As the propellers of the CH-46A Sea Knight helicopter cut across the sky, the peace of that June 30, 1967, night belied the danger inherent in the mission to the men on board. Tasked with inserting a Marine reconnaissance team into Thua Thien-Hue Province, Vietnam, they realized the danger as the aircraft came upon the landing zone and received enemy fire. In an instant, the crack and boom of enemy guns brought the moment to a crisis, and the helicopter was forced to crash land, claiming the lives of U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Merlin Allen and four others.
“It was devastating,” said Marilyn Neff, Allen’s older sister, upon hearing the news that her brother was killed but not recovered from the crash-site. Remembering Allen as a fun-loving, patriotic young man with a contagious smile, it was difficult for her to face the prospects of him never returning from Vietnam. “We were never the same.”
For nearly 46 years, Neff and her family dealt with that devastation of knowing that their “Merle,” as they affectionately called him, was not coming home to Wisconsin. For 46 years, they only had their memories of him hunting and fishing and dancing to keep his image firmly planted in their lives. Recently, after all those years without a physical connection to their beloved son and brother, Allen’s family received the information that Merle was finally coming home from Vietnam.
Allen’s remains were discovered by the accounting community’s recovery operations in Thua Thien-Hue Province in 2012. Working diligently to connect Allen to the remains discovered at the helicopter’s crash-site, scientists at the Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii were able to positively make identification in June 2013.
“I was in shock,” said Neff, speaking about her reaction to the news her brother was recovered. “We as a family never forgot [Merle], so it was nice to know that his country never forgot him as well.”
Now buried beside his mother and father in his home state, Allen’s return to his family has brought peace and closure, said Neff, appreciative of the effort and consideration taken by Allen’s country to continue its search for him years after his death. “He would have done the same thing for someone else,” she said.
Now 69, Neff still thinks fondly of how her brother could light up a room when he entered, and how he always made people feel special when they spoke with him. And though he lives only in her memories, knowing that he rests beside those who he loved and likewise loved him brings her a comfort that eluded her for the nearly 46 years.