Jeff Barker, the nephew of Capt. William Nelson Coombs, receives the flag from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base Honor Guard member Lt. Kevin Tran. Barker’s mother was Coombs’ sister.

Jeff Barker, the nephew of Capt. William Nelson Coombs, receives the flag from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base Honor Guard member Lt. Kevin Tran. Barker’s mother was Coombs’ sister.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

Pilot returns home over 70 years later

By: Kathryn Pentiuk | Southfield Sun | Published November 9, 2023

 Capt. William Nelson Coombs’ final resting place.

Capt. William Nelson Coombs’ final resting place.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes


SOUTHFIELD — After 71 years, Capt. William Nelson Coombs returned home to his final resting place, Acacia Park Cemetery in Southfield, Oct. 5.

Coombs was a combat pilot who served in World War II and the Korean War. During the Korean War, he was stationed at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, Alaska, where he was active in local search and rescue missions.

One fateful day would change everything.

On Nov. 22, 1952, Coombs hitched a ride back to his base in Alaska from McChord Air Force Base in Pierce County, Washington, on a C-124 Globemaster with a total of 52 passengers. While he was on his way back, his wife, Elva, prepared a Thanksgiving dinner in anticipation of her husband’s return. Coombs and the other 51 passengers and crew aboard the C-124 Globemaster would never make it home. Amid the blizzard and extreme weather conditions, the plane crashed at full speed into Mount Gannett, disintegrating upon impact.

It took nearly 60 years for the aircraft to be recovered, in June 2012. For Tonja Anderson-Dell, this was an answer to prayer. Anderson-Dell is the granddaughter of Airman Isaac William Anderson Sr., one of the men who was on Coombs’ flight. Anderson Sr. was only 21 years old when he passed, leaving behind a widow and an infant son, Anderson-Dell’s father.

“I was that nosy granddaughter. My grandfather went missing while serving in the military. And that’s all we ever heard. My grandmother didn’t talk too much. And so I asked, ‘Can I do the research?’  And that was me opening up a can of worms for her, because she was young when she had my father, her husband never came back and she never remarried,” Anderson-Dell said. “So I asked permission, and she granted it to me. I wrote my first letter in 1999, trying to figure out what happened, and I always got pushback from the military.”

Anderson-Dell’s grandmother died the day after 9/11, never receiving her flag or closure of what became of her husband. Heartbroken over the loss of her grandmother, Anderson-Dell persisted in her research, for her father’s sake.

When the debris from the aircraft was found in 2012, Anderson-Dell was met with more pushback. Three years into the recovery, The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency in Hawaii was no longer able to assist in the search for the 52 people’s remains, since they were considered an operational loss, not a war loss.

It was at that moment that she realized that her loved one would not be treated the same as other military members missing in action.

“So it became my fight at that moment, to not fight for just my grandfather’s plane, but for all of us. And if I could be that voice, I would be that voice. I would be that nagger, and I became that,” she said.

Anderson-Dell founded the nonprofit Honored Bound to continue fighting for loved ones and family members of servicemembers and to locate non-war lost military planes. “I started Honored Bound to hold our government to ‘we never leave our fallen behind.’  I’m honored and I’m bound to do that, even if that means ruffling feathers.”

As of 2023, only five of the 52 passengers on Coombs’ plane remain unrecovered. Thanks to funds raised by Honored Bound, a search is conducted on Mount Gannett every July to find the last five. Anderson-Dell explains that a four-week window exists within the last two weeks of July and the first two weeks of August to search because of the altitude and weather conditions. A helicopter for three hours in Alaska costs $6,400, paid for from donations from Honored Bound. One hour there and back counts as flight time, leaving two hours of search time.

In addition to the C-124 Globemaster, debris from a Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcar, the “Gamble Chalk 1” that crashed on Nov. 7, 1952, on Mount Silverthrone was discovered in 2016. However, Anderson-Dell is working with Michael Rocereta, a retired glaciologist and pilot from Alaska, to recover the remains of 19 individuals. According to Anderson-Dell’s database, there are 501 people and 33 planes missing from operational losses.

Anderson-Dell attended Coombs’ funeral at the request of his surviving family members, two nephews and a first cousin once removed.

“Our men are still coming home. So to stand there and watch the family … these are nephews who’ve never met their uncle but have heard the stories. And they were there for that moment. It’s those moments that keep me fighting.”   

Janet Ernst is the stepdaughter of Coombs’ widow, Elva; and Ernst’s mother, Betty, was Coombs’ cousin. Coombs’ mother and Betty’s father were siblings. Elva and Coombs were married in 1945. Ernst’s father married Elva after his wife passed away when Ernst was a child. She stated, “It was like two friends, losing their spouses and eventually getting together a few years later.”

Ernst has vague memories of meeting Coombs as a 5-year-old, but beyond that, it was her stepmother who kept his memory alive with yearly visits to place flowers on his headstone in Acacia.

“It was important to maintain that memory and not to let that service and sacrifice go unremembered,” Ernst said.

This became a lifelong tradition that Ernst kept with her stepmother, eventually including her children and grandchildren in the ritual.

Much of what Ernst knows about Coombs comes from her stepmother. He was born Sept. 11, 1921, and in his short 31 years on earth, he was remembered as confident and outgoing. He was a graduate of Iron Mountain High School. His widow selected a headstone in Acacia Cemetery so his parents, who lived in metro Detroit, could also visit him often. Though Elva never got to see Coombs come home, his remains are now laid to rest in the plot next to her.

“That’s where she always said that she wanted to be. I think that was probably the love match of her life,” Ernst said.

For more information on Honored Bound, visit