The last letter my father, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Melvin Lewis Hatt from Sierra Vista, AZ wrote to my grandmother in Lansing, contains these words “I am due in Port 15 Feb (Travis AFB CA) so you can see I will be gone when this arrives.” The letter, dated February 11, 1962 goes on to say, “I will probably fly as am due in Saigon, Vietnam, 25 Feb so am on a hurry up special assignment, for sure.” That same day, this picture was taken of my father Melvin, mother Patricia, me, and my younger sister, Sherri-Ann. I was five years old, Sherri was two. To this day, I have distinct memories of the servicemen at our door in Arizona, telling our mother that her husband was missing in action.
A postcard to our grandmother dated March 15, 1962 from Wake Island Guam described the hot weather and that they should arrive in Saigon the next morning, having crossed the international dateline. There are images on-line of postcards sent to family by other victims from Guam. One of the few things my dad told Sherri and I about this incident was that the passengers and crew departed the plane in Guam, where it was left unattended on the tarmac, leading to suspicions of sabotage as a reason for the plane’s disappearance.
Flying Tiger flight 739/14 was a Lockheed L-1049 Constellation prop liner. The flight departed Travis AFB March 15, 1962 refueled uneventfully in Honolulu, and landed in Guam for refueling, with the destination being Clark AFB Philippines and Saigon, Vietnam. The plane lost radio contact 1 ½ hours after leaving Guam. Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) records indicate its disappearance as the Western Pacific Ocean, Philippine Sea. The crew of the SS T.L. Lentzen supertanker sighted a midair explosion at 12:30 a.m. local time. The subsequent search covering 144,000 square miles found nothing. www.planecrashinfo.com
The largest sea-and-air search that had ever been conducted at that time, was initiated 5 hours after the plane’s fuel exhaustion time failed to turn up even a trace of the airline or its passengers. “Due to the lack of substantiating evidence,” The Civil Aeronautics Board concluded in its accident report back then, “the board is unable to state with any degree of certainty the exact fate of N6921C.” Bangor Daily News, 2004, www.bangornews.com
As of 2017, fifty-five years later without an official declaration by the Defense Department of killed in action, missing in action, or prisoners of war, the names of the 93 U.S. Army Rangers do not appear on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. In addition to my father, two other servicemen, Stanley McEntee (Detroit) and James Taylor (Olive Branch) were from Michigan. The lack of inclusion on the National Wall has had a snowball effect with Vietnam memorials in the State of Michigan, and Ingham County. My father’s name is not listed on these memorials, either.
The justification by the Defense Department for non-inclusion is that “the circumstances of death did not meet the criteria for inclusion on the VVM. They (sic) did not die in DIRECT support of a combat mission. We have received many requests over the years, similar to this one, to add the names of the victims of the Flying Tiger incident to the VVM.” Personal e-mail. U.S. Army 2001.
The 93 U.S. Army Rangers aboard Flight 739/14 were trained in chemical, biological and radioactive warfare as well as jungle combat and communications. There has been speculation over the years that these servicemen were part of a hand-picked team from all over the United States sent to Vietnam in the very early days of the war. The fact that the plane never reached its destination should not negate the original mission.
In an article of Stars and Stripes, and I quote
“Though we may never know why the aircraft went down, it would still bring great solace to surviving family members for their loved ones to be recognized for the mission they never got to complete,” said national VFW spokesman Joe Davis. www.stripes.com firstname.lastname@example.org July 24, 2013.
As I have read and re-read this article, I found the quote from a surviving son, Tommy Joe Myers, son of Army Sgt. 1st Class Raymond “Bill” Myers to be perhaps the most disturbing. Myers states that after years of being turned away and threatened when pressing for answers and recognition, he has lost all hope. Why would a surviving son, asking for answers and the inclusion of his fathers’ name on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial be threatened 50+ years after the crash that took the lives of his father and 92 other U.S. Army Rangers?
Letters since the time of the VVM wall opened in 1982 have been written to the U.S. Army, the Defense Department, and legislators, petitions on www.change.org have been signed. All to no avail meeting denials and brick walls at every turn.
My adopted father, my father’s brother Normand E. Hatt, tried for years to get this accomplished. The loss of his only brother devastated him. “He shared a little bit about that particular time and the fear and upset” said Sherri Owen, my sister. “He just felt his world had been blown to pieces.” Lansing State Journal. May 29, 2017. K. Lavey www.lsj.com. This was not to be accomplished in his lifetime. He died in 2016.
Normand Hatt and his wife Laurene adopted Sherri and I after this incident in 1962 as our mother Patricia suffered what was at time called a “nervous breakdown”. She would never recover. Adding us to a family of four children, they provided us with a good life, and I am forever grateful.
While doing some of my research, I did come across a bright spot in the midst of this quagmire. In an article published November 13, 2017 by the Bellefontaine Examiner https://examiner.org Sgt. John A. Karibo of Logan County, Ohio was officially recognized as Logan County’s first casualty of the Vietnam War. John Roybal, an Air Force veteran, spoke of his experience being part of the search party that looked for the missing plane. At the Veteran’s Day ceremony, he presented flags to Sgt. Karibo’s surviving family members.
I find at times I feel the same frustration as other surviving family members, where to turn next, how to cut through the red-tape and redactions of bureaucracy. This journey has been in fits and starts, and where it will end I have no idea. What I do know is that the 93 U.S. Army Rangers that perished that day in 1962 were American heroes, giving their last full measure of sacrifice in service to their country. They do not deserve to be a forgotten memory of the Vietnam War, and I am asking for your support and any assistance you have to offer to see that they are honored and recognized on the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.
I would like to acknowledge the support of Alexis Begale, Kathleen Lavey, and David Jones. Their interest in the importance of this walk to the Wall has inspired me and re-energized my efforts. The immediate reply of an e-mail sent to Matt Burke at Stars and Stripes this week offering his assistance means everything.