A grave duty beckons: Finding the Californians lost in war

Stockton High School graduate Richard L. Whitesides, an Air Force pilot lost in Vietnam in 1964, was finally buried last year after a decades-long search.
Stockton High School graduate Richard L. Whitesides, an Air Force pilot lost in Vietnam in 1964, was finally buried last year after a decades-long search. Courtesy of John Whitesides

Someone is missing this Memorial Day weekend.

Some soldier, such as Frank S. Hernandez, one of two Fresno residents still missing from the Vietnam War. (Gerald Lee Ramsden is the other.) Hernandez was a door gunner aboard an Army helicopter that collided with another in May 1970.

Some airman, like Elwood John Thompson of Atwater, last seen aboard a Korean War B-29 bomber. Some sailor, like Pascual S. Acompanado, a Californian irretrievably sunk into the Coral Sea in 1942.

Someone is missing? Many are missing, and are missed.

From World War II, 5,649 Californians remain unaccounted for. The Korean War left more than 600 California service members unaccounted for, including about 100 with hometowns in the Central Valley, stretching from Redding to Bakersfield.

The remains of 166 Californians, including at least 20 from the Central Valley, are still missing from the Vietnam War.

“They are still actively searching for my husband, and others,” said Fair Oaks resident Martha Henninger, whose husband, Hanford native and Air Force Capt. Howard Henninger, disappeared in 1966.

Notwithstanding common parlance, the phrase “missing in action” no longer applies to these California servicemen, among some 83,000 U.S. personnel from World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the sundry wars since tracked by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.

“Officially there is no one in a MIA status from past conflicts, as there has been a presumptive finding of death for those who were in an MIA status,” noted Air Force Maj. Natasha Waggoner, a spokesperson for the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.

Established last year, consolidating previous efforts, the Pentagon agency will employ more than 600 staffers and spend about $136 million this year unearthing remains and identifying them. Periodically, the searchers succeed.

Last year, for instance, the remains of Stockton High School graduate Richard L. Whitesides were buried, more than half a century after his Air Force O-1F “Bird Dog” observation plane crashed in Quang Tri province, South Vietnam.

“I’m still astounded that they devoted the amount of time and resources that they did to that excavation,” said John A. Whitesides, a Sacramento attorney who’s the son of the downed pilot.

His father’s long-delayed burial service at West Point, Whitesides said, combined joy, sorrow and, especially for his since-remarried mother, relief at receiving a final accounting.

“At the reception, you could tell how much of a burden had been lifted,” Whitesides said.

Many others remain in the dark, and lawmakers and family advocates have pushed for speedier work. From 2002 to 2012, the Government Accountability Office noted, the Defense Department accounted for an average of 72 missing U.S. service members annually. Unhappy with the pace, Congress in 2009 ordered that the Pentagon boost its capacity to account for at least 200 annually by 2015.

“They continue to improve, and we have their commitment,” Ann Mills-Griffith, the raised-in-Bakersfield chair of the board of the National League of POW/MIA Families, said in an interview.

The ranks of the unfound are diverse.

Some were officers, family men nearing middle age. Modesto resident Stanley Scott Clark was a 40-year-old Air Force lieutenant colonel when he was shot down over southern Laos on the night of Feb. 14, 1969. The F-4 Phantom pilot was not seen to eject; some wreckage was found, but his remains were not.

Clark’s back-seat co-pilot, meanwhile, parachuted to safety, completed 30 years of Air Force service and passed away in 2006 at the age of 63.

Many, of course, were far younger when last seen.

Merced resident William Henry Reedy Jr. was a 20-year-old Navy petty officer third class when his twin-engine airplane slid off the deck of the USS Kitty Hawk during takeoff in January 1969. Stockton resident Steven Trivelpiece was a 19-year-old Army corporal killed in an April 1968 combat operation so war-fogged that his body was never recovered.

Some of the missing were fighting men, through and through.

Jerry M. Shriver of Sacramento, a special operator who disappeared in Cambodia 47 years ago, was a Green Beret whose exploits were later written about in books such as John L. Plaster’s “SOG: The Secret Wars of America’s Commandos in Vietnam.” Shriver’s fierce reputation, earned during three combat tours, was such that some of his peers thought for a while that the 27-year-old sergeant first class might have survived.

Others were less overtly martial.

Acompanado was a Navy steward, tending to officers aboard the USS Hornet, when he sank into the Coral Sea. The Californian is one of about 41,000 missing U.S. service members presumed lost at sea, accounting for about half of all the missing.

And for yet others, the mystery goes deep.

On the moonlit night of March 13, 1966, Henninger, the 32-year-old Air Force captain, took off in his AC-47 gunship. He was reached by radio shortly after leaving Da Nang, bound for rough mountains. Then came silence, which has lasted the many years since.

Michael Doyle: 202-383-0006, @MichaelDoyle10