Not Forgotten: Final Salute For USAF Pilot Killed During Vietnam War

By Mr. Chuck Prichard

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As a misty rain fell through a thin layer of fog on the morning of April 25, 2018, a group of about 100 family members and friends huddled in Arlington National Cemetery beside the coffin of Air Force Reserve 1st Lt. David T. Dinan III.

Along with a U.S. Air Force band, honor guard and rifle squad rendering honors for Lt. Dinan, a lone Airman stood holding a staff from which a black POW/MIA flag waved in the breeze. The words “You Are Not Forgotten” flashed as the flag furled and unfurled at the whim of the wind, providing a visual reminder that many people did not forget Lt. Dinan after his single-seat F-105 Thunderchief bomber was shot down over Laos on March 17, 1969.

Retired Air Force Col. Edward Sykes was one of the people who did not forget. In 1969, Sykes, then also an Air Force lieutenant and F-105 pilot, was Lt. Dinan’s roommate at the Thailand air base that was home to the 34th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 388th Tactical Fighter Wing, 7th Air Force. Sykes had only known Lt. Dinan a short time before learning that his roommate had been shot down and lost.

Lt. Dinan was not lost immediately after his plane went down. Other U.S. service members in the area observed that he was able to eject from the aircraft and saw his parachute deploy. An aerial search and rescue helicopter team was sent to locate him. They found a parachute and were able to lower down a pararescueman – commonly called a “PJ” – using a steel cable hoist. The PJ found Lt. Dinan and confirmed that he was dead, apparently killed in a fall after his parachute was shredded by trees and he tumbled down a hillside. Enemy fire and the hazardous conditions of the location made recovery of Lt. Dinan’s body impossible at that time.

Sykes was appointed to serve as Lt. Dinan’s summary courts officer, meaning that Sykes was responsible for gathering up the belongings his roommate left behind and seeing that they were properly transferred. Sykes performed those duties and then went on to other missions, eventually completing a long Air Force career, retiring at the rank of colonel.

Through all of those years, Sykes never forgot Lt. Dinan. But the circumstances of his former roommate’s loss came to the forefront of his mind in 2009 when the now-retired Col. Sykes’ visited the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C. He saw a list of missing that showed Lt. Dinan’s status as “body not recovered” and resolved to do something about it.

Unbeknown to Sykes, during the 40 years between Lt. Dinan’s loss and 2009, staff members of predecessor accounting organizations that ultimately formed the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) had also not forgotten Lt. Dinan. Working with Lao authorities, those organizations had conducted several investigation missions to find witnesses and other information in the area around where Lt. Dinan was lost. Each successive mission seemed to point them closer to finding Lt. Dinan’s remains and bringing him home.

When Sykes managed to track down members of the Dinan family in 2009, he learned of the official Department of Defense efforts to find his former roommate and offered his help to what was then known as the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC). Sykes also took personal trips to Laos in hopes of gathering useful information for Lt. Dinan’s case.

JPAC also conducted additional field investigations in 2010 and 2011 that yielded some good information on the case. But none of these efforts could pinpoint the possible location of Lt. Dinan’s remains.

In 2013, Sykes suggested that JPAC investigators try to find the PJ who had initially found Lt. Dinan’s body immediately after the incident. Working with veterans organizations, the JPAC staff was able to locate former Air Force Staff Sgt. Leland Sorensen, the PJ who was lowered from a helicopter to look for Lt. Dinan after the crash.

After interviewing Sorensen, JPAC officials decided the best way to tap into his memory was to take him back to that hillside in Laos and see if he could remember the spot where he had seen Lt. Dinan’s body.

In March, 2014, Sorenson accompanied a JPAC team on a field investigation with Lao authorities as they canvassed villages believed to be in the general vicinity of the crash site. Sorensen had not forgotten what he experienced on that St. Patrick’s Day in 1969. Villagers who later found a parachute and other American items a few days after the crash also did not forget. They passed along to their relatives accounts of how they cut down a tree to retrieve the parachute.

With the information provided by Sorensen’s recollections and directions offered by the villagers, the investigation team homed in on a spot along the hillside. The team surveyed the area around the spot and found some promising evidence, to include equipment from Lt. Dinan’s plane and some of his personal items. But the search did not find any possible human remains.

In June, 2016, an excavation team from the newly-formed DPAA returned to the area that had yielded the promising evidence two years before. They found material that was possibly human remains and delivered that material to the DPAA forensic laboratory in Hawaii for analysis.

On August 7, 2017, a DPAA medical examiner team looked through a file of documents and noted that the body of evidence compiled from nine investigations and one recovery mission was compelling. The file contained circumstantial, material and forensic evidence, including DNA analysis conducted by the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System. After considering all of the information presented, the medical examiners signed a document that declared the human remains found at the site in Laos to be those of Lt. Dinan.

That declaration resulted in the funeral service, where Sykes addressed those gathered in the Old Chapel at Joint Base Myer–Henderson Hall and led a “brothers salute” for his former roommate.

He began by asking Lt. Dinan’s two natural brothers – Charles and John – to stand. Then he invited Lt. Dinan’s brothers-in-arms, fellow members of the 34th Tactical Fighter Squadron, to rise. Five men responded. And lastly Sykes invited to stand a man he introduced as a “member of the search and rescue team aboard that Jolly Green Giant.” With that, Sorensen also rose to his feet.

Sykes called the group to attention and “present arms.” While the band of brothers held their salutes, Sykes uttered words more than 49 years in the making.

“We missed you, David. Welcome home brother.”


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