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A flag is flown half-staff in remembrance of Navy Pilot Lt. Nathan White in front of Carrier Air Wing FIVE headquarters at Atsugi Naval Air Facility in Japan.

A flag is flown half-staff in remembrance of Navy Pilot Lt. Nathan White in front of Carrier Air Wing FIVE headquarters at Atsugi Naval Air Facility in Japan. (Jim Schulz / S&S)

ATSUGI NAVAL AIR FACILITY, Japan — Excitement about the USS Kitty Hawk’s return was tempered Monday by the announcement that the body of F/A-18 Hornet pilot Lt. Nathan D. White, 30, was found in Iraq over the weekend.

White’s jet, part of Carrier Air Wing FIVE based at Atsugi Naval Air Facility, was shot down April 2 over Iraq.

The jet possibly was shot down by a U.S. Patriot missile, U.S. Central Command announced, but the incident is under investigation.

White flew as part of VFA Squadron 195, one of three Hornet squadrons in the air wing, said Lt. j.g. Mike Odom, officer in charge of Carrier Air Wing FIVE (beach) detachment. White was with the squadron at Atsugi for two years.

“He was just an awesome person, very outgoing and good with the troops,” Odom said Monday. “He was a great officer and set a great example. It’s definitely a tragedy, for his family and for the Navy overall.”

White’s death was announced during base church services Sunday. Monday, news of the death was still traveling across the close-knit community.

“I feel terrible for his family,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Apollo Baldias.

“Anytime we lose someone it’s tragic,” said Senior Chief Petty Officer Henry Mack, a hospital corpsman at Atsugi. “Everybody had hoped he’d survived.”

Evidence showed White ejected from his jet before it crashed, according to Central Command officials. U.S. forces began a search-and-rescue mission immediately after.

As news spread of other American POWs found safe, people at Atsugi held on to the hope that White would be found alive, Mack said.

“It gave them hope until now,” Mack said.

“The war came home to Atsugi,” said Lt. j.g. Russell Hale, an Atsugi chaplain. “It’s a pretty close-knit community. There was a real sense of shock.”

“He was part of our base community and will be sorely missed,” said Cmdr. Dave Tiller, Atsugi’s executive officer. “Our hearts go out to all his loved ones, both here and stateside.”

White is survived by his wife and three children, said Brian Naranjo, spokesman for Atsugi.

The squadron is expected to hold a memorial aboard the carrier this week. A base memorial is scheduled for 10 a.m. Thursday at VFA Hangar 195.

White will be buried at a national cemetery in the States, Naranjo said.

Odom said the loss is particularly difficult in such a cohesive group. The squadron has about 200 people including about 25 pilots.

“It’s devastating to the air wing overall,” he said. “but especially to the squadron because they’re so close.”

Past Pacific F/A-18 crashes

November 1994: A Navy pilot from Atsugi aboard the USS Kitty Hawk was rescued unharmed from the Philippine Sea south of Okinawa after ejecting from his F/A-18 Hornet during a training accident. He was attached to Fighter-Attack Squadron 97.

April 1998: An Atsugi-based Navy pilot on the USS Independence was unharmed after ejecting from his F/A-18C returning to the carrier in the northern Arabian Sea. He was part of Strike Fighter Squadron 192.

February 2003: A Navy pilot was unharmed when his F/A-18 jet crashed into the Western Pacific between Japan and Hawaii. The pilot was aboard the USS Carl Vinson, which was in the Pacific while the USS Kitty Hawk was deployed to the Persian Gulf.

The squadrons

Carrier Air Wing FIVE, Atsugi, Japan, has three F/A squadrons:

VFA-192: The Golden Dragons. Started during World War II flying the Hellcat. The squadron moved to Japan in the mid-1980s and switched to the F/A-18. The Dragons participated in a variety of missions including operations Desert Storm and Southern Watch.

VFA-195: The Dambusters. “The Chippies” flew in every conflict since World War II, including F/A-18s in Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

VFA-27: The Royal Maces. The squadron began in the Vietnam conflict and changed to an F/A-18 squad and became “The Chargers” in 1991. The squadron flew in Somalia during Operation Restore Hope and helped during Operation Southern Watch. It moved to Atsugi in 1996.

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