SC soldier was on secret Army flight lost at sea; families still wonder why they died
By LYN RIDDLE | The State | Published: April 29, 2021
(Tribune News Service) — The full-length bronze memorial on the empty grave in Pickens, S.C., hints at how Ross Walker died.
"Perished over the Pacific Ocean," says the marker at Hillcrest Memorial Park.
That is all the Walker family and the families of 92 other service members aboard Flying Tiger Line Flight 739 know.
The military charter jet on route to Saigon was lost over the deepest part of the Pacific Ocean on March 15, 1962, three years before President Lyndon Johnson sent combat troops to Vietnam.
No wreckage was found, not a seat cushion or life vest. No remains.
Their mission was so top secret, the military has revealed nothing about what the men were to do.
Not knowing means no honor on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington, D.C. No honors in their states and hometowns. Some families did not receive so much as a flag, only a telegram and a letter saying their father, uncle, son was missing and then later presumed dead.
Many families say they paid for the gravestones themselves.
They have spent years fighting for answers. For what cause they lost their loved ones, and why have they not been honored as heroes?
"It doesn't add up," said Lisa Alexander, who is Walker's great-niece. "All we got was lost at sea."
Selected for a mission
Bruce Swander, a former Marine who lives in Florida, heads a group trying to honor military veterans who they say deserve to be on the Vietnam Wall. He said there are hundreds who died at home, in a military hospital or years after the war who were purposely left off Vietnam casualty lists at President Richard Nixon's direction.
That's how he came across the men of Flight 739.
Among the hundreds of pages of documents he's obtained from the Pentagon is information that President John F. Kennedy wanted intelligence but did not want to escalate U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
In early 1962, the U.S. had advisers training South Vietnamese troops, Green Berets training indigenous tribes in Laos and Cambodia and the Central Intelligence Agency trying to determine if the U.S. should join the ongoing war in Southeast Asia.
The men of Flight 739 were none of those, Swander said. They were handpicked by the Pentagon from bases all over the country. Some had only one or two days notice they were going to Vietnam in that spring of '62, Swander said.
"Our problem is that when I requested, received the OMPF (Official Military Personnel File) of these men, all had any references to their training removed (as opposed to redacted) from their files," he said.
Talking with family members, Swander learned most if not all had communications training. All were Army Rangers and sharpshooters.
Pickens teen joins the Army
Ross Walker was raised in the mill village at Pickens Mill. His father died when he was 10, and his older brother Charles stepped in as a father figure. Charles' daughter, Gale Grant, remembers her uncle Ross as witty and intelligent.
He joined the Army in 1946, when he was barely old enough to do so. His induction papers describe him as having a ruddy complexion, 5-7 with red hair. He weighed 139 pounds.
According to military records, Walker spent 16 years in the Army, serving in Japan, Korea and Germany and then Fort Gordon near Augusta, Ga., where he taught radio repair, according to a newspaper story the family has kept for years.
Gale Grant said family often gathered in Pickens — there were 10 brothers and sisters — when her uncle was home. What turned out to be his last visit about 10 days before to left for Vietnam was no different. She didn't sense anything in his demeanor that caused her to think he felt he wouldn't be back, as other families have reported.
But she, 19 and married, cried and cried when he left. He told her the next time he saw her, she'd have a passel of kids for him to play with.
Other families' stories
Jen Kirk, who lives in Maine, said her uncle Sgt. 1st Class Donald Sargent — known as "Ducky" because he had webbed feet — seemed hesitant to leave that day, as if he knew he wouldn't be back. Her mother said he kept going in and out of the house with a military courier waiting. Finally he came in and said, "I just need one more hug."
He had joined the Army because there was no work in Cornish, Maine, Kirk said. He was 19 when he enlisted in 1958.
Donna Ellis Cornell, who lives in Michigan, said her father, 1st Sgt. Melvin Hatt, asked his brother to take care of his wife and children if anything happened to him. As it turned out, the brother held true to his promise. He raised Cornell and her sister when their mother had a nervous breakdown after her husband died.
Tom Myers' father, Raymond "Bill" Myers, was a "lifer," 18 and a half years in the Army, reaching the rank of sergeant first class. He served two tours in Korea and received orders to go to Saigon the day before the mission, according to a report in Stars and Stripes.
Myers wonders why his father was listed as a supply sergeant on Army records when he spoke five languages.
Myers said his dad told his brother-in-law he had a bad feeling about the mission. He didn't take his identification or a gold ring, which he rarely took off.
"I have my dad's dog tags," Myers said. "That's not a military mission."
Fairfield, Calif., to Saigon in three stops
The Lockheed L-1048 left Travis Air Force Base in northern California just before midnight local time, bound for Honolulu. The crew of 11, including four flight attendants, was led by pilot Gregory Thomas, who had 19,500 hours of flying time. Aboard were 93 "highly trained electronics specialists," according to the Civil Aeronautics Board report on the crash. Three others were members of the Armed Forces of Vietnam.
The only cargo was the personal gear of those aboard. Equipment for the mission was being ferried by another Flying Tiger flight in a similar airplane traveling a route through Alaska. Adding to the mystery, that plane crashed short of the runway in Alaska. Six were injured, and one died. Pilot error was blamed.
Flight 739 arrived in Honolulu 12 hours after leaving Travis, received minor maintenance and was on its way to Wake Island, Guam. "Routine flight," the CAB report says. No maintenance required. Simple refueling.
The plane was on the ground for an hour and a half in Guam. The CAB report notes the plane was left unattended in a dimly lit area of the base. Myers, whose dad was aboard, said the servicemen wore civilian clothes.
The weather was good, and the plane was expected to fly at an altitude of 10,000 feet to Clark Air Base in the Philippines.
About an hour and a half into the flight, the flight crew reported the plane's location and asked to be cleared to 18,000 feet. No reason for the change was given.
The next location update, with a cruising altitude of 18,000 feet, was the last transmission from the plane.
Meanwhile, the Italian crew of a supertanker in the vicinity of the plane's last contact reported seeing a vapor trail go behind a cloud, then an "intensely luminous" explosion. It was white in the center, surrounded by reddish orange. Then, two flaming objects fell into the sea, one bigger than the other.
The ship went to the spot they saw on radar and found nothing.
The military search for the missing plane — one of the largest searches conducted at that time — covered 144,000 square miles with 1,300 people and 48 aircraft.
All occupants of Flying Tiger Flight 739 were presumed dead, the CAB said.
"The board is unable to determine the probable cause," the CAB said.
Almost 60 years later, still no answers
Left to wonder for decades, family members still speculate about what happened. There is no universal feeling among them abut this mystery.
Kirk thinks the plane was intentionally brought down but wonders at whose hands.
Grant and Cornell think it was sabotage, as did executives with Flying Tiger Line.
Myers believes the men reached Vietnam, performed their mission and started new lives elsewhere.
Kirk said her grandmother thought until the day she died that her son, young "Ducky" from Maine, was a prisoner of war and would one day come home.
Swander thinks the plane had mechanical failure.
Finding the answer doesn't consume the families as it once did. But getting recognition for the men's sacrifice does.
"I'm going to fight tooth and nail that these men and women are not forgotten," Kirk said.
Cornell has lobbied fiercely for their names to be etched into the Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C. She arranged for family members to meet with congressional representatives several years ago, and a bill was introduced to honor them among the Vietnam dead.
It died in committee when the new Congress convened in January this year. Cornell is pressing for it to be introduced again.
"You'd think it was a no-brainer," Kirk said.
Alexander, Walker's great-niece, said she intends to write to Sen. Lindsey Graham, from South Carolina, for help to recognize the soldier from Pickens and his peers.
Some have taken it into their own hands. A California man hung replica dog tags for each Flight 739 serviceman on the Vietnam Wall for years.
One group offers honor
The nonprofit Wreaths Across America places wreaths on headstones at Arlington National Cemetery each Christmas. Founder Morrill Worcester learned of Flight 739 when Kirk and her father, Clifton Sargent, visited the Wreaths Across America office and later donated Donald Sargent's uniform.
Worcester donated land for a memorial to Flight 739 that will be dedicated May 15 in Columbia Falls, Maine.
Cornell, Kirk and Myers will be there, as will about two dozen other families.
"It's so wonderful there will be a place for them to be recognized," Cornell said.
Kirk said her aunt who lost her brother, Donald Sargent, cried when she learned of the memorial. Five and a half years ago, the aunt was told she herself had only about five years to live.
"She's on borrowed time," Kirk said.
Her aunt is resolute: "I will go to this monument, and I will see it."