A 50-Year Journey for a Proper Farewell

By Simon Romero

August 23, 2011

MIÁCORA, Colombia - All that remained here, on a drizzle-shrouded ridge in the Chocó jungle, was a rusting cross and some crumpled fuselage. No wonder Gordon Radley feared that the tragedy that took his brother’s life five decades ago was at risk of being lost in the mists of time.

Mr. Radley was just 15 when his parents in Chicago were told, in 1962, that a Colombian DC-3 plane had crashed in Chocó, killing more than 30 people, including two Americans. They were the first Peace Corps volunteers to die in service. One was Mr. Radley’s brother, Larry, a 22-year-old graduate of the University of Illinois.

Of all the commemorations this year for the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps, an institution still seen to be grasping for its identity somewhere along the spectrum between altruism and a superpower’s quest for soft power, Mr. Radley’s must rank among the most remarkable and quixotic.

As a grieving teenager in Chicago, Mr. Radley made a promise to himself when his brother died. He decided that the only way he could properly say goodbye, and honor his brother’s idealism at a time when the Peace Corps was barely a year old, was to someday reach the remote location where Larry left this world.

“Over the years, people have asked me, ‘What are you looking for?’ and ‘What do you expect to find?’ ” said Mr. Radley, 65, a former film industry executive who lives in California. “And I have always answered, ‘I have no idea; all I know is that I have to get there.’ ”

It took years of false starts, diplomatic negotiations, reconnaissance missions by Colombia’s army and an expedition intercepted by guerrillas before Mr. Radley could finally arrive at the crash site, located in an area controlled by 200 fighters from the 57th Front of the Revolutionary Forces of Colombia, or FARC, a group classified as a terrorist organization by the State Department.

At one point, Mr. Radley paid for a group of civilians from Chocó, the provincial capital, to go by canoe and on foot to the escarpment, where they confirmed that the wreckage still existed. But after being detained by the guerrillas during their journey, they warned him that he would clearly be a kidnapping target if he were to trek with them.

On an April trip to Medellín, in which he asked Colombia’s military for help to reach the site, Mr. Radley was told by Gen. Alberto Mejía, the regional army commander, that it would be possible - but hardly an easy task - to get him and a few others to the site where the DC-3 had crashed.

“The way we do that is with what we call Alpha, Beta and Charlie missions,” the general said during the meeting. “Alpha is using machine guns to clear the area, Beta is to do some focal bombing and Charlie is where we use some rockets just especially to land, so that we can explode any kind of mines that we normally find in these areas.”

That was not exactly the response Mr. Radley was hoping for, given the peaceful ideals he was trying to promote. After his brother’s death, he too had joined the Peace Corps, volunteering among the Sena people in Malawi, a seminal experience and the start of his long friendships with Malawians and others who volunteered in East Africa.

“Gordon lived and worked in Malawi, as I did in years of hope - before disillusionment set in,” said the writer Paul Theroux, who also served in the Peace Corps in the 1960s before being expelled from the country after he was accused of supporting an exiled Malawian rebel leader.

“I did not make a telephone call for two years,” Mr. Theroux said in an e-mail. “Gordon, a few years later, was in the most remote part of a remote country, and for that reason I envied him,” said Mr. Theroux, who recently finished a novel, “The Lower River,” set in the same area where Mr. Radley lived.

After returning to the United States, where he went into the entertainment industry and rose to become president of Lucasfilm, the production company founded by George Lucas, Mr. Radley became one of the Peace Corps’s most strident defenders.

He supported Peace Corps budget increases and wrote essays on its ideals of promoting cross-cultural understanding. Still, he never made it to the place where his brother died, even though he came frustratingly close in April, when a Colombian Army plane flew him over the jungle where the DC-3 crashed.

He redoubled his efforts, contacting Representative Sam Farr, Democrat of California and a former Peace Corps volunteer in Colombia, to see if more could be done to secure the Colombian military’s help. The army sent soldiers to secure the area (without bombing it) and, finally, a window opened for Mr. Radley to go.

One blistering day in August, he boarded a Black Hawk helicopter in Quibdó, clutching a bag holding some dirt from his family’s cemetery plot in Chicago, a few stones from Jerusalem’s Abu Tor district, where his sister, Elana, lives, and an old, faded photograph of his brother, Larry.

Mr. Radley, after landing on the escarpment, said he was aware of the irony of relying on military force in a nation still at war to get to a place where he could have a memorial service to promote peaceful ideals. “The challenge to get here magnifies the value of those ideals and the fact that we did get here,” he said.

Fearing rebel attacks and inclement weather, the soldiers gave him just 15 minutes. He found a clearing with scraps of fuselage and a rusting cross that Chocó families had erected in the 1960s. The clouds above briefly opened, allowing rays of light to shine on the rain forest, which long ago had swallowed the remains of those killed.

Standing there, he sprinkled the dirt from his family’s plot and tossed the stones from Jerusalem, which his sister had given him, over the precipice. On a harmonica, he played Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” just as the Black Hawk’s roaring blades were drowning out other sounds.

He had no time to recite the lines from a poem for the departed that remained crumpled in his hand: “I am not there. I do not sleep; I am a thousand winds that blow.”

Days later, remembering the humility he felt of being helped by hurried soldiers to the cathedral-like clearing atop the ridge, he surmised that the most significant moment of the whole odyssey was the embrace he received from a Colombian officer, who spoke with compassion and warmth of bringing Mr. Radley to the spot. But that insight, which Mr. Radley described as an ideal that his brother and his colleague had died for, in which “nationality, culture and language are transcended,” was something that came later.

When it was time to fly away that August day, he pulled himself into the Black Hawk. Its deafening roar made conversation futile. He squinted out the window a last time at the Chocó’s sea of trees. Finally, he began to cry.