Yanky 72 Memorial: Community honors fallen servicemen
Victims of 2017 plane crash remembered at emotional service and marker unveiling
By Kathryn Eastburn and Tim Kalich
After an emotionally difficult weekend, capped today by a remembrance service and memorial dedication to the 16 servicemen who lost their lives a year ago in a plane crash at the western edge of Leflore County, Cindy Elliott says the observance has helped her family with closure.
“We are grateful for the whole memorial, and we will never, ever forget them,” she said of her son, Capt. Sean Elliott, and the 14 other Marines and one Navy corpsman who lost their lives when the transport plane Elliott was piloting broke apart and fell from the sky, crashing into
soybean fields on both sides of U.S. Highway 82.
The July 10, 2017, crash of the KC-130T, call signal Yanky 72, marked the end of those lives and the beginning of a community effort to offer aid and comfort to the fallen, their colleagues and their families.
Hundreds of family members from around the country, citizens of Leflore and surrounding counties, elected officials, active duty and military veterans crowded the auditorium of the H.G. Carpenter Auditorium at Mississippi Valley State University for the memorial service.
“Your loss has become our loss,” Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant told those who came from as far away as Ireland for the ceremony.
He and recently appointed U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith thanked the men and women of the state for offering support immediately following the crash, in every way they possibly could.
“It is our responsibility to carry on the legacy of honor and courage these men represent,” Hyde-Smith said. “We will always remember their sacrifice.”
Northern District Transportation Commissioner Mike Tagert, a Marine himself, dedicated a 7.2-mile stretch of U.S. 82 as the Yanky 72 Memorial Highway. He said it would be “a permanent public memorial to show that we stand with you wherever you live,” as a large sign that will hang near the four-lane highway was unveiled.
Lt. Gen. Rex McMillian, commanding general of U.S. Marine Corps Forces North, and Lt. Gen. Carl E. Mundy III, commanding general of U.S. Marine Forces Central Command, spoke for the armed forces, expressing their own grief over the loss of comrades in arms whom they, too, consider family.
“Thanks for taking care of our Marines and sailor as if they were your own sons,” Mundy said to first responders and citizens of Leflore County.
McMillian offered special thanks to the Marine Corps League of Mississippi, especially Clifton Addison, who took the lead in organizing and raising a monument for the fallen.
“They are proof of the motto: Once a Marine, always a Marine,” McMillian said.
McMillian offered a word of assurance regarding the Marine Corps’ ongoing efforts to find the cause of the crash and to ensure safety for the future.
“We have to ensure that this type of mishap will never happen again,” he said. “And I want you to know we are deep into that process.”
He recalled the words of Brigadier General Bradley S. James addressing the troops who assembled in Leflore County following the crash last year, to comb the fields for pieces of the plane and the remains of those who perished.
“He said, ‘You want to know what semper fideles means? It means bringing our brothers home from the bean fields.’”
To the first responders of Leflore County who walked the fields beside them, McMillian said, “You will always be semper fideles to us.”
The names of the 16 were called one by one by Navy chaplain Ron Neitzke, as a photograph of each man flashed on a large screen:
Cpl. Daniel I. Baldassare
Staff Sgt. Robert H. Cox
Cpt. Sean E. Elliott
Major Caine M. Goyette
Gunnery Sgt. Mark A. Hopkins
Sgt. Chad E. Jenson
Gunnery Sgt. Brendan C. Johnson
Sgt. Julian M. Kevianne
Staff Sgt. William J. Kundrat
Sgt. Talon R. Leach
Sgt. Owen J. Lennon
HM1 Ryan M. Lohrey
Sgt. Joseph J. Murray
Cpl. Colin J. Schaaff
Sgt. Dietrich A. Schmieman
Staff Sgt. Joshua M. Snowden
A bugler with the Marine Corps Reserve Band played “Taps,” and bagpiper John Griffin played “Amazing Grace” before the ceremony ended with a prayer.
Immediately after, buses transported guests across the highway to the county-owned incubator building, site of the Yanky 72 Memorial unveiling.
With a crowd of about 1,000 looking on, Marines removed a parachute covering the marble base of the memorial, displaying an image of a KC-130T plane set in granite and surrounded in a circle by the engraved names of the fallen. The memorial was designed by Greenwood advertising executive Allan Hammons.
Three flags were raised — the flag of the United States of America, the Marine flag and the Navy flag — and wreaths were laid.
Brigadier General James, who was on the scene last year 12 hours following the crash, commended Mississippi, and Leflore County in particular, for its outpouring of support in the hours and days following the tragedy and again on its one-year anniversary.
“In other places, had this happened, it might have been forgotten,” he said.
“I’m from Georgia, and I’ve spent my life looking west to Alabama. Now I look west all the way to Mississippi.”
James announced the Marine Corps’ intention to have an event at the site of the Yanky 72 memorial every year from here on, during the weekend closest to the anniversary of the plane crash, to keep the memory alive.
Near the end of the unveiling ceremony, two KC-130Ts flew overhead, east to west, in wing formation, headed toward the soybean fields of western Leflore County.
The sun had risen directly overhead and temperatures were well into the mid-90s when 30 members of the Marine Raiders Memorial March group, dressed in matching T-shirts and carrying backpacks loaded with 45 pounds of soil from the crash site, began the 900-mile ruck march from Leflore County, across five states, to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. The event will take 3½ weeks to complete, and at the end, a tree will be planted at the Marine base using the transported soil in memory of the 16 fallen.
Some locals and family members joined the ruck march for the first 4.3 miles.
Sponsors of the Yanky 72 Memorial, the ceremony and the weekend’s events for family members were: Marine Corps League of Mississippi, United States Marine Corps Reserve Association, Marine Corps Aviation Association, The Wingman Foundation, Marine Raider Foundation, Marine Battleherks, Marine Corps Air Transport Association, Mississippi Valley State University, Leflore County, the city of Greenwood, Hammons & Associates, and Larry’s Fish House of Itta Bena. The Greenwood-Leflore County Chamber of Commerce assisted in coordination of the memorial weekend.
James said that more than $130,000 had been raised to support the effort, including $80,000 in the initial 3½ weeks of fundraising.