Nearly seven decades after his uncle was killed in a fiery airplane crash, financial adviser George Cohlmia, of Oklahoma City, will pay homage, finally, with a visit to the site.
The uncle, George Cohlmia, for whom the younger one was named, was a 19-year-old U.S. Navy gunner in 1945 when his Curtiss SB2C Helldiver nose-dived into dense forestland near Pittsburgh, Pa.
The nephew, now 60, did not know until earlier this year that not only is the crash site well known to hunters who frequent that area, but it also has been memorialized with a bronze plaque bearing his uncle’s name.
“We’d talked about going for 20 years but we didn’t know even where to start — all I knew was it was in the mountains near Pittsburgh,” Cohlmia said this week. “My dad talked about it for the first however many years of my life and how he wished he knew, he wished there was a way to find it, and lo and behold there is. It’s hard to put that in words — I can put it in tears better than I can put it in words.”
When he was younger, the serviceman was a small-town hero in Watonga, where his parents had emigrated from Lebanon. One of 10 kids, Cohlmia was a star athlete at the local high school. The day he turned 18, just a few months shy of his high school graduation, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and left to serve in World War II.
The crash came a year and a half later, in October 1945, when Cohlmia and the bomber’s pilot, Frank Z. Cambpell, of Valdosta, Ga., were returning to their home base in Michigan after a postwar celebration in Washington, D.C.
Witnesses saw the plane nose-dive into the mountains, which were shrouded by fog. The bodies were recovered and sent home; Cohlmia is buried in Oklahoma City.
But none of his family ever ventured to the crash site until now.
Plans for the trek were developed over several years. It started in 2008, when Cohlmia heard from a man named Tom Zangla, a retired corrections officer in Pennsylvania who claimed to know something about the crash.
Zangla had stumbled across the site three decades prior and had taken photographs during a visit a few years later. Retired, and with the Internet at his fingertips, Zangla decided to hunt for the deceased servicemen’s families.
He never had luck with the Campbells, but the Cohlmias were easy to find, he said.
“I hunted deer up on top of that mountain, and a friend of mine told me where to go look for this plane,” Zangla said about his initial discovery in 1978. “I just wanted to see if I could find anybody that was related to those two men who died there.”
Zangla said he was inspired by a haunting experience he had while serving in the Vietnam War. He was supposed to have been riding in a helicopter that also crashed into a foggy mountainside, but at the last minute another soldier — a few ranks higher, but who happened to be his best friend — took the assignment instead. “I think that’s what made me closer to this,” he said.
In July, Zangla took George Cohlmia, his uncle Ray Cohlmia, an Oklahoma City dentist, and several other friends and associates to the crash site. Only he couldn’t find it.
Overgrown with thorny bushes and shrubs, and at least 500 feet down the steep slope of the mountain, the search party gave up. Disappointed, the Cohlmias returned to Oklahoma, intent on trying again in the fall.