhaps they can confirm Gene Casey’s story.

Casey provided KIRO Newsradio with this list of survivors, to whom he dedicated a 2017 self-published book about the crash. Ages and hometowns are not listed, but most of the passengers were men who were around the same age as Gene Casey; also aboard were the wife and children of an employee of the company that owned the DC-4, Peninsula Air Transport.

One of these people or a relative or friend may hold the key to Casey being awarded a medal:

James Adams Richard Coon Earl Edinger Robert Fischer Theodore Gostinger
Rhiner Groendyk Michele Guerrera Fred Hall James Harrison Robert Holland
Frederick Hudson John Jamison Donald Johnson William Johnson David Kent
Reginald Layoff, Jr. Elbert Leatherman Charles Lenhart James McDevitt William MacDougall
Virginia McGrath Richard McGrath Tom McGrath Mary McGrath Andrew Malinarko
Ladislas Marics Robert Oberg John Predergast William Queen Roger Ricker
Felix St. Louis Dale Shewmake Joseph Simon Eugene Smith James Smith
Raymond Stalter Robert Stuart Peter Tamburin Hiram Thomas John Thomas
Everett Trainor Ken Uppstrom Thomas Van Horn Hugo Weiss Robert Wescott

Hopes are that this search for information can go viral and that someone somewhere might have a connection to this flight and to one or more of the survivors. Clearly, it’s a longshot since the crash in Burien was nearly 68 years ago.

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Meanwhile, back in Florida, Gene Casey is a little frustrated. He’s not a young man anymore, and he’d like to be recognized for what he did while he’s still around to appreciate it.

But, like so many survivors of traumatic events, Gene Casey has a good attitude and a great sense of humor.

“They can’t find any records, and they know the records were burned, I just don’t understand it,” Casey said, regarding the need for further corroboration. “And you know, I really want that medal to pass down to my children.”

“But if I don’t get it,” Casey continued, “they got me.”

“So they win,” he said.

If you have information about this flight or some connection to any of the survivors listed above, please contact me via my information below.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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Medal for bravery in Burien depends on finding ‘burned buttock guy’