West Chester vet's remains come home
The Philadelphia Inquirer
In the decades since a young airman from West Chester was shot down during the Vietnam War, grief came and then dulled. A kind of closure, in its own time, came, too.
But without remains, there was no somber homecoming for Maj. Louis Guillermin, no casket for his widow to put to rest.
At a cemetery in Broomall, remains recovered from a crash site in Laos and recently identified as Guillermin's through DNA were buried beside his parents. As nearly 100 motorcycle riders, dozens of uniformed military, family, and strangers gathered at the graveside, Guillermin's widow, Donna Stoyko, turned around, snapped a few pictures, and shook her head in amazement.
This was so much more than she had expected for a man she lost 45 years ago, now the latest in a stream of service members coming home decades after being declared missing.
The two met in early summer 1966, while he was stationed at Grand Forks Air Force Base and she was a student at the University of North Dakota. Stoyko, who remarried in 1973 and lives in Washington State, said his "gorgeous almond-brown eyes," smile, and sense of humor won her over.
Guillermin played trumpet in the West Chester Joint Senior High School band but could not dance. An only child, he kept pictures of every newborn in his extended family but never remembered to write names on the back, often forgetting later who was who.
They were married in May 1967, and that October, he went overseas. In April 1968, they met in Hawaii for 13 days of leave.
Guillermin was a navigator on an A-26A aircraft. On his first flight back in Vietnam, a night mission to disrupt supply deliveries on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos, the plane was shot down. He was 25.
For the pilot of the plane, 31-year-old Robert Pietsch of Pittsburgh, it was to be his last flight before moving to a desk job.
When no bodies could be recovered, the Air Force classified the men as missing in action.
But for Stoyko, there was never any hope. Military officials gave few details, but the men who flew near Guillermin on the raid that night told her what they had seen.
"Major explosion. Do not hope for return. That's what they told me," the now 66-year-old grandmother said. "They were very honest, which was very helpful. It got rid of a lot of the confusion."
The years since have been filled with another marriage, three children, and three granddaughters. As efforts began to find Guillermin and Pietsch's remains, Stoyko was updated on the progress.
The military's Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command recovers about six to eight service members every month, finding remains of those missing from World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam, and the Cold War. Investigators enter remote villages and ask elders whether they ever saw a plane go down in those parts or signs of an explosion in the woods. Sometimes they notice a piece of U.S. military equipment being used for another purpose and ask where it was found.
Once a narrow area is secured, archaeologists turn up the earth, sifting for wreckage, scraps of metal, and human remains.
In Guillermin's case, searchers identified the crash site in 1994 but could not excavate it until more than a decade later because it was filled with explosives.
When they did, the team found a wristwatch. And a strand of Guillermin's hair. And one long leg bone.
Beneath the ground, they found one of his dog tags.
In May, DNA from the bone was compared to a sample provided by a family member, confirming that Guillermin had been found.
Some remains could not be identified as either Guillermin's or Pietsch's and will be buried together at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington.
Guillermin's remains arrived at Philadelphia International Airport Friday and were met by family, a motorcycle escort, and members of the Chester County Vietnam Veterans of America, which was named in his honor in 1988. As the procession left the terminal, onlookers captured videos on their phones, and families peered down from the glass walkway overhead, unaware that this was not a modern military death.
At that point, Stoyko said, she expected Saturday's funeral to be a small affair. So few family, she said, are left.
But she had not accounted for everyone else, for the people who posted hundreds of flags around the funeral home in Oxford, who filled the parlor behind the dozen family members in the front rows, who stood in downtown West Chester as Guillermin's casket came through his hometown.
As the hearse rolled down Route 1 to the cemetery, flag-draped fire trucks were parked on nearly every overpass.
They were there to welcome the airman home.
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