Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Deportees killed in fiery '48 crash finally named, remembered

Maria Wollan reports today for the New York Times of the latest chapter in a tragic plane crash memorialized in Woody Guthrie's song, "Deportee" (also known as "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos").  In January, 1948, an airplane chartered by U.S. immigration authorities and carrying two pilots, a flight attendant, an immigration guard and 28 Mexican farmworkers crashed near Coalinga, California.  All on board were killed, but while the bodies of the four crew were sent to their families, the remains of the deportees were buried in a mass grave in Fresno, at the edge of a cemetery.  Those Mexicans were not identified, but a small stone placed there read: 
28 Mexican Citizens Who Died In An Airplane Accident Near Coalinga California On Jan. 28, 1948 R.I.P.
Wollan reports the story of the crash:
Eighty miles southwest of Fresno, road workers reported hearing what sounded like an explosion, only to look up and see the left wing shear off the Douglas DC-3 passing high above them. Nearly a dozen bodies were seen falling from a hole in the fuselage before the plane burst into flames and plummeted into a wooded canyon.
This week, however, the Mexican victims of that crash were named and honored as some 600 people gathered at Holy Cross Cemetery in Fresno to unveil a large memorial stone listing each victim.  A mariachi band and Aztec dancers performed.    

Tim Z. Hernandez, the 39-year-old son and grandson of Mexican farmworkers, undertook the task of identifying the farm workers.  A writer, Hernandez came across newspaper stories about the crash while doing research for a novel at a library in Fresno.  He worked with the cemeteries director for Fresno's Roman Catholic Diocese, Carlos Rascon, to identify the Mexicans killed in the crash, even talking to family members when possible to verify the spelling of names.

Like Hernandez, Berenice Guzman only recently learned of the plane crash.  A history teacher at Dinuba High School, she organized her students to raise $14,000 to pay for the memorial service and the headstone.  Guzman states:  
They connected right away because many of their parents are farm workers from Mexico.  This is an agricultural community. For many of us here, the people in that crash could have been family.
Interspersed with Wollan's description the '48 crash and this week's memorial service are lyrics from Guthrie's song.  They include:  
Who are all these friends, all scattered like dry leaves?
The radio says, “They are just deportees”

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