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60 years later, a jet crash remembered

At Mt. Soledad National Veterans Memorial in La Jolla is a plaque for Navy pilot Ensign Albert Joe Hickman, who crashed his crippled jet into a San Diego canyon 60 years ago, on December 4, 1959, narrowly avoiding a nearby elementary school with 700 students. Hickman Elementary School in Mira Mesa is named for the pilot. Photographed December 5, 2019, in San Diego, California.

Sean Kelley wasn’t yet born when a 21-year-old Navy pilot rode a crippled jet to the ground and into San Diego lore as a hero.

The crash on Dec. 4, 1959 cost Albert Joe Hickman his life, but his actions before the F3H Demon crashed into a Clairemont canyon were credited with saving the lives of hundreds of students attending a nearby school, Hawthorne Elementary.

Kelley heard about all that when he enrolled at the school after moving here from Los Angeles 13 years after the crash. He heard it again when he moved to a different elementary school in Mira Mesa that was named after the pilot.

He played youth baseball on fields that said “Hickman” on the signage. As an adult, he joined American Legion Post 460, and it, too, carries the pilot’s name.

“I had followed this hero around my whole life, it seemed,” Kelley said.

Earlier this year, he was looking at old photos in the American Legion post when he realized the 60th anniversary of the crash was approaching. And that there was no plaque honoring Hickman at the Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial in La Jolla, where Kelley works as a volunteer and where some 5,000 servicemen and women are remembered in black granite.

Kelley suggested the non-profit organization that runs the memorial should put up a plaque and hold a ceremony reminding San Diego of what happened all those decades ago. The organization agreed and put him in charge.

“Me and my big mouth,” quipped the 55-year-old materials manager for a government defense contractor.

He began looking for people who were students at Hawthorne on the day the plane crashed and found one in Texas. Debra Dawson recalled seeing and hearing the plane as it glided overhead. To this day, she tears up in gratitude at the pilot’s sacrifice.

Kelley started searching for relatives of the pilot, too. He knew Hickman was from large family in Sioux City, Iowa, but he kept coming up empty on the Internet. Then he learned why, and it adds a poignant note to the family’s loss. Because of a typographical error somewhere along the line, Hickman’s name has been misspelled all these years. It should be Hickmon.

No one ever bothered to correct it. What mattered to his relatives — then and now — is that someone remembered him.

‘This one was different’It was noon on a Friday, time for lunch. Many of the 750 students at Hawthorne were enjoying their recess on the playground.

Because of the school’s proximity to Naval Air Station Miramar, “jet noises were not unusual,” said Dawson, who was an 8-year-old third-grader at the time. “They were part of our daily life. But this one was different. It was very loud.”

Hickman, an ensign with fighter squadron 121, had been doing simulated carrier landings at sea. He was on his way back to Miramar when his plane apparently had engine trouble. Another pilot flying behind him said he saw Hickman make a high bank turn and then head toward the ground. “I knew he was in trouble,” the pilot told reporters.

He said Hickman could have bailed out when he first ran into trouble at 1,500 feet but apparently was concerned about where his plane would crash and decided to ride it closer to the ground.

Dawson, who lives now in Texas, said in a phone interview that she remembers the plane gliding in at an angle, not straight down. Other witnesses said it veered sharply away from the school at the last moment. C.L. Bateman, who lived across the street from the school, told reporters he saw the plane come in about 60 feet above him with its canopy open and Hickman waving his arms as if he was trying to tell the students to get back.

“He had a lot of guts staying with that plane like that,” Bateman said.

The jet passed over the school yard fence and hit a brushy hill about 200 yards away, rebounded to another slope, and then a third, touching off brush fires at all three spots that consumed about 20 acres combined and took two hours to extinguish. Hickman’s body was found near the second hill, about 40 yards from a tree.

Dawson and the other students at Hawthorne were sent home early. They understood something bad had happened, but within it, something good. “I remember being told the pilot’s name, that he was a hero because he had stayed in the plane and guided it away from the school,” she said.

The students sent letters to Hickman’s father in Iowa. “I will always pray for him at night so that he is sure to go to heaven,” one of them wrote. Another ended with this: “I wish we could change the name of the school to Hickman.”

Hickman was buried at a cemetery in Sioux City. The sixth of nine children, he’d been so determined to join the military that he contacted both the Navy and the Army right out of high school. The Navy called back first.

Three months after the crash, Hickman was posthumously awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, given for non-combat valor. Hawthorne Elementary honored him as well, in a June 1960 ceremony at the school. The PTA donated a sundial bearing this inscription: “I count none but the sunny hours.”

Katy Schade, the student body president, gave a short talk. “Ensign Hickman not only saved our lives,” she said, “but left us an ideal by which to live. Let us strive to be as brave and courageous ourselves as he was.”

Two weeks later, the San Diego school board announced it would name a future elementary school for Hickman.

‘Long overdue’Kelley knew a lot of that history as he set about getting a plaque for Hickman on Mt. Soledad earlier this year.

“It was long overdue,” he said.

The son of a Korean War Navy veteran, Kelley thought Hickman was an important part of San Diego’s history, but he wasn’t sure how many people remembered it, or still cared. He posted a note on the Mt. Soledad Facebook page, looking for witnesses to the crash.

In Texas, Dawson saw the Facebook post. She, too, comes from a military family and has a fondness for veterans. She contacted Kelley and agreed to come to San Diego for a plaque ceremony.

“I cannot remember who my third-grade teacher was, I can’t remember who was in my class, but I sure remember what happened that day on the playground,” she said.

In her recollection, the plane crossed over the playground fence near its midpoint, which tells her if it had crashed just a second or two earlier, it would have gone into hundreds of children playing outside at recess. Her included.

“Lives certainly would have been lost,” she said. “I don’t remember having nightmares as a child, but it was a traumatic event for all of us. And as we get older, we look back on these things and they take on a different perspective.”

Nearing 70 now, she thinks about how young Hickman was when he got into the plane that day. “How in 21 years have you learned enough to be a hero?” she asked. “He was born a hero. There was something in him that was so self-sacrificing. How remarkable he is and was has loomed large in my life.”

She paused for several moments to collect herself. “I can never talk about it without crying because I’m just grateful,” she said.

Lauren Robinson, the current principal at Hawthorne Elementary, feels grateful, too, but for a different reason.

“Kids grow up in a world today of school shootings and other traumatic events,” she said. “The gift that Mr. Hickman should be recognized for now is that children who attend Hawthorne have an innocence about them because they don’t attend a school where a tragedy happened. Planes fly overhead every day, but the children can go on the playground and never have to think this is where one crashed. They feel safe here, and their parents feel safe dropping them off every morning. That’s part of his legacy.”

That doesn’t mean the story should be forgotten, she said. Hawthorne has no memorial on campus to Hickman; the sundial donated by the PTA six months after the crash is gone. His photo doesn’t hang in the hallways. Robinson didn’t hear his story until two years ago, when she was in her second year as principal.

This fall, with the 60th anniversary of the crash approaching, Hawthorne teachers shared with the students information about Hickman — “what he did, the choices he made, why it was brave,” Robinson said. Now the staff is talking about some kind of annual remembrance.

‘It always ties back to him’Kelley pulled the Mt. Soledad ceremony together in September. Dawson, the former Hawthorne student, and Robinson, the current Hawthorne principal, both spoke.

So did Genevieve Snyder. She’s a fifth-grader at Hickman Elementary, the Mira Mesa school named after the pilot, which she’s attended since kindergarten.

“Albert wasn’t a super human, but he was a good and selfless person who did an extraordinary thing one day that cost him his life but saved the lives of hundreds of children,” she said in her speech. “That’s what makes him a hero. When I think about his story, it makes me feel a little bit sad but proud because he was so brave to sacrifice himself.”

Hickman has about 450 students, many of them children of active-duty military personnel. They get immersed early and often in the pilot’s story, and what it says about leadership. Visitors touring the school stop first in the foyer of Hickman Hall, where there is a display case of artifacts, including an aviator’s helmet, the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, and a letter from his father.

“Those items show that he was a normal person with a family that loved him, just like the rest of us,” Genevieve said.

Tobie Pace, the principal, said Hickman is a “Leader in Me” school, which implements practices from the book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” by Stephen Covey. “We talk to the students about how every day our decisions matter,” Pace said. “We teach them to live, learn and lead together. And it always ties back to him.”

Kelley was proud of the way the plaque-dedication ceremony turned out. He wished some of Hickman’s relatives could have been there, too, but he’d been unable to find any.

One of them found him.

A sister, Phyllis Nelson, lives in a senior community in Santee. She learned about the ceremony from a friend who saw local television coverage of it. Nelson told her granddaughter, Angie Aguilera, who went on the Internet and located the Mt. Soledad Facebook page. That led her to Kelley.

“Growing up in this family, we all heard the story,” said Aguilera, who lives in Temecula. “We’re proud of what he did, and just kind of in awe that Sean worked so hard to make sure he’s remembered.”

Her grandmother, she said, “can’t believe people still care about her brother after all these years. It reduced her to tears when I told her.”

Sometime in the coming weeks, Aguilera will drive to Santee with her sister, Brandi Aguilera, and pick up Nelson so they can go to Mt. Soledad and see the plaque for the first time. They plan to bring their daughters, both teens, to pass along the story to another generation.

The plaque includes a photo of Hickman, and one of an F3H Demon jet fighter. It has an image of the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, and one of the Iowa State flag, and then this, an echo from an earlier, less cynical time, taken from a spell-out students did in 1971 during a ceremony for the elementary school that bears his name:

“H” is for Hickman, a hero brave and true.

“I” is for the important decision to do what he knew.

“C” is for the children he must have been thinking of.

“K” is for the kindness he showed and the love.

“M” is for Mira Mesa, where our school will share his name.

“A” is for Albert, an American we are proud to claim. “

“N” is for our nation he served with no shame.

The plaque is on a wall facing east, which seems appropriate: East is toward Clairemont, and the canyon where the plane went down all those years ago.


© 2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune