Laura Rees Merrill: Replacing Fear with Peace

Laura Liona Rees was born in Brigham City, Utah, in 1876, to LDS parents (her father had emigrated as a convert from England; her mother was born at Council Bluffs). With only an eighth grade, district school education, she studied for and passed the test to be licensed as a grade school teacher. Then she became one of the first women to attend Utah State Agricultural College (now Utah State University) at Logan.

She married Lorin Asa Merrill (son of Apostle Merriner Wood Merrill) in 1900. One of her eight children died in infancy; most of the others were still very young – one only eight months old – when Laura was widowed in 1919. With a family to support, Laura returned to public life: she was elected as Cache County Recorder in 1920, serving in that position for the next six years. She began working as a librarian at Logan High School in 1922, a role she would return to again and again between other activities, until she was 85 years old. In 1927, she lived in Seattle, attending the University of Washington, earning a degree in Library Science.

Laura served a mission in the Eastern States from 1941 to 1943. Returning home to Logan and learning of conditions in the Japanese-American internment camp at Topaz, Utah, she applied for a position as librarian there, with the specific goal of doing anything she could to make life easier for those unjustly imprisoned at the camp. She obtained books on any subject requested and helped to organize educational and recreational projects. She wrote letters to Utah newspapers praising the order, cleanliness, intelligence, and superior behavior of the internees – to modern sensibilities, her letters carry a whiff of patronage, but it is clear that her sole intent was to defend a persecuted people and to win friends and tolerance for Japanese-Americans. The war ended, and Laura, now past 70, served a second mission from 1946 to 1948, in Canada.

Laura’s papers are archived at Utah State University, where a dormitory is named for her, so she may well have other achievements of which I am unaware and which former USU students could tell us about. What has been briefly sketched here about her personal, public, and church lives would be a full life for any of us – but there is one more incident for which she is remembered.

In January 1953, the Korean War had been blazing for two and a half years; a cease-fire would not be signed until the following July. Thousands of American soldiers had been fighting and freezing in Korea since 1950, and now some of them were coming home. In Seattle, returning soldiers were sorted into groups according to their final destinations, and with military efficiency they were marched aboard charter flights in alphabetical order. A C-46 transport plane designated as Trip 1-6-6A was headed to South Carolina; its 40 seats were assigned to men whose last names began with H, J, and K. A flight crew from San Antonio – a pilot, a first officer, and a young stewardess making her very first trip – were assigned to the flight, which left Seattle’s Boeing Field on January 6.

The C-46’s flight plan called for the plane to fly southeast across Idaho, over the Bear Lake Valley, then east over Rock Springs, Wyoming, to a refueling stop at Cheyenne. In an age before radar covered the vast reaches of the American West, pilots checked in by radio as they flew over landmarks, and the C-46 ’s pilot reported in regularly. Just before 4:00 a.m. on January 7, the pilot radioed that he was passing over Malad, Idaho; he would check in again over Rock Springs at 4:45 a.m.

But he didn’t.

As the hours passed with no word from the overdue plane, search planes were dispatched along the Utah-Idaho-Wyoming borders. The territory was rugged; the weather was brutal. A snowstorm from the northwest limited visibility, and flights were grounded on January 8. Ground crews struggled to investigate the flares a Paris, Idaho woman reported seeing in the mountains near her, with nothing located; a fire reported in the foothills above Kemmerer, Wyoming, turned out to be only a shepherd.

Finally, on January 12, Richard Burt, a search-and-rescue pilot based at Ogden, spotted something above Fish Haven, on the Idaho side of the Bear Lake Valley, that didn’t look quite natural. He flew lower, and spotted a wheel protruding from snow-covered wreckage. Burt flew to Hill AFB and picked up two paramedics. Returning to Fish Haven, the two paramedics parachuted to the site, then radioed to Burt that there were no survivors.

News of the search for the missing plane had been followed throughout the country, including, of course, in the southern hometowns of the missing men. Now the news of finding the wreckage was broadcast in grim detail: “Para-Medics Find Death on Hillside” blared one headline. A military inspector announced that “It was a miserable sight, seeing only small parts of the airplane and tiny segments of human bodies.” Hal Schindler, later to become author of Man of God, Son of Thunder, the biography of Orrin Porter Rockwell, but then a staff writer for the Salt Lake Tribune, hiked to the crash site, reported it as “grisly,” and wrote a chilling description of the loneliness of the site and the unbelievable destruction he had witnessed.

Back in Logan, Laura Merrill read those reports. She knew that the families of the lost soldiers were reading them, too, and that their grief was worsened when the decision was made to wait until spring to recover the bodies of their sons and husbands. She imagined what it might be like to have a loved one lying exposed to the weather and to wild animals in an alien landscape so far from home, and she couldn’t bear to think of what the families of those men were imagining.

So Laura began to write letters. One after another, she wrote – by hand – a four-page personal letter to the family of each man and woman lost on that flight. She described the beauty of the mountains ringing the Bear Lake Valley, the peace and tranquility of the dairy farms in the valley, and the sympathy and tears of the people who lived there. She wrote that American soldiers stood watch over their sons on the mountain 24 hours a day, and that the American flag flew there. She promised that the people along the Utah-Idaho border would be their distant family and mourners, holding themselves ready to do anything the families in the South asked them to do until the dead could be returned to them. She had the Logan Chamber of Commerce send maps and booklets and picture postcards to each family, so that they would have a clearer understanding of where their loved ones lay, and have hopeful, brighter pictures to replace the images conjured up by newspaper reports.

And families began to write back to the 77-year-old widow: “Since you are so kind to write, and as our boy lies near you, I’d like to tell you a little about him,” wrote one. “God bless you and all our faraway friends around there.” The letters continued to flow both ways, as summer came and snows melted, and the dead of Trip 1-6-6A were returned to their waiting families.

Laura Rees Merrill passed away ten years later, in 1963, and is buried in Richmond, Cache County, Utah, in the tranquility of a landscape she had pictured for distant mourners who had needed her comfort.

Because Laura cared about the lost passengers and crew as individuals, we name them here:

Lawrence B. Crawford, of San Antonio, Texas (pilot)
Dorothy M. Davis, of San Antonio, Texas (stewardess)
James P. Hardin, of Columbia, South Carolina
Ulysses Harding, of Ludowici, Georgia
Herbert B. Hargrett, Jr., of Tallahassee, Florida
Charles A. Harper, of Florence, South Carolina
Ralph D. Harrell, of Hertford, North Carolina
Matthew Harviley, of Bessemer, Alabama
Walter Hatcher, Jr., of Gadsen, Alabama
Willy B. Henderson, of Harrisburg, North Carolina
R.O. Hendrix, of Columbus, Georgia
Wilfried O. Herzig, of Augusta, Georgia
Jimmy Hill, of Quitman, Georgia
McLean Hollingsworth, of Salemburg, North Carolina
Raymond Holloway, of Jacksonville, Florida
Arthur Hudson, of East Charles, South Carolina
Francis A. Hudson, of Beaufort, South Carolina
David Human, of Travelers Rest, South Carolina
Ernest Jackson, of Talladaga, Alabama
Moses Jaggers, of Rock Hill, South Carolina
Herbert H. Jenkins, of Middleton, North Carolina
Marvin Jenkins, of St. George, South Carolina
Robert Jenkins, Jr., of Charleston, South Carolina
Russell Jinks, of Baxley, Georgia
Henry A. Johnson, of Augusta, Georgia
James Johnson, Jr., of Donaldsonville, Georgia
Lawrence C. Johnson, of Newland, North Carolina
Robert Johnson, of Tucker, Georgia
Robert W. Johnson, of Montgomery, Alabama
Willy E. Johnson, of Ousley, Georgia
James R. Jones, of Lyons, Georgia
Jeff W. Jones, of Tallahassee, Florida
James E. Josey, of Plevna, Alabama
Walter R. Joyner, of Atlanta, Georgia
Leroy Kelley, of Columbia, South Carolina
Pearl (“J.P.” or “Joe”) Kelley, Jr., of Birmingham, Alabama
Bruce M. Kent, of Roseville, Georgia
Joseph O. Kent, of Porterdale, Georgia
John H. King, of Goldsborough, North Carolina
Maxwell F. Perkins, of San Antonio, Texas (first officer)

Cross-posted from Keepapitchinin — click here for comments.