From memory to memorial

A survivor wants to ensure his darkest moment lives on


August 08, 1999|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,Sun Staff

CROZET, Va. -- This is a story about history, or at least that's what Phil Bradley says it's about. Something happened on Bucks Elbow Mountain the foggy night of Oct. 30, 1959, something very bad. Bradley was the only one to make it out alive, and he always believed there was a reason. It's just that it took him nearly 40 years to figure out what the reason was.

He is standing in a sun-bleached meadow, a thick, block-shaped man of 73 in a gray suit. This is the spot where Albemarle County has agreed to let him build his memorial. It is not, however, precisely where Bradley's piece of history occurred.

"Follow me," he says, and walks toward a copse of straggly trees to the east. He spies an opening through the limbs and points toward the blue mountainside in the near distance. "You see that outcropping of rock, up near the top?" he asks. "That's where we hit. That's where it happened."

At certain times of the year, he says, if the sun is just so, your eye will catch a reflection off the fuselage, even from way down here. "That's right," he says, laughing at your surprise. "It's still up there. There wasn't any way they could get it off of there, so they just let it be."

Twenty-four men and two women died up there that night. Phil Bradley, who never knew a single one of them, survived. Come October, he'll be back here in Mint Spring Valley Park to dedicate his memorial to them.

He assumes it's why he's still here.

Phil Bradley knows something about being part of history. He was barely 18 on June 6, 1944, when he found himself on an American transport ship in the churning English Channel. As the sun rose over Omaha Beach, he heard shrapnel whizzing by and the rat-a-tat of German burp guns. In his bunk aboard ship that night, the young signalman discerned another noise, the sound of floating American bodies thumping against the hull.

At least Normandy is remembered; it is memorialized. What happened on Bucks Elbow Mountain is not. But it will be. Bradley is seeing to it.

When asked how he survived D-Day and Bucks Elbow, his stock answer is, "I'm from Clifton Forge, we're tough." He means to be funny, but maybe he's right, too. His accent isn't genteel Southern but mountain crusty. He grew up in the Alleghenies in western Virginia, the son of a railroad machinist. Bradley followed his father into the trade but in the 1950s veered off into union organizing for the International Association of Machinists. His territory was the South, which at that time and in that place, meant Bradley was employed in probably the most treacherous occupation this side of civil rights work. More than curses were fired his way once or twice.

While he was recuperating after the Bucks Elbow crash, one lamentation reached his ears. "A couple people said of all the people who died up there, it was a shame the one who survived was a union rep."

Bradley never understood that kind of ill-will. He has a Will Rogers-like expectation that the world is full of strangers just waiting to succumb to his wisecracking charms.

"If he's breathing, he's doing that," marvels his 28-year old son, Phil Jr., his father's most ardent admirer. "I've never seen him in a bad mood. One of his favorite expressions is not to take life too seriously because you never know how short it is."

So history teaches us, his father might say.

During the two months Bradley lay in the Charlottesville hospital, doctors kept a close eye on him, anticipating signs of psychological trauma. They never saw any. No one did, except for the day he returned to Clifton Forge from the hospital on a snowy Christmas Eve. As his father and brothers settled him in his bedroom, he let himself go. "I cried like a baby for 20 minutes."

That was about it for the next 40 years. A born optimist like Bradley had no intention of holding onto something like Bucks Elbow. He was only 33 and had a life to get on with. He untangled himself from a bad marriage, moved to North Carolina, remarried, had a son. He got his pilot's license. He rose in the ranks of the union, then left to embark on a long career as a federal mediator.

Bucks Elbow was a stone he dumped into the middle of a lake and let sink to the bottom. Or so he planned.

"If it came up, he would say, 'Let's not talk about that,' " says his second wife, Zella.

It was Phil Jr., known as Brad, who urged him to open up about Bucks Elbow. The son had his own compulsion to know what his father had endured, to know how bad it had been.

Brad, a firefighter who, like his parents, lives near Charlotte, N.C., believed his father needed to share his memories for his own good too. "He wouldn't talk about it, except to say, 'Why did I survive and no one else did?' " says Brad. "I think he felt guilty. I felt it was important for him to face the music."

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