February 1970: I was 6 years old. President Richard Nixon was in his first term. The Vietnam War was raging. The Beatles were on the precipice of publicly announcing their breakup.
From my perspective, life was pretty good. My life revolved around my family, my friends, my neighborhood, my church and my kindergarten classroom.
The chaos that was reflected in the world at large was not necessarily reflected in the country house I was brought up in. Rural Route 3, Marion, was not a hotbed of controversy. Sure, the neighborhood kid had run away from home for a while. And once in a while my older brother and my mother would argue about Vietnam. But in retrospect — and even then, I think — my life was pretty cushy.
All was groovy. But that was going to change.
Making plans to escape Iowa’s winter
My dad, Gene R. Marner, and three of his friends planned to take a private plane on a part-vacation, part-business trip to the Bahamas.
Dad and Gerald Bergemann were engineers at Collins Radio Co. Dr. William Armstrong was a physician. Steve Troxel, who lived in Davenport, worked as a salesman. Although all but Troxel were pilots — my father served as one in World War II — Armstrong did most of the piloting for the trip.
The flight plan south included a trip to the Bahamas and back. It was not a short flight.
In a newspaper article published before the trip, reporter Larry Tanner of The Gazette interviewed Armstrong. “We plan to leave from here Saturday,” Armstrong said in the Jan. 25, 1970, article. “We will be flying a six-passenger Cherokee Six single engine plane.”
The trip, as planned, would cover 5,000 miles and 35 flying hours.
The odd thing about that article is that my father is not mentioned. Apparently, he was a last-minute replacement.
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Louis Scroggins, a Cedar Rapids resident, had to scratch the trip. My father, who had been planning to take the trip and then changed his mind because of a family illness, was called again. Because the illness had cleared up, he joined the three other men, replacing Scroggins, flying safely to the Bahamas.
My father was a reliable family man. He was not the kind of man to take a pleasure trip without my mother present.
Though I was not privy at my young age to the planning for the trip, I can imagine the conversation. My mother probably urged him to go ahead. She would have known Armstrong and respected him. My father simply would not have taken the time off work and his family life to go on a pleasure trip unless my mother insisted on it.
It was Armstrong who provided the “business” aspect of this part-business, part-pleasure trip. In Tanner’s article, it was Armstrong who was going to conduct business in the Bahamas.
“The rest of the men,” the article said, “are just going along for the ride.”
That figures. Four men — ranging from Troxel’s relative youthful 32 to my dad’s still-young 46 — wanted to get away from Iowa’s miserable winter.
The four were family men. Armstrong and his wife, Karen, had three children. Bergemann and his wife, Jane, had four. The Troxels had three. My mom and dad kept a home in rural Marion. Jonathan, Mark, Susan, my grandmother Hirning and I all lived in the attractive ranch house. Designed by my father, it had been their home since 1958. I was born in Cedar Rapids in 1963 at St. Luke’s Hospital, where Armstrong practiced medicine.
As readers of The Gazette know, Marion and Cedar Rapids are intricately related. Eastern Iowans don’t know everyone. But they very closely know people who know people. There aren’t seven steps of separation; there are probably more like three.
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Dad and Armstrong were civic-minded. Armstrong gave a series of talks about pornography, including one at my family’s church, First United Methodist Church of Marion. The Bergemanns worshipped at the Presbyterian church katty-korner from ours. Troxel and his family eventually moved to Rural Route 3 in Marion, after our family moved out.
Return from the Bahamas turns deadly
On Friday, Feb. 6, 1970, my dad and his three friends were flying back from the Bahamas. Their immediate destination was West Palm Beach; their ultimate destination was Marion.
Armstrong was piloting the plane. They were within a few miles of shore when, suddenly, he realized the plane’s lone engine had failed. The Piper Cherokee didn’t even sputter, according to sources at the time, going down about 3 miles off the coast of Delray Beach, Fla.
Armstrong skillfully ditched the plane in the Atlantic. All four survived the initial crash, which occurred about 5:15 p.m. Eastern time.
Armstrong had time to radio in a mayday. Almost immediately, rescue teams were dispatched. But in the darkness and rough winds, they could not reach the wreckage for hours.
Dad plunged forward. He grabbed the life rafts and life vests. My source for this is my own memory. None of the articles written at the time made note of this. But I am firm on this — it was one of the few anecdotes about the crash my dad relayed to me. And he didn’t tell me about it until years afterward.
We worked together outside frequently, hauling dirt and shoring up the back ravine at our new house in Chesterfield, Mo. It was during these work sessions that he would open up to me, something he rarely did if we were just hanging out in the house.
Unfortunately, because he was not buckled in the plane, Dad took a pretty big blow to the jaw on his way out. The force of the water landing caused quite a bit of violence to the little plane.
As Dad recounted it, he lost consciousness for a good 30 seconds. When he awoke, he was on the left wing of the plane.
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Troxel came out after Dad. Although I was not able to talk to him about the crash, I do not believe he was injured. News stories noted my father was hospitalized and Troxel was not.
Dad was taken to John F. Kennedy Hospital in Atlantis, Fla. As he put it then, “Steve is in pretty good shape, but my lower lip was torn away from my jaw when I was knocked out.”
Armstrong and Bergemann emerged from the right side of the plane — but the life rafts had blown to the left.
Troxel and my father saw Armstrong, but could not reach him.
After enduring the rough seas, high winds, and cold temperatures of the ocean for nearly four hours, Dad and Troxel were spotted by a rescue team. The men were lifted into a helicopter.
Little is known about the last moments of Armstrong’s and Bergemann’s lives. While the Coast Guard found Bergemann’s body, rescuers found only Armstrong’s empty life vest.
I can only imagine the despair the survivors felt at seeing their companions languish.
Yet my father’s personality — his technical grounding — came through when he was asked about the ocean’s water temperature.
“The water was cool, not really cold. But the combination of wind and rapid evaporation made it seem cold.”
Of course Dad would see it this way. Ever a scientist, my father had a Ph.D. in physics and engineering from the University of Iowa.
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Even when he was cast at sea, I’m sure he was thinking about the rate of evaporation. No doubt he was calculating in his head their chances of survival.
WHO Radio brought the news to relatives
On the home front, I was unable to find out information about the other three families.
In today’s world of email, Facebook and Twitter, you would think I could locate the survivors’ children. But they, like me, are not celebrities. They’re everyday people. What I could find out on a personal, subjective level, mostly came from my own relatives.
While Dad told me he didn’t know why the plane went down, Uncle Dick Emmert said Dad had told him the engine got water in it.
Emmert, a native Iowan and the spouse of my dad’s sister, Marilyn, is 90. He is also an engineer. Although 50 years have passed since the crash, he promptly responded when I emailed him requesting his recollections of it.
His story was exactly what I remembered him telling me at a family wedding some 10 years ago. He relates his tale:
“Marilyn and I were living in Newark, Delaware, at the time of Gene’s plane crash. In those years, the only means of listening to Iowa radio from long distances was via WHO Des Moines because they were a 50,000 watt clear-channel station that was allowed to turn up power (directionally) after sundown. Though the signal was weak in Delaware, depending on weather, it made it possible to hear broadcasts of evening basketball games and nighttime replays of Hawkeye football.”
Emmert continued, “I was going over work papers in our den with the portable radio tuned to WHO and playing in the background. I was startled by an announcement about a plane crash involving Cedar Rapids men off the coast of Florida, and thought I heard the name ‘Dr. Gene Marner’ among others.”
“I didn’t want to alarm Marilyn, who was upstairs, in case I had misheard. So I waited until the message was repeated, listening carefully. Sure enough Gene’s name was included, but there was nothing known at that point about the fate of the four men.
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“I then told Marilyn, and we decided to call your mother, Bernice, in Marion in hopes that she would have information on whether he had been found. Receiving no answer, we called Marilyn’s sister, Carolyn Kacena, who lived in Burlington. She confirmed the situation, but had few other details.
“We spent the next 24 hours worrying that he might not have survived. Late the next day, we were able to talk to Bernice and were very relieved to learn that Gene had been rescued, and though injured, was recovering in a Florida hospital.”
As for details, Dad talked to Uncle Dick a bit more than he shared with me at the time.
“The cause of the engine failure was water in the fuel loaded on in the Bahamas,” he stated.
In an almost textbook-recitation of what happened next, he related:
“On the trip back, headed for West Palm Beach, Gene was a passenger in a back row. They had already descended some, preparing to land, when the engine failed. The pilot was skilled in emergency procedures and first tried unsuccessfully to restart the engine. So, they prepared to ditch, but didn’t have much time before the pilot made a good water landing in rough water several miles off the coast.”
All of this information is confirmed by primary sources at the time.
Uncle Dick’s nearly encyclopedic narration continues: “Before they went down, Gene and the other survivor had their inflatable life jackets on and secured. Gene was thrown out one side of the plane along with both life rafts, followed by the other survivor (Troxel). Gene had his lip torn from his jaw as he hit something (the door, wing?) on the way out. The pilot and other passenger went out the door on the other side, and Gene thought the pilot didn’t have his life jacket secured.”
In a telling conclusion, Uncle Dick writes, “The survivors with the rafts tried unsuccessfully to reach the other two, who were some distance away, but the winds blew them further apart. Rescuers found the life jacket of the pilot and the body of the other passenger.” Finally, he reminds us that “Gene and the other survivor were in the raft in rough and cold water for something like four hours. At least part of the time they used one raft to cover them like a clam shell to avoid hypothermia. They were rescued by helicopter ... and Gene was admitted to a Florida hospital for treatment of his injury.”
One of the things I learned from researching this is that Armstrong insisted in advance the other men read up on ditching a plane. His dedication to safety is one of the reasons my dad respected him so much.
For a child, little things make memories
From my perspective as a 6-year-old, one of the most fascinating aspects of this story was when Dad returned home.
We piled into the car and went to the Cedar Rapids airport. Always a thrilling trip, this time the excitement was intensified. I was only slightly aware that my father had been in a serious accident. But I was aware that his return to Marion was bringing a lot of media attention.
In my memory, scores of cameramen lined the perimeter in the airport.
Dad appeared tanned and able to walk, but slightly impaired. More important to me was his outfit — a bright, salmon-colored sports coat.
Now if you knew my dad, you knew he was a regular at church where he wore suits. And if you knew him from work, you knew he wore suits there, too. At home, he had his casual side and was an avid gardener. But when he was dressed up, I had never seen him in anything but a blue, gray or black suit before.
The color of this jacket, although perhaps just a trivial aspect of his arrival from a harrowing trip, was what caught my young attention.
Even my sister, Susan, who was 13 at the time, was drawn in by dad’s unusual outfit.
It’s funny, really, what young minds concentrate on. You don’t necessarily remember what the adults think of. You note what your imagination finds fascinating.
Marion is a small town, populated with incredibly warmhearted people.
My sister remembers one such kindhearted person bringing Dad a Bishop’s Buffet custard pie. It was one of the few things he could eat.
Though we regularly dined at Bishop’s (always after church, never at night), we never had eaten this particular pie. Our preference was always for the chocolate pie or maybe the strawberry. To my sister, a bite of this custard pie was heavenly.
For all the families, legacy of a tragedy
While I never was able to communicate with the surviving family members of the crash victims, I can only imagine what they went through.
Armstrong’s wife attended a naming ceremony for the then-new football field at Linn-Mar’s High School — named after the doctor who volunteered as the team physician, according to The Gazette.
A Bergemann daughter received an anonymous gift to help her pay her college tuition.
Various Armstrong children received commendations in college.
It is with awe that I review the news articles of February 1970. I cannot be objective about this story. I’m sad to learn of the various family members of the lost men. I’m sorry that I never got to know them. And I realize now that my mother and father, though open, tried to hide from us the worst parts of the event.
Both are gone now.
I wish that Dad and I would have talked more. More about the war when he flew C-47s. More about his life as a kid. More about the crash.
When researching this article, I decided to see if there were some “old-timers” left at Linn-Mar who might remember the late 1960s and 1970s.
Arnold McCoy, a retired teacher who now lives in Athens, Texas, says yes, he remembered Armstrong. McCoy, who taught a number of subjects, also coached for the Linn-Mar football teams. He recalled Armstrong as a “jovial guy” always willing to help.
Another retired Linn-Mar teacher, Robert Carey, also recalled that the football field was named in honor of Armstrong after the crash.
Since he taught in the middle school at the time of the crash and had in class children who were related to the plane passengers, he was told by his principal to be “sensitive to the needs of the affected children.”
As an outsider who was a Marion resident a long time ago, the city seems like a time capsule to me. I view it through the lens of childhood.
The crash had just happened. The atmosphere was aflutter with talk of it.
“How’s your dad?” asked my school bus driver, a friendly woman named Sally.
“He’s dead,” I answered, hopping down the school bus steps.
“No, he’s not,” she said, her voice raising a pitch or two.
“Yeah, he is,” I said, skipping away.
My sister, who usually rode the bus home with me, must have been at a flute lesson. Otherwise I would have caught it from her.
“He’s not dead. My mom said he’s fine,” a neighborhood friend screamed at me.
I walked blithely away from the scene. To this day, I don’t know what hit me. Childhood defenses? A need for more attention? I don’t know.
But this memory is as plain and vivid to me as the memories of meeting my dad at the airport.
Ruth Marner is a freelance writer.