A perfect day to remember

Visitors reflections can be seen in a memorial stone for United States Air Force Capt. Fred H. Stevens and 1st. Lt. Robert H. Danell during an unveiling ceremony at the East Mountain Country Club Saturday. The stone was created to honor two pilots who were killed on October 19, 1952 during a mid-air collision during an airshow at Barnes Airport. More than 100 visitors, family members, and dignitaries attended the 90-minute ceremony. The memorial stone resembles the tail of an F-86 Sabre jet, which the two pilots were flying at the time of the collision. (Photo by chief photographer Frederick Gore)

WESTFIELD – The families of two pilots tragically killed in a mid-air crash 60 years ago came together to remember and celebrate Saturday.
Joining the families were city and state officials and members of Barnes Air National Guard and Westover Air Force Base.
On Oct. 19, 1952, Lt. Robert H. Danell and Capt. Fred H. Stevens were performing air stunts during a ceremony to commemorate new facilities at the 104th Barnes Air National Guard when something went very wrong. The pilots were flying F-86s and when they flew into a line formation, they collided over what is now East Mountain Country Club.
The men were both decorated war veterans and members of the United States Air Force stationed at Westover Air Base. They were also both fathers.
Fifty-nine years later, two of their sons met at the site of the accident for a tour with Mark Perez, and this past Saturday, the families came together at East Mountain Country Club for the dedication of a memorial to the young pilots.
Maj. Matthew Mutti, of the 104th, attended the dedication and said it was “an absolute honor to be part of that.”
The crash, said Mutti, is a part of the 104th’s history and said it was important to the members of the 104th, including Mutti, the color guard and  Gen. Gary Keefe, Acting Massachusetts Air National Guard Commander, to participate.
“I was a beautiful day and it brought back the tragedy, but it will now be remembered not only for the tragedy itself but for the families,” said Mutti. “(The 104th Fighter Wing) was honored to participate in this monument dedication. This monument will serve as a constant reminder of the lives of Lt. Danell and Capt. Stevens, and of the dedication of a community not to forget.”
“The legacy of these heroes can be seen in the character of their children.  This day will now be remembered fittingly for the lives these heroes lived, but also, for the commitment of a community, who, after 60 years, has not forgotten how these events shaped this area,” said Keefe.
State Rep. Donald Humason said it was a “perfect” day all around.
“The weather was beautiful, the speeches were poignant, it was a perfect day,” Humason said.
Humason said he had heard of the tragic accident throughout the years, but had mostly heard rumors.
“Every time we were at an air show it would come up,” he said. “But I learned a lot Saturday. They really pieced it all together.”
Humason credited Mark Perez and the entire Perez family for taking the time to tell the story of the accident and the men, and bringing the families together.
“It was a labor of love,” Humason said. “It was a very happy ending to the tragedy of 60 years ago.”
Growing up, Perez said his father Ted told him stories about the historical crash.
At the time, East Mountain Country Club was farmland and overgrown forests. However, East Mountain owner Ted Perez was there and saw it happen. Just 20 years old at the time, he never forgot the tragedy he witnessed and told his son Mark about it many years later.
Mark Perez remembered the story, but it wasn’t until 1990 when he became more curious.
“We were building a new fourth tee and we found a .50 caliber machine gun,” said Perez. “I wanted to know more.”
Perez searched the web and found a site that gave more insight into the accident. He also found a lighter engraved with Stevens’ name on the property and began searching for more clues.
“I went out into the woods with a metal detector,” he said.
Perez found pieces of the wreckage – including .50 caliber rounds and parts of the F-86s – while searching the woods, and displayed his findings during a meeting of the Pioneer Valley Military Transportation Museum held at the country club.
It was because of that meeting that Perez found the greatest connection to the two pilots that he could have ever hoped for.
“Mark Danell found me actually,” said Perez.
The museum produced an article about the meeting and Perez’ findings and his search for answers about the accident.
Robert Danell’s son found out about Perez’s investigation and emailed him. The two men learned from each other and formed a fast friendship, or, perhaps, a kinship.
Perez has since come to know the Stevens family, as well and the entire community has come together to embrace the Danell and Stevens families.

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