No Greater Honor

(U.S. NAVAL INSTITUTE BLOG 13 MAY 13) … Rear Admiral James Foggo

Completely unrelated to the world of the Navy Budget in the Pentagon, where I have been working for the last year, I was asked by the Director, Navy Staff to be the Flag Officer Escort for a memorial ceremony and interment at the United States Naval Academy on Friday, May 10th. The deceased was LT Richard Lee Laws, a naval aviator, shot down in Vietnam in 1966. I heartily accepted this mission as I know of no greater honor…

LT Laws’ journey from the corridors of Bancroft Hall, as a proud member of the USNA Class of 1962, to the aircraft carrier USS HANCOCK (CVA-19), operating in the Gulf of Tonkin during the war—to the jungles of Vietnam where his remains lay virtually undisturbed for 45 years—to his repatriation and interment at the U.S. Naval Academy columbarium is a story that deserves to be told.

After graduation and flight training, Richard Laws became an F-8 Crusader pilot and he joined VF-24, the “Fighting Red Checkertails” onboard USS HANCOCK. He deployed twice with HANCOCK and was a “double Centurion” with more than 200 combat missions over Vietnam. During that second deployment, while on a strafing mission, his aircraft was struck by ground fire. He radioed that he had been hit and twenty seconds later his flight leader observed his aircraft strike a mountainside and explode. There was apparently no time to eject. He was presumed to have died on impact…

Now enter the JPAC, which stands for “Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command.” Activated Oct. 1, 2003, JPAC’s 400 joint military and civilian personnel are tasked with searching for the more than 83,000 Americans still missing from past armed conflicts. JPAC’s Central Identification Laboratory, is the largest and most diverse forensic laboratory in existence. No other nation in the world goes to such lengths to repatriate its heroes who have made the ultimate sacrifice. This is all about who and what we are—American Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines—a close knit band of brothers and sisters who will leave no one behind. Sometimes the process takes a long time. After all, Vietnam remains a “Socialist Republic.” It did not re-establish diplomatic relations with the United States until two decades after the fall of Saigon (1995).

American and Vietnamese recovery teams visited the crash site three times since the end of the war. They gathered remains, but DNA identification technology was not advanced enough to yield positive results until 2011. That’s when Richard Laws’ remains were positively identified, leading to his repatriation and interment at the Naval Academy.

When I arrived in Full Dress Whites on the steps of the “Cathedral of the Navy” last Friday, a crowd of Navy veterans started to gather. I introduced myself as the Escort Officer to several of LT Laws’ classmates and squadron mates. These men were in their mid-70s but still going strong—looking fit, dapper, and fully focused on making this a dignified tribute to their classmate, shipmate and friend. One member of the class of ’62 told me that he had not seen a gathering of so many classmates since the funeral of Colonel John Ripley, USMC (USNA ’62), who single-handedly blew up the Dong Ha bridge over the river Cua Viet, thereby blunting a major North Vietnamese offensive in April 1972 (His book published by the Naval Institute, “The Bridge at Dong Ha” is highly commended).

Those old squadron mates painted a grueling picture of life at sea onboard USS HANCOCK. There were no casualties on their first deployment, but as things heated up in North Vietnam, they lost naval aviators and aircraft to combat and mishaps on their second deployment. Back in the day, the carrier went “on the line” (engaged in combat operations) for 30 days at a time. Sleep was a precious commodity. You were lucky to get six hours a day. But on a carrier with no air conditioning and temperatures in the Gulf of Tonkin exceeding 100 degrees at times, it was difficult to really rest and recharge your batteries between missions. One man talked of his stateroom next to a clunky ammunition elevator that operated 24/7. He finally got used to sleeping next to extreme noise. Regardless of the harsh conditions, they got up every day, went to the ready room and did their duty. Fiercely proud of the F-8 Crusader, one man brought a scale model of the aircraft, fitted out exactly as Laws’ aircraft had been configured the day he went down—with Sidewinder missiles in case of an interaction with North Vietnamese MiGs and Zuni rocket packs for suppression of enemy fire.

Many of Richard’s classmates have formed “Club 11” in Annapolis and maintain strong bonds with the family. As I worked my way through this distinguished band of brothers, one of them asked me if I had met his widow, Karen Laws Engelke. I told him that I had not, so he made it a point to introduce me.

I found Karen Laws Engelke to be a remarkable woman, who epitomizes the true spirit and character of a Navy spouse. Strong, determined, and dedicated to the memory of her late husband, she supervised every detail of the memorial service and interment. Furthermore, she shared with me the story of her “mission” to visit the crash site in Vietnam. It was a fascinating account of Karen’s arrival at Xuan Du Village, about 45 minutes walk from the crash site. The Vietnamese people were very supportive. She thanked them for preserving the site throughout the years. She met one man who claimed to have seen the crash as an 11-year old boy. Karen made some insightful observations about her conversations with Vietnamese officials. Whereas we mark this time in our history as “The Vietnam War,” not unsurprisingly, the Vietnamese call it, “The American War,” as it was not their first (the French preceded us in Indochina) and would not be their last (Chinese incursion in 1979). According to Karen, most of the Vietnamese people she met, but not all of them, were willing to let bygones be bygones—the older men, likely former combatants, are not so apt to let go. As the culmination of her visit, Karen walked up the steep hill to the crash site. She carried with her a pole with 327 hand crafted memory ribbons from friends, classmates and shipmates. This memorial remains fastened to a tree at the crash site. A photo of the memory ribbons even adorned the program for the memorial service—very fitting.

The United States Navy Ceremonial Guard and Naval Academy Band turned out in splendid form for a picture perfect day in Annapolis to pay their final respects and return this distinguished graduate to his final resting place. I marched with Chaplain Cash to the columbarium in front of the hearse. As we turned the corner on Hospital Point, Naval Aviation provided F/A-18 Hornets overhead in a “missing man” formation. I couldn’t help but be proud of the troops and the dignified way they handled their duties for this special family. It was the least we could do to honor their sacrifice.

As the flag was folded and passed from the Ceremonial Guardsman to me and from me to the widow, the words spoken have been repeated thousands of times since the Vietnam War, but they convey what the loss of an American serviceman means to this country:

“On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Navy and a grateful Nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.”

Rest in peace LT Laws. You have done your duty. Thank you for your sacrifice and God bless… We have the watch.

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