MIA airman's dog tags returned to family 50 years later

Col. Richard A. Kibbey


By STEPHEN HUDAK | Orlando Sentinel | Published: November 21, 2017

ORLANDO, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — After Air Force Col. Richard A. Kibbey’s helicopter was shot down 50 years ago in Vietnam, his wife never gave up hope he would be found.

Mary Ann Kibbey watched hours of TV coverage of American prisoners of war coming home from Vietnam, looking for him.

“She watched, just hoping, maybe,” said his youngest son, John Kibbey, 52, of Orlando, who served in the Air Force from 1983 to 1987. Mary Ann died in 1979, and Kibbey’s body has never been found.

But on Monday, his children got some closure when Kibbey’s identifying “dog tags,” lost with the airman when the rescue helicopter he was co-piloting was shot down in 1967, were returned during a ceremony at Patrick Air Force Base. They had been found by a Vietnamese farmer in 2015 near the place where the helicopter crashed.

“It’s a fulfillment of a promise made: you will never be forgotten,” John Kibbey said after the somber ceremony, which also honored his father with a Purple Heart and a Silver Star for valor in combat.

The aluminum IDs, which resemble animal registration tags, bear personal information including name, serial number, religion and blood type.

John Kibbey was 2 in February 1967 when his father was officially listed as MIA by the Air Force. His father and crew had scooped up Air Force Capt. Lucius Heiskell, whose plane had been shot down, and were headed back to base when anti-aircraft artillery peppered the HH-3E helicopter known as a “Jolly Green Giant.”

It caught fire and crashed into a limestone cliff on the Laos-North Vietnam border, according to military reports.

Search-and-rescue efforts failed to locate 32-year-old Richard Kibbey — who was posthumously promoted from captain to colonel — as well as Heiskell and two of three crewmen aboard the chopper. The third, Dwayne Hackney, was blown out of the helicopter but survived and rescued immediately by a second helicopter on the mission.

That helicopter hovered over the burning wreckage but had to leave the area because of “hostile ground fire,” according to a letter the airman’s wife received a month later.

“We are all deeply concerned about Captain Kibbey and know how heartbreaking the situation is for you,” Air Force commander Lt. Col. Warner Britton wrote in his letter. “We all have hopes for his return but there is nothing to support these hopes at this time.”

The airman’s eldest child, Richard “Rick” Kibbey, 63, recalled an Air Force team accompanied by a chaplain knocking on the door of the family’s home in Brevard County.

Then 12, he opened the door.

“I saw the chaplain. I knew it was bad,” he said.

Although an Air Force review board determined all evidence indicated her husband had died, Mary Ann Kibbey continued to mail care packages to her husband in hopes he might be alive in captivity and receive them, according to a story in Florida Today.

For Christmas 1971, she mailed his favorite pipe and tobacco and Polaroid photos of the family in front of the Christmas tree.

The military ID was found in 2015 by a Vietnamese farmer near the crash site, said U.S. Rep. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge, who presented the dog tags to the airman’s tearful sons.

Terry Brayton, the airman’s daughter, watched the ceremony via Facebook Live from her home in Massachusetts.

Rick Kibbey, a retired Air Force colonel, saluted the congressman.

The dog tags will be kept in a flag box modified by Dave Kibbey, 58, the airman’s middle son and commander of Sons of the American Legion Post 359 in Port St. John.

Also watching with tears in his eyes was Mike Hinds, a retired veteran and member of the American Legion post.

Hinds, 69, remembered meeting Dave Kibbey about five years ago and learning about his missing father.

“I about fell off my barstool when he told me his father’s name,” Hinds said.

In 1967, Hinds was part of search-and-rescue unit in Vietnam given a list of missing soldiers and airmen to search for. Richard Kibbey was one of them.

“In the bottom of my heart, I’ve always believed we would find them all and would never stop looking until we did,” Hinds said.

Air Force Col. Kurt Matthews said it was appropriate that the ceremony was held at Patrick Air Force Base, home to the 920th Rescue Wing, which is a combat search-and-rescue unit.

Stephen Hudak can be reached at shudak@orlandosentinel.com

©2017 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)
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