The Men Who Lost Their Lives When Their Tanker Went Down in a Doomed Military Training Flight – Nate Schweber for ProPublica (01/03/2020)

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There were five Marines inside the KC-130J Hercules fuel tanker high above the Pacific shortly after midnight on Dec. 6, 2018. The five, two pilots and three enlisted aircrew, hailed from five different states — Arizona, North Carolina, Tennessee, New York and Illinois. Two were just 21 years old.

The five died when a pilot in a jet fighter that had just refueled at 15,000 feet smashed into the tanker, which went by the name Sumo 41. The men and their tanker fell in a ball of flames to the ocean. The jet pilot from Fighter Attack Squadron 242 had not been qualified to refuel at night, but no one knew it because of a mix-up in the squadron’s system for tracking which pilots were cleared to do what exercises. A similar mistake had happened two years before in a nonfatal refueling accident, and investigators had called for the tracking system to be fixed.

When he learned of the failure to fix the problem, along with other problems with preparedness, the commander of the five dead Marines castigated his superiors for failing to act.

“This concern has been reported repetitiously to higher headquarters,” Lt. Col. Mitchell Maury said, including to the Marine Corps’ commandant, its highest-ranking officer, and the Navy secretary, the top civilian leader. “Forward deployed units are consistently hindered by a lack of experienced personnel, and the result is decreased readiness and increased risk.”

Here are five brief profiles of the lost Marines from the tanker squadron.

Lt. Col. Kevin Herrmann Jr., 38

When Kevin Herrmann was in second grade, he wrote an essay about how his father flew jets for the Marines. “His dad told him how neat it was to see things from so far in the air,” said his mother, Mary. Herrmann, one of three siblings, grew up around military bases in six states. He graduated high school in North Carolina and went to Appalachian State University on a baseball scholarship. He followed his father into the Marines and became both a decorated pilot and respected instructor. He too loved the sights he got to see from the air. “Being a Marine is special, and being a Marine aviator is even more special,” his father, Kevin, said. The younger Herrmann and his wife, Jennifer, had three daughters. He served three tours of duty in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. “He hated saying goodbye to his family,” Jennifer said. “But he enjoyed his mission, his job.” He loved kids, golf, pizza, sports cars and the Atlanta Braves. Before his final flight, he called his mother and told her he loved her. Among the items he carried with him all his life were his Bible from his first Holy Communion, and, tucked in his wallet, the note where Jennifer wrote her phone number for him on the night they met. After his death, Herrmann was promoted from major to lieutenant colonel.

Maj. James Brophy, 36

James Brophy’s wife, Erica, called her husband “a humble, caring and friendly guy” who “lived life to the fullest.” He graduated from Franklin D. Roosevelt High School in Hyde Park, New York. He played in the jazz band, competed in pole vault and was named to the National Honor Society — a combination that earned him an award for his success in both athletics and academics. He was inspired to join the Marines because of Sept. 11, Erica said. He earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Rhode Island, trained as a pilot in Corpus Christi, Texas, served as an instructor at the Marine Corps air station in Cherry Point, North Carolina, and earned a master of military studies at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. Being someone who “was very adventurous and wanted to travel the world,” Erica said, Brophy was excited for them to transfer to Japan in 2018 with their then 4-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter. He enjoyed sampling Asian food, exploring Japanese parks and, especially, spending time with family. He was known for pulling his daughter around the neighborhood on Sunday mornings in a wagon and playing soccer in his front lawn with his son until nightfall. “Any free moment he had would be playing with his kids,” Erica said.

Staff Sgt. Maximo Flores, 27

Growing up one of seven siblings in Surprise, Arizona, Maximo Flores collected Hot Wheels toy cars, rooted for the Diamondbacks baseball team and, because he loved playing Xbox, became interested in computers, said his father, also named Maximo, who had also served in the Marines. “When he graduated from boot camp, he put me in a bear hold and said, ‘I know why you were so biased about the Marine Corps, Father,’” Flores, 59, said. A devout Christian, Flores met his wife, Rebecca, through church. Together they cooked spicy, Mexican-style holiday feasts for Flores’ comrades who were unable to travel to their own families. “He did love the hell out of his men,” his father said. Flores also enlivened other celebrations. “He was a dancing fool; he got that from me,” his father said. Flores aspired to one day be a drill instructor or field recruiter. His father said that after his son’s death he was overwhelmed with notes from fellow service members who said that Flores had both encouraged them to join the military and offered them compassionate guidance during hard times. “He made me very proud,” his father said, weeping.

Cpl. Daniel Baker, 21

As a teenager, Daniel Baker drove a full length, maroon-colored Chevy pickup truck and, dressed in trademark jeans and camouflage Realtree gear over patriotic T-shirts, spent many hours helping family, classmates and church congregants around his small hometown of Tremont, Illinois. He was prouder of his love for hunting and fishing than he was his near straight-A grades, said his father, Duane. He enjoyed the TV show “Duck Dynasty,” cooked his own frogs legs and took foreign exchange students from Spain and Germany to swim in a lake on a neighboring farm. “He would go out of his way to befriend them, make sure they felt welcome in Tremont and give them a taste of rural America living,” his father said. He joined his high school robotics team and excelled on it, but rather than follow his peers to college for an engineering degree, he joined what he considered to be the “toughest” and “most prestigious” branch of the military, the Marines. After being stationed in Japan, he was thrilled to travel to Australia, Guam, the Philippines, Hawaii and South Korea. He enjoyed Asian cuisine, and he bought a motorcycle to ride around Japan’s mountains. “He was very, very happy with his work and his career,” his father said. “Every time he came home he was more impressive in character.”

Cpl. William Carter Ross, 21

Raised in Hendersonville, Tennessee, William Carter Ross was a Cub Scout who fished and chased deer with family and skateboarded with friends. “He was just an all-American young man,” his father, Todd, said. He was also a fiercely loyal and protective big brother to twin sisters, Katherine and Sarah, five years his junior. As a teenager, Ross fell in love with old blues and classic country music and, on a guitar, he learned to pick songs by his favorite artists, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. He loved cars, and he saw joining the military as an outlet for his interest in mechanics. Members of the Ross family had served in the military dating back to the First World War. “He always asked me what made somebody want to join the military, and I told him it’s a calling,” his father said. “He seemed to understand that.” Ross joined Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps in high school later enlisted in the Marines. Training was challenging but exhilarating. “He was always excited to tell me what he learned,” said his father, one of whose most treasured memories is surprising his son at his graduation from Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. Ross last spoke with his father just hours before the deadly crash. He said he was looking forward to one day becoming a pilot himself.

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