National Security

A grave duty beckons: Finding the Californians lost in war

Visitors pay respects at Vietnam Veterans Memorial

At the start of Memorial Day Weekend, a crowd of people gathered to pay their respects to those lost during war at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC.
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At the start of Memorial Day Weekend, a crowd of people gathered to pay their respects to those lost during war at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC.

Someone is missing this Memorial Day weekend.

Some soldier, such as Jerry M. Shriver of Sacramento, a special operator who disappeared in Cambodia 47 years ago. Some airman, like Elwood John Thompson of Atwater, California, 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, 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.

The mission is not about numbers, it is about the fullest possible accounting of all Americans who are still missing from past conflicts dating back to World War II. We will stay the course with this mission until the job is done.

Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency

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,” John A. Whitesides, a Sacramento attorney who’s the son of the downed pilot, said in an interview.

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.

At the start of Memorial Day Weekend, a crowd of people gathered to pay their respects to those lost during war at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC.

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.

Shriver, one of four Sacramento residents still unaccounted for from the Vietnam War, 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.

Some were lost in raw mishap.

Frank S. Hernandez, one of two Fresno residents still missing from the Vietnam War, was a door gunner aboard an Army helicopter that collided with another in May 1970.

And for yet others, the mystery goes deeper still.

On the moonlit night of March 13, 1966, Hanford native Howard W. 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.