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Analysis

'He knew something': The 1962 flight of Army Rangers that vanished into thin air

Pacific Stars and Stripes' front page from March 17, 1962, reporting the disappearance of Flying Tiger Line Flight 739.

By KATIE DOWD | SFGate | Published: May 11, 2021

SAN FRANCISCO (Tribune News Service) — The March 15, 1962, night shift started like any other aboard the Standard Oil super tanker Lenzen.

The ship and its crew were cutting through the waters between Guam and the Philippines. It was calm on the seas and in the skies. Above, scattered clouds floated pale across the inky blackness. About 1:30 a.m., the night watchman spotted what looked like a vapor trail high above him. When he spoke later to investigators, he said it appeared to be moving in an east-west direction. He tracked it until it passed behind a cloud. Then, something exploded.

Night turned to day as a flash lit up the deck. Crew members recalled seeing a "white nucleus surrounded by a reddish-orange periphery" and two large, flaming objects falling to Earth. The captain, now wide awake, hurriedly used the stars to estimate where the burning wreckage may have landed. The vessel, in hot pursuit, steamed into the night.

It wasn't until the next day the crew learned what they'd witnessed: the last probable sighting of a plane taking 93 Army Rangers to a mission so secret, it's a mystery to this day.

A dangerous mission

There are two primary questions around Flying Tiger Line Flight 739. The first is what happened to it. The second is why it was there in the first place.

First, a bit of historical context. In the early 1960s, the U.S. was vociferously denying any serious involvement in Vietnam, while simultaneously putting its sticky, anti-Communist fingers all over the region. In 1960, South Vietnamese President Ngô Đình Diệm survived a failed coup that he was convinced was backed by the CIA. His suspicions weren't misplaced; a few years later, he was killed in another overthrow attempt, backed by President John F. Kennedy (who, reportedly, was tormented by the assassination as he believed Diệm would only be exiled).

Along with interfering at the top, the U.S. was putting a lot of troops on the ground. By 1962, they were orchestrating combat missions and deploying Agent Orange. But as the U.S. military was keeping up a charade of not actually being involved, they signed a contract with the civilian cargo airline Flying Tiger Line. Instead of military aircraft ferrying over troops, they traveled on Flying Tiger's chartered planes, helmed by civilian pilots and served by civilian flight attendants. Call it a bit of plausible deniability.

Many of these Flying Tiger planes departed from Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield. And it was there that 96 passengers and 11 crew members boarded a Flying Tiger Line Lockheed Super Constellation on March 14, 1962. Among them were Master Sgt. Robert R. Glassman of San Jose, Pvt. Robert Henderson of San Francisco and flight engineer Clayton E. McClellan of San Mateo.

Ninety-three of the passengers were Army Rangers, and three were South Vietnamese soldiers. The identities of the Vietnamese soldiers are still not known. The Rangers we do know. They were from all over the nation, not one particular unit, which has led historians to speculate they were hand-picked for a special mission. Early media reports claimed the men were "jungle troops," which is probably what you envisioned when imagining Rangers sent to Vietnam. But according to the 1963 Civil Aeronautics Board crash report — and the recollections of surviving family — the men were specialists in something else.

The CAB report called them "mainly highly trained electronics and communications specialists." One man's mother believed he was sent to Vietnam to make "a training film," a suspicion that was bolstered by a letter from his commanding officer at the Film Library Division. Electronics experts with the Rangers also assisted in a crucial espionage tactic: wiretapping. So it's possible the men were headed into a simmering conflict that the CIA wanted to control, via propaganda or spying or both.

Whatever the mission, the Rangers knew it was dangerous. A number of family members remembered that their loved ones acted especially fatalistic in the lead-up to the flight. A few asked that their wives and children be taken care of. Some said flat out they didn't think they would return.

"The day my dad volunteered to go, he went to my mom and said, 'Mommy, I think I signed my death warrant,'" Jane Wendell East, whose father, Sgt. 1st Class John Wendell, was on the plane, said in a statement to SFGATE. "I don't know what the military said in the briefing of this mission, but I have learned that several others said the same thing."

"He said, 'I won't be back from this,'" echoed Spc. Roger Oliver's daughter, Kristina Hoge, in a 2003 interview with Stars and Stripes. "My grandfather told him, 'You'll be fine.' I think it haunted my grandfather."

Although their words now read like premonitions, it's unlikely the men believed the flight itself would be deadly; they probably feared what awaited them in Vietnam. The flight was just the first, long step on the way there.

Vanished forever

Flying Tiger Line Flight 739 was scheduled to make four refueling stops between the Bay Area and Saigon: Honolulu, Wake Island, Guam and the Philippines. The first leg took the usual 12 hours. Upon landing in Hawaii, there was a small kerfuffle with the flight attendants. The head flight attendant complained that the plane wasn't up to regulation for crew rest areas. After a 30-minute delay, another mattress was added for the crew and the plane took off.

At Wake Island, the most momentous coincidence in the lives of eight women took place. The four original flight attendants got off and were replaced by four new crew members: Christel Diana Reiter from San Mateo, Barbara Jean Wamsley from Santa Barbara and Patricia Wassum and Hildegarde Muller, both based in California. The plane set off again.

In Guam, the plane was refueled and given a routine maintenance check. "It was reported that the aircraft was left unattended in a dimly lighted area for a period of time while at Guam," the incident report remarked.

The crew and passengers boarded once more and, as the hour approached midnight, set off for the Philippines. The flight was expected to take six hours, but the plane had enough fuel for nine. After takeoff, the crew made several routine radio transmissions, including asking to change their cruising altitude from 10,000 to 18,000 feet. This request was approved.

A few hours later, the tower in Guam realized they hadn't heard from the flight in much too long. They began attempting contact. Each call-out was met by silence. The crews in Guam escalated the crisis, and the Air Force scrambled planes to search the route. Ten hours after takeoff, an hour past when the plane would have run out of fuel, it was assumed they had crashed.

"The chances of finding any survivors now are about one in infinity," Air Force Maj. Gen. Theodore R. Milton told the press, likely to the horror of hopeful family and friends.

The search was one of the largest in aviation history. More than 1,300 people and 48 aircraft combed 144,000 square miles. Aside from a large piece of driftwood and some tubing with no link to the plane, searchers found nothing. The plane had vanished forever.

An enduring mystery

In the official incident report published a year later, the Civil Aeronautics Board had few answers. The plane was airworthy, the crew was qualified, weather wasn't a factor, and protocol, other than the mattress incident, appeared to have been followed by the book. Whatever happened occurred in an instant since the plane never sent a distress signal.

"A summation of all relevant factors tends to indicate that the aircraft was destroyed in flight," the report ruled. "However, due to the lack of any substantiating evidence the Board is unable to state with any degree of certainty the exact fate of N 6921C."

In that absence of certainty, theories have proliferated for decades. Many believe the flight was sabotaged, perhaps in Guam where the plane was left unattended on the tarmac. At the time of its disappearance, Flying Tiger Line Executive Vice President Frank B. Lynott told the media that if the plane did indeed blow up mid-air, it would validate the company's suspicion it was tampered with.

"So far as blowing completely apart, there's nothing that powerful aboard," he said. "The fuel tanks just don't go off like that."

Modern Flying Tiger Line historians have pointed instead to friendly fire, suggesting the plane may have been accidentally shot down (which would help explain the military's extreme caginess about the situation and perhaps the moving vapor trail seen before the explosion). And then there's just plain old mechanical failure. According to Bureau of Transportation statistics, there were 429 fatal accidents involving U.S. planes in 1960. Flying Tiger Line was ramping up operations in Vietnam, too, and it's believed maintenance standards dropped as a result of increased demand.

About the only scenario that's been ruled out is a hijacking — it would take quite the force to subdue an entire plane full of Army Rangers.

Because the plane was chartered from a civilian company, the U.S. government and military continue to deny any knowledge of the plane's fate. Over the years, records requests to the Army, Air Force, Defense Department, National Archives, State Department and CIA have yielded nothing. A historian at Travis Air Force Base told Stars and Stripes in 2003 he was upset to find no documentation in their archives about the flight.

This iron wall of silence has tormented the victims' families, who still live every day without answers. They've been repeatedly denied requests to add their loved ones' names to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., as the government considers the deaths to be outside of the combat zone.

A small bit of solace comes on May 15, when the families are set to gather in Columbia Falls, Maine, to unveil the first memorial to the lost flight. The land was donated by Morrill Worcester, founder of Wreaths Across America, a nonprofit that helps fund and organize wreath-laying on veterans' graves around the world. For many, it will be the first time they've ever met other surviving family members.

Among them will be Jennifer Kirk, the niece of Spc. Donald Sargent. The day he left for Travis Air Force Base, "he just kept coming up (to his sister-in-law), saying, 'I just need one more hug before I go. I just need one more hug,'" Kirk recalled to CNN. "Then he'd go downstairs to go to the vehicle that was picking him up and he'd come back upstairs. 'I just need one more hug.'

"So he knew something, but he didn't say."

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