40 years after her twin brother vanished, Ohio woman on a mission of her own
The Lima News, Ohio
VAN WERT, Ohio — Forty years ago, James M. Coon and nine other men vanished during a secret mission in southeast Asia.
It was the height of the war in Vietnam. Coon and fellow Navy cryptologists were on their way from the Philippines to an airbase in Vietnam. Somewhere over the South China Sea, during what was supposed to be a 72-minute flight, their plane disappeared. Very little of the plane or its contents were ever recovered. No bodies were ever found. Four days before his 21st birthday, the Van Wert native was declared missing. Two days later, he was presumed dead.
For Jan Valentine, of Van Wert, her twin brother’s disappearance has been difficult to bear, especially as the decades passed.
“I never believed he was dead. I still don’t,” Valentine said, her eyes welling with tears and voice cracked with emotion. “When we went down to Fort Meade last month for the service, I was hoping to get some kind of closure and I still haven’t. My family thinks I’m nuts, which is all right. You’ve got to have a black sheep in the family someplace.”
The service, held Aug. 30 at Fort Meade, Md., commemmorated the 40th anniversary of the crash of flight RG-407, the flight Coon and the others voluntarily boarded.
The trip also included a visit to an ultra-secure sector of the base. Staffers at the base placed ID tags on the visitors, they couldn’t do it themselves. They were taken through multiple security checkpoints by government van, each time they were stopped and each person’s ID was checked and doublechecked.
Then, Coon and others came face-to-face for the first time with an eight-foot tall by 12-feet wide black granite memorial they never knew existed. Emblazoned with the words, “They served in silence,” the wall is inscribed with the names of 169 Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine and civilian cryptologists who made the ultimate sacrifice. Coon’s name was there. So were some of his fellow sailors from the mysterious flight RG-407.
In the middle of the black granite wall was the logo of the governmental agency they served — the National Security Agency.
“I never knew the NSA had a wall,” Valentine said. “I never knew anything about it.”
The news, four days after Christmas last year, that Coon’s name was memorialized somewhere stirred up long-simmering feelings of anger and disappointment that Coon and his fellow sailors were never included on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Excuses have ranged from he was just a passenger to he was killed outside the designated combat zones, Valentine said.
“If his name is on the NSA wall, shouldn’t it be on the Vietnam wall, too?” she said. “We have all tried for the last 40 years and gotten a range of stories. I would like to see them all included on the Vietnam wall. I would like it not to take another 40 years. We don’t have 40 years left in our lives.”
Coon enlisted in the Navy the summer before their senior year in high school, Valentine said.
“Dad was all for it,” she said. “Mom had a hissy fit.”
The day after graduation he was off to basic training. Before he volunteered for the secret mission, Coon had actually been on a ship headed for home to attend Valentine’s wedding, she said. The two were extremely close.
It’s her twin’s intuition that tells her Coon didn’t perish as the government has insisted, Valentine said. There was another twin on the mission and that sibling left behind has similar feelings.
“He could be gone, but I just don’t feel it. I like to think he’s on one of those islands drinking a Mai Tai,” she said with a laugh. “It could just be wishful thinking, I don’t know.”
Forty years after her twin brother left on his secret mission, Valentine is on a mission of her own.
“I’m mad. I want something done,” she said. “Maybe we’ll finally get their names on the Vietnam wall. They deserve it.”