1959 Military Crash Memorial
PRESCOTT - He was a husband, a father to two young children, a favorite brother, and the apple of his father's eye.
But on Feb. 28, 1959, the family of Theodore Rivenburg lost its center when a Military Air Transport Service C-121G airplane crashed in Prescott, killing all five crewmen on board.
Rivenburg, a 35-year-old U.S. Navy lieutenant stationed at Moffett Field in California, was among the victims.
For 52 years, Rivenburg's children, who were then 12 and 10 years old, have lived with the harrowing memory of their father's death. Adding to the trauma was the dearth of information the family received from the Navy about the crash.
"They were extremely careful about what they told my mother," Gary VonRivenburgh, the son of Theodore, said in a recent telephone interview. (The children opted to use the traditional spelling of the family name, while their parents used the shortened "Rivenburg.") "They never really would tell us what went wrong."
As an adult, VonRivenburgh said he tried to get more information about his father's death, but was unsuccessful.
In fact, he said he never even knew the exact location of where the plane went down.
Memorializing the site
That all changed this summer, when 15-year-old Boy Scout Cody Walker took on an Eagle Scout project to memorialize the Highway 89 site of the 1959 crash. As part of his project, Walker hoped to involve the surviving members of the victims' families.
Earlier, one of the other families had contacted the City of Prescott after reading a February Daily Courier article about the city's plans for recreational trails at the site, located across the highway from the Phippen Museum.
In that article, Prescott Trails Specialist Chris Hosking had pointed out that the site carries a somber history, and he was hopeful that a community group would build a memorial there.
That piqued the interest of Walker, who was looking for an Eagle Scout project.
"In a news article, I saw that Chris Hosking was looking for someone to build a memorial," Walker said recently. "I'm into aviation, and I thought it would be a good project for me."
This week, work began on the memorial that will include a concrete bench, a wall and a bronze plaque commemorating Rivenburg and the other victims: Commander Lukas Dachs, Lt. Edward Francis Souza, Engineer James Miller, and Flight Engineer Calvin Coons.
Asphalt Paving and Supply is donating the labor and equipment for the job, while Arrowhead Materials is donating the materials. Other donations helped to cover the cost of the bronze plaque.
Even as Walker was coordinating the construction of the memorial, he decided to look further into the backgrounds of the men who died in the crash.
During his research, he came across the name of Josephine Rivenburg, the wife of Theodore. From there, he found an online obituary that reported Josephine's 2004 death, and listed her surviving children.
Diane VonRivenburgh, the daughter of Theodore and Josephine, said she was surprised but honored to hear about the memorial plans from Cody and his mother Crystal Walker.
"It's been overwhelming for us," VonRivenburgh said of the news of the memorial. "It's really going to be nice, at this age, to have our father honored. It just touched me so deeply."
Her brother agreed. "We're so appreciative that Cody Walker would do this," Gary VonRivenburgh said.
Word of the memorial has spread among the VonRivenburgh family. Diane, who lives in Los Altos, Calif., said she hopes to travel to Prescott for a dedication of the memorial, as does Gary, who lives in Denver. Their aunt Betty Moore - Theodore's sister - who lives in South Carolina, also said she might make the trip.
Moore, who was 12 years younger than Theodore, remembers a brother who excelled at sports, school, and flying.
"He always wanted to fly planes from the time he was a young boy," Moore said in a telephone interview.
Although appointed to the Annapolis Naval Academy, Theodore's eyesight disqualified him, she said, and he joined the Navy. "He made it a career, and he loved what he was doing."
Theodore's death was especially hard on his parents, Moore said, because they had already lost two children.
"He was my dad's favorite," Moore remembers of her big brother. "That didn't bother me at all; he was always my favorite too."
Of the memorial, Moore said, "I keep thinking about how my dad would have liked it. I'm pleased about it."
Even though the crash made news all over the country back in 1959, and was headline news in Prescott for weeks afterward, its cause still remains largely unknown. Large sections were blacked out of Navy reports on the crash.
Gary VonRivenburgh said he believes that the plane's presence in Prescott offers proof that the flight had earlier been experiencing problems.
He pointed out that the flight originated from Moffett Field and flew to the Phoenix-area Litchfield Naval Air Facility.
"They went to Phoenix on a training mission and turned around," VonRivenburgh said. "My guess is they weren't supposed to go to Prescott at all, but something went wrong, and that's why they were flying to Prescott."
Theodore Rivenburg, although an accomplished pilot, originally had not been scheduled to be on the plane that day, VonRivenburgh said, and was not the pilot.
Newspaper accounts from the time note that witnesses saw the plane flying low, then heard a roar of power, before the plane made a near vertical dive into the Granite Dells along Highway 89.
The plane hit the ground and immediately caught on fire. The wreckage was spread over a half-mile area. Small fragments of twisted metal remain in the dirt just off the highway.
Prescott officials were aware of the history of the site when the city bought the Granite Dells land in an 80-acre open-space purchase in 2008.
Hosking noted that the trail system that traverses the area's granite formations is being called the Constellation Trail, in memory of the victims and the C-121G airplane, which was developed from the Lockheed Constellation.
The trail has yet to be opened to the public, and Hosking said discussions are under way about possibilities for trailhead parking.
While 52 years have gone by since Theodore Riverburg's death, his children - both now in their 60s - say he is still a presence in their lives.
"My family back in New York all still talk about Uncle Ted," Diane VonRivenburgh said, adding that the old-timers from Moffett also sometimes talk of the crash.
Gary VonRivenburgh, who was just 10 at the time, vividly recalls walking home from a theater on the day of the crash. "There were all of these people from the military base at our house, and my mother was pretty hysterical," he recalls. "Basically, that day changed our lives forever."
Hosking said he expects a dedication of the memorial to take place this fall. Since the February account of the crash, he said he has heard from family members of two of the other crash victims as well.