Four shot down during Vietnam War are buried at Arlington
Larry Duthie remembers studying his dog tags as he waited to be captured in the forest 20 miles south of Hanoi. He knew he was to give the enemy only his name, rank and serial number, and he wanted to do it correctly. A 24-year-old Navy pilot, he had just ejected from his damaged jet, smashing his right knee, and enemy gunfire had driven off the helicopter that was trying to rescue him. A few days later, Glenn W. Jackson remembers, he was at home near San Diego when the car pulled up with the pastor. He was 9, and his mother sent him outside while she learned of his father’s death in Vietnam.
It was July 1967.
On Thursday the two, who had never met, were together at Arlington National Cemetery, with dozens of others, separated by events of 45 years but linked by four men who were killed in a battle that, one way or another, had touched them all. They were four sailors, the crew of a Navy rescue helicopter, who were shot down during a brutal two-day battle to retrieve Duthie and another Navy pilot who had been brought down trying to bomb a bridge.
The North Vietnamese fought bitterly with missiles and antiaircraft guns to prevent the rescue. The Americans fought back, with jets and helicopters, to retrieve the men. Only Duthie was saved. And Navy Lt. Dennis Peterson, 28; Ensign Donald P. Frye, 23; and technicians William Jackson, 32, and Donald P. McGrane, 24, perished when their helicopter was brought down and blew up on impact.
On Thursday, in a solemn ceremony, the Pentagon buried a single casket with remains that it said represented the four men as family, friends and veterans of the ’67 fighting watched. It was quiet except for the birds and the clatter of the horses pulling the caisson bearing the flag-draped coffin. A procession of mourners followed on foot. At one point, a flight of Navy jets streaked across the clear blue sky in salute.
“They were very important guys, and unbelievably brave,” Duthie, 70, who had traveled from Walla Walla, Wash., for the funeral, said Wednesday. Glenn Jackson, 54, had traveled from Donald, Ore., “to honor my dad, for one thing,” he said Wednesday. “Also to honor the other guys that are on this crew, too. All four were heroes. You think about what they did. For basically somebody that they really didn’t know. . . . All they knew was that he was another Navy pilot and that he needed help.”
Some remains of Frye, Jackson and McGrane had been returned to the United States by the Vietnamese in 1982 and buried by their families. But the Pentagon said later searches in Vietnam in 1994 and 2000 produced dog tags, other artifacts and additional remains that were associated with all four men. Those commingled remains were buried Thursday.
Several present said they had been at the 1982 funerals, but felt they needed to attend this time, too. “If they throw another funeral, we’ll come,” said Frye’s older sister, Linda Kay Frye, who had come from Los Angeles. “My brother was standing up for everybody all his life.”
The deaths of the four men came amid a brutal duel between the Americans and the North Vietnamese over a small bridge south of Hanoi. Duthie, a lieutenant junior grade, was flying an A-4 attack jet laden with 5,500 pounds of bombs and extra fuel. He and Lt. Cmdr. Richard D. Hartman, in another A-4, were part of a 35-plane group sent to attack the bridge on July 18, 1967.
As the Americans closed in, enemy antiaircraft artillery and missiles scattered the formation, Duthie said. As he and Hartman regrouped, they spotted two surface-to-air missiles heading for them. They dodged the missiles, which crashed into the ground, but shortly thereafter Hartman’s jet was hit by antiaircraft fire and broke into two flaming pieces, Duthie said. Somehow, Hartman parachuted free. Moments later, Duthie, too, was hit and ejected from his burning plane.
A rescue helicopter spotted Duthie, but just as it was about to pick him up, it was driven off by enemy gunfire that killed one of its crew. Duthie could see the smoke from the North Vietnamese weapon and figured he was about to be captured. “I got out my dog tags and just stared at it,” he said. Name, rank, serial number. “I just went over that figuring, ‘Here’s what I’ve got to do next.’ ” But no enemy appeared, and a short time later he was plucked from the ground by another rescue helicopter.
The search for Hartman continued into the next day, with, among others, the helicopter manned by Peterson, Frye, Jackson and McGrane. But enemy gunfire was again ferocious and caught the helicopter, which crashed and exploded. Hartman died in enemy hands. Before the burial Thursday, the families mingled to chat about old times. “We wanted to celebrate him being home,” said Dennise Wilson, 45, Peterson’s daughter, who was born two weeks after her father died. No remains associated with Peterson had been found until now. Dennis Peterson’s widow, Sharon, died two years ago.
“We never had a burial, service or anything like that,” his daughter, Kirsten Peterson, 47, said. “I think it’s a positive thing for us as a family, but I think it’s also his turn. Forty -five years. That’s a long time.” McGrane’s widow, Karen Fischer, 69, said, “We think that Donald just wants us not to forget him. That’s the we way we feel. We won’t forget him.”