Closure comes with return of remains

By Ray Sullivan: Freedom Newspapers Publisher

My Veterans Day came early this year. It was better than ever.

The saying goes that men and women never feel as alive as when death lurks in nearby shadows. It is clearly evident at Arlington National Cemetery, where every day is Veterans Day.

This tale you’ll read here explains why we should all celebrate Veterans Day. It is a tale of duty and sacrifice, of courage and death, of closure and war’s linkage through time.

Several months ago a man named Peter Widener told his aging father Jay: “Dad, they have found Jim. His remains are in Hawaii.” Pete, 61, said they were the hardest words he ever had to say to his father.

Marine PFC Jim Widener and 10 others died on June 11, 1967, in a fiery helicopter crash. They were shot out of the air in Vietnam and had been listed as killed, missing in action. On the radio the pilot was heard to cry out as the chopper broke up and flipped upside down: “Mama.”

Jim Widener, 18 when he died, is the first of those men whose remains are now home.

Thirty-nine years, four months and three days after he died, the Chili, N.Y., native was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. The poignant Nov. 3 service was celebrated amidst family and friends and recorded by print and television media. It was a crisp fall day filled with vividly blue Virginia skies and fall colors burnishing tree leaves not already dotting the Earth.

I was there along with four other Marines from my Vietnam platoon (Bob O’Donnell, Henry Lynch, Okla Spence and Jerry Curtis), even though we never knew their son.

Several others from Widener’s recon platoon also were there. Our presence told the family we would never forget his or their sacrifices.

My outfit had been sent in 19 days after the crash to recover the Marines’ remains and the chopper. Fighting had been fierce around the site right after the crash and no one had gotten close. After an all-night march near the demilitarized zone on June 29, early the next morning and a valley away, our point squad ran into gunfire and grenades from dug-in North Vietnamese Army troops in bunkers connected by a trench line on a denuded hill known only by its height in meters above the South China Sea, Hill 174.

The firefight lasted hours. Four of our men died and seven were wounded. All the NVA on the hill either were killed by us or the Marine jet that dropped a bomb to end the fighting. Meanwhile, other Marines with us got within 500 yards of the crash site. Through binoculars, they reported seeing a burned area but no bodies or chopper debris.

Jim Widener’s military funeral at Arlington was finished in less than 30 minutes but will linger forever with those there. It included the haunting familiarity of Marines in dress-blue uniforms, echoing rifle shots from a 21-gun salute, the trumpeted notes of “Taps,” a chaplain’s sermon, a bagpiper’s lilting rendition of “Amazing Grace,” and kind words from the ranking Marine who, on bended knee, presented the folded U.S. flag from the coffin to Jay Widener.

Now 84, Jay Widener sat attached to his oxygen bottle in his motorized chair close to the coffin, flanked by family members. As the service ended, a teary-eyed and determined Mr. Widener summed up the day with a salute of his son’s coffin.
He had decided to bury his boy on the hallowed acres of this Virginia hillside as a symbol of his family’s sacrifice to the United States of America. The Wideners have had a family member killed in every war from the Revolutionary War through Vietnam. Jim is the first to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Across the way yet visible across Arlington’s grounds, visitors can see the striking new Air Force Memorial. The three-star burst reaches high to the heavens with a metallic rendition of the “Missing Man” formation.
Jim Widener is no longer missing from that fateful helicopter crash so long ago. But 10 others still are. So this tale is only the first of 11 verses, we hope, and not a final chapter.

We believe a second set of remains found with Jim’s soon will be identified through the wonderful science of genetic DNA testing. Military officials said two sets of bone fragments not eaten away by the acidic soil after four decades were found mingled in a container. It had been stashed and left unreported on a Vietnamese warehouse shelf since the mid-1990s and not turned over to an MIA search team until last year.

Only God knows why — or why the other nine are still MIA.