F/A-18 Hornets and F-35B Joint Strike Fighters may grab headlines and feature spots at airshows, but the Marines’ ruggedly dependable C-130 Hercules airlift planes are as beloved by their crew as any airframe in the Corps.

And a small group of C-130 loyalists is raising funds for what they believe is a long overdue monument to honor the community’s fallen heroes.

The concept for a national memorial to the Marines’ C-130 community has an unlikely origin: it began with John Keene, a Richmond, Virginia, resident who never served in the military himself.

But he was deeply affected by the death of his cousin, Capt. Robert Walls, in a 1970 C-130 crash during touch-and-go training at Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, California.

Keene was only a year old at the time, but grew up with Walls’ story and the sadness of his loss. About 16 years ago, he began making a twice-yearly pilgrimage to his cousin’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington.

On one of his trips, he noticed that an adjacent grave belonged to Maj. Walter Zytkewicz, one of the three other Marines killed in the crash. That spurred a new focus: researching and connecting with the surviving families and other members of the unit, Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 352.

“I realized that even the squadron had kind of forgotten about the incident,” Keene said.

In 2019, his advocacy resulted in the installation of a plaque at the squadron’s new home, Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, California, just after the 50-year anniversary of the crash. It was a gratifying step for Keene and the families who attended the memorial’s dedication, but Keene felt he wanted to do more.

Since 1965, eight C-130s and 43 Marine aircrew members have been lost, Keene said, some two dozen of them in the 1960s alone. But some losses are very fresh.

In July 2017, a KC-130T crashed north of Jackson, Mississippi, during a routine flight, resulting in the deaths of all 16 troops aboard. And in December 2018, a KC-130J collided with a Marine Corps Hornet and crashed into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Japan, killing all five Marines on the Hercules and the Hornet’s pilot.

The C-130, he began to feel, was a “redheaded stepchild” of the Marine Corps: vital and dependable, but seldom celebrated.

‘Their legacy will always be here’

Keene had the idea to install a memorial to these Marines at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Virginia.

As the idea evolved, it became a granite monument in Semper Fidelis Memorial Park, surrounding the museum.

In pursuing this goal, he gained an ally: Matt Piliere, a former Marine Corps C-130 chief warrant officer 5 and vice president of the Marine Corps Air Transport Association. The Marine C-130 community is small and incredibly close-knit, Piliere said; if a C-130 aircrew member does more than one tour, he or she is likely to cross paths with just about everyone else who flies the Hercules.

“We never really thought that we needed to do something about all these people we lost,” he said. “It never sort of dawned on us: we missed them all. And they were our people, and there’s a bond to them like you wouldn’t believe.”

Keene and Piliere soon realized they’d set for themselves an ambitious task: The museum requires the use of expensive American granite and the cost of the memorial was an estimated $153,500. They decided to try to raise $180,000, including extra funding to cover travel expenses for the families of fallen Marines.

So far, they’ve collected nearly $138,000, with hopes of dedicating the memorial in spring 2024. In the process of fundraising and promoting the project, their coalition of supporters has grown. They’ve received an endorsement and substantial donation from former Navy Secretary Gordon England, who fought to keep the Marines’ C-130 program alive during his tenure from 2006–2009.

And one supporter who is helping to advocate for the memorial now is Jennifer Herrmann, whose husband, Lt. Col. Kevin Herrmann, was a pilot killed in the 2018 C-130 crash.

Lt. Col. Herrmann, she said, had originally wanted to fly jets; but after getting selected for C-130s, he grew to love the airframe and relished flying. He was a devoted dad, she said, making a point of being present for his three daughters’ sporting events and award ceremonies as often as he could. And though he never sought a spotlight, she said he’d be “really excited” to see a memorial tribute to the heroes of an underappreciated community.

“[C-130s are] not as flashy, I guess, not as glamorous as the jet community, but they’re so vital to pretty much every aviation operation that happens in the military,” Herrmann said. “I think a lot of people don’t realize all that they do.”

The memorial’s proposed design is a tall tablet. On the front are the dates and units of past C-130 mishaps that resulted in crew losses, with space to update the memorial over time. On the back are the names of the aircrew members who’ve been lost.

In his research for the project, Keene said he realized there was only one other focused tribute to the C-130 in the National Museum of the Marine Corps: the flight suit of Katie Higgins Cook, the first female Blue Angels Pilot, who flew the demonstration team’s celebrated Hercules, Fat Albert. To Keene, that made the memorial project all the more significant.

“There’s roughly a million people a year that will see this memorial, see those 43 names on the back of it. And they’ll never be forgotten now,” Keene said. “And that, to me, is probably the most important part of all of this. Their legacy will always be there. And they won’t just be the redheaded stepchild of the Marine Corps.”

Hope Hodge Seck is an award-winning investigative and enterprise reporter covering the U.S. military and national defense. The former managing editor of Military.com, her work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Politico Magazine, USA Today and Popular Mechanics.

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