NewsLocal News


Man works to unite families of Marines who died from training exercise in 1970

Posted at 5:50 PM, Nov 13, 2019
and last updated 2019-12-04 12:28:41-05

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - A man united families across the United States after digging into a military training crash that happened 50 years ago at MCAS El Toro.

Johnathan Keene often visited his cousin's grave at Arlington National Cemetery, "I go up to visit him twice a year, typically Memorial Day and Veteran's Day." On January 15, 2019, he was in the neighborhood, stopped by and it was that day that he noticed Maj. Walter Zytkewicz grave next to his cousin's grave.

Maj. Zytkewicz was in the Marines, like his cousin, and died the day before his cousin. He said that 'grabbed' him.

Up until that day he knew his cousin, Capt. Robert Walls, died in a military crash, but it wasn't spoken of at the dinner table.

He knew there must be a connection to the two men, so he started digging.

He found four other Marines were on the same training flight July 30th, 1970. "Major Zytkewicz was 2 months away from retiring," Keene said he was studying to become a realtor.

Staff Sergeant Kenneth Davis, 1st Lieutenant Mullins and Corporal Kenneth Metzdorf. Keene said Metzdorf wasn't supporsed to be on the flight, "called his best friend and said hey could you go on this flight for me today? So they switched and that cost him [his life]."

Keene tracked down the redacted incident report and filled in the gaps with interviews from witnesses and Marines who knew the men on board.

"Witnesses say they waited too late to pull the plane out of the angle of attack and the plane hit, bounced, flipped upside down, hit again, bounced in the air, the left wing fell off, all four props fell off. The plane landed right in the middle of the air field. Flames and fuel streamed down the runway, they said it was basically a long stream of fuel and fire," he said.

Flames Keene was amazed to learn his cousin and Metzdorf walked through, "the report listed 80%-90% coverage of third degree burns. I can't even imagine how he walked out," he said shocked.

Mullins was killed on impact, found 50 yards from the plane with a broken leg. Walls, Zytkewicz and Metzdorf died days later from their injuries.

Keene said Walls died from burns in his lungs.

SSgt. Davis passed in 2013.

The exact cause was redacted in the report. Keene believes the Marine Corps wants to preserve the honor of the pilot and protect his family.

"After the crash, the material that made up Marine Corps and Navy flight suits was changed. They thought it was a flame retardant material, unfortunately it burned and melted to their skin," he said.

Keene hopes these difficult discoveries will fuel Marines' admiration. To keep their memories alive, Keene created a plaque with the team's names that will be presented at MCAS Miramar, where the squadron now resides.

"Every other Marine that goes through that squadron will see that plaque and realize there's five men that in some way or another touched their lives from either a safety stand-point or history and lineology of VMGR-352," Keene said.