Fallen Vietnam Airman Returns Home
By Rachel F. Goldberg
On 10 May 2013, Lieutenant Richard Lee Laws ’62, USN, finally returned home to Annapolis. With his widow, Karen Laws Engelke, his son, Richard Laws, daughter, Cheryl Laws Ridenhour ’86, and grandchildren standing nearby, Laws was interred with full military honors in the Naval Academy Columbarium. Many friends, relatives, classmates and Naval Academy and other military personnel came to honor the Vietnam-era fighter pilot in one of few interments of its kind.
“Lieutenant Laws may be the first one” to be interred at the USNA Columbarium whose remains were identified in Vietnam and repatriated 40-plus years later, according to Sharon Moffatt, memorial affairs coordinator for the USNA Cemetery and Columbarium. There may have been one other before him, Moffatt said, and another is waiting on positive identification.
The Class of 1962 suffered more Vietnam War losses than any other USNA class, said Ed Clarke, 11th companymate and dear friend to Laws. Classmates who have been recovered are buried at Arlington National Cemetery and other military cemeteries, but Laws is the first of his class to be recovered, repatriated and interred at USNA, according to Stew Lingley ’62. (See sidebar on page 36 on Class of ’62 casualties.)
Engelke, Laws’ widow, chose to have this interment and service at the Naval Academy because “the Naval Academy is so important to me,” she explained. “The Naval Academy meant a tremendous amount to Dick and my father.” Her father, Lieutenant Commander Joe Jeff Wilcox ’45, SC, USN (Ret.), graduated in 1944. She said she has always felt a tremendous connection to the Academy and Annapolis.
Karen said that this memorial service “is so important to me to commemorate Dick’s retiring because (1) it is the first and only time that my husband, me, our son, daughter and grandchildren will ever be together; (2) to show what an incredible people we have become; and (3) to remind all of us that when you think of all the people who have died in war, it has long legs—it affects people for a long time.”
Wings to Fly
Laws always wanted to be a pilot, according to classmate Clarke. He was the first in his family to complete high school and believed firmly in achievement through hard work, Clarke said. By applying himself at the Academy, Laws achieved top ranks in his class for math and physics and was able to select flight school.
After graduating with honors on 6 June 1962, Laws married Karen Wilcox at North Island NAS, Coronado, CA, on 25 July 1962, and earned his wings on 15 November 1963 at Kingsville, TX. Laws joined fighter squadron VF-24, the F-8C “Fighting Red Checkertails,” and was sent to Vietnam aboard Hancock from which he returned to his family in California.
During his four or five months at home with his wife and two young children, Richard and Cheryl, Laws trained for his next cruise, including learning what to do if taken prisoner in Vietnam. Before his second deployment, Laws told his wife that he had nightmares about being captured.
“Dick was incredibly unhappy about going back [to Vietnam],” Engelke recalled. “It was a very, very sad departure when the squadron flew out to Hancock. It was quite different then [the second time].”
And indeed it was. In all, Laws had flown more than 200 combat missions. In fact, he was on a mission when he was hit by ground fire. “He said, ‘I’m hit,’ and then his plane crashed into a ravine,” Engelke said. That was the last anyone heard from him—3 April 1966.
Engelke always “maintained a love for Dick and a desire to know what happened to him,” Clarke said. With the help of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), Engelke was able to find out, albeit 46 years later.
After Engelke’s second husband, Edwin Engelke, died in 1992, she started meeting with Navy Personnel Command Casualty Assistance Division POW/MIA Section, headquartered in Millington, TN. The Navy assigned a Casualty Assistance Calls Officer (CACO), and Engelke began receiving bulletin reports about Laws’ case, No. 0294.
“First it was research in the Hanoi archives,” she said. “Then a group of Americans went to a museum in Hanoi and saw a wing from my husband’s airplane.” Also, “They saw photos that the Vietnamese salvaged from my husband’s plane.” The research progressed, leading to discovery of a crash site in Xuan Du in 1993, but nothing was available to identify a particular plane.
Investigators also interviewed people living in proximity to the crash site. A man who was 11 years old at the time of the war reported seeing “men carrying away a leg that was then buried; an arm with a watch on it that was buried,” Engelke said. Those remains turned out not to be Dick Laws’.
In a second excavation at the crash site in 1995, investigators found a piece of cranium, but it was beyond DNA identification at that point, Engelke said. However, she remained optimistic and “reports would keep coming whenever something new was discovered, either in Vietnamese archives or newspapers or interviewing people in Xuan Du,” she said.
For the forensics lab to identify remains with certainty, Engelke persuaded Laws’ mother to give a blood sample before she died, which ultimately was used.
Since investigators found additional elements of the case over time, they headed back to the crash site in 2003.
Trip to Vietnam
Human remains, aircraft remnants and some personal effects were found in the excavation, but were not identified by the 40th anniversary of Dick Laws’ death on 3 April 2006. Nonetheless, Engelke decided to pay a visit and her respects at the crash site—then appearing as an archeological dig—to find a sense of completion to her long journey.
She prepared for this trip of a lifetime by reading about Vietnamese funerary customs and collecting memory ribbons from friends, relatives, classmates, coworkers and veterans. Engelke flew to Vietnam with her daughter Cheryl Laws ’86, her grandson Carson and a suitcase filled solely with 357 memory ribbons—like ribbons that fly from regimental or unit flags, she explained.
They started with a visit to Hanoi where they prepared for what was next: a visit to the site of the upcoming three-month excavation. “It was to be the largest and longest excavation to date for the JPAC team at a very complex crash site requiring three months and 600 workers,” Engelke wrote.
Her party, accompanied by two cars of Vietnamese, set off early in the morning for a 150 kilometer drive southwest to Xuan Du, “a rural village an hour by car from the end of paved roads,” she noted. They trudged up a steep ravine to reach the designated location where they conducted a meaningful ceremony and affixed the flagpole with memory ribbons to a tree (the ground was too hard to insert the pole as initially intended).
The memory ribbons represented “a whole host of people whose lives were effected by my husband’s death; family members of mine and my husband’s and my second husband’s as well,” Engelke said, including people she didn’t even know. “I realized that his death affected others very, very much. People from all over who read about it and wanted to honor him and remember him sent ribbons of all different shapes, sizes and colors.”
After the ceremony, Engelke’s daughter Cheryl and grandson Carson walked down the hillside to the ravine to collected some dirt to bring home, which was interred with Laws’ remains in the Naval Academy Columbarium.
“A 12,000 mile journey, three years of anticipation and planning, 40 years of living on and remembering someone.
It was worth every mile, every minute,” she wrote. But still, she didn’t have answers. At that time, none of the findings confirmed that this particular crash site was that of Dick Laws.
Five years after Engelke’s trip, she attended the annual POW/ MIA Day event at the Pentagon. At the October 2011 gathering, she was told that results from DNA testing should be available in the next six to twelve months; but when October 2012 came and went and there wasn’t any news, Engelke said she “was getting a little edgy” waiting for any word.
As the holidays rolled around, Engelke headed for South Carolina to visit her son, Richard, and his family. En route on 21 December 2012 at 12:12 p.m., her cell phone rang. CACO Bill Spofford was on the other end of the phone. He was “telling me there were remains and we could plan a funeral,” she recounted.
“I floated all the way to South Carolina,” Engelke recalled. “I have been a torch bearer all this time. It is so important to me that part of him is back. I alternate between laughing with great joy and weeping.”
In early 2013, more information came. Laura Dolezal, DNA analyst for this case; Bill Spofford, with the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) in Millington, TN; and Commander Matthew Testerman ’93, CACO who works on details of arranging for repatriation and interment, visited Engelke at her home in Annapolis on 17 January 2013. The team reviewed the DNA analysis of the remains from Xuan Du and Dick’s mother’s blood sample and “they were identical, they matched perfectly,” Engelke said.
Testerman, on his first assignment as a CACO, said he wasn’t sure how Engelke would take the news. It could be a peaceful conclusion or mournful, reopening wounds, he said.
“I’m happy” to have some closure, Laws’ widow told Ed Clarke, classmate, companymate and dear friend of Dick Laws, who visited Engelke just a few days after she was delivered the news. “She’s at peace,” he said, after all this effort was put into finding some remains and closure.
Answers finally came to the many questions of a journey that began on 3 April 1966. “[Dick] flew over a military encampment” and was shot down, Engelke said. In fact, on her trip to Vietnam she said that she saw armed guards atop the ridge.
“I’m amazed,” Engelke said. “[Recovery and identification] is a very complicated process. It’s not as though we’re the only family and we’re the only ones doing it,” she acknowledged. According to the JPAC website, the organization identifies about six MIAs each month, and there are more than 1,000 active case files under investigation at any one time. Each case requires the work of many individuals.
On 7 May, Commander Testerman flew from Annapolis to Hawaii to escort Lieutenant Laws’ remains back to Annapolis by 9 May.
“I feel so graced,” Englke acknowledged. “I know that hundreds and hundreds of people, so high up in Hawaii Central Identification lab, will be thinking of Dick and me on 10 May.”
At the interment at the Naval Academy Columbarium, Engelke added Laws’ watch and comb that were found at the crash site and Cheryl Laws Ridenhour added the dirt from the ravine in Xuan Du. From a tragic end to life in Xuan Du, Vietnam, Lieutenant Dick Laws has finally been brought home to rest in peace and honor.
1973: Central Identification Laboratory, Thailand (CIL-THAI) established; focused on the Americans still missing in Southeast Asia.
1976: Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii (CILHI) established to search for, recover and identify missing Americans from all previous conflicts.
1992: Joint Task Force-Full Accounting (JTF-FA) established to focus on achieving the fullest possible accounting of Americans missing as a result of the Vietnam War.
2002: Department of Defense (DoD) determined that POW/MIA accounting efforts would be best served by combining JTF-FA and CILHI.
1 Oct. 2003: JTF-FA and CILHI joined together to form the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command.
The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command conducts global search, recovery and laboratory operations to identify unaccounted-for Americans from past conflicts in order to support the Department of Defense’s personnel accounting efforts.
Class of 1962 KIA
From Stew Lingley ‘62
Thomas Lee Carter KIA—VC Mortar—South Vietnam 10 Nov ’68 Fort Rosecrans Nat’l Cem. Plot O–919–B
Bradley Gene Cuthbert KIA—Aircraft—No. Vietnam—BNR 23 Nov ’68 BNR—Honored at USNA Columbarium
Barry Ronal Delphin KIA—F100 Aircraft—South Vietnam 20 Mar ’67 Dunedin Cemetery—Pinellas County Florida
Charles Wigger Fryer KIA—Aircraft—Vietnam—BNR 7 Aug ’66 BNR—Honored at USNA Columbarium
Lucius Lamar Heiskell KIA—Aircraft—No. Vietnam—BNR 6 Feb ’67 BNR—Honored at USNA Columbarium
Charles Allen Knochel KIA—Aircraft—No Vietnam—BNR 22 Sep ’66 BNR—Honored at USNA Columbarium
John Allan LaVoo KIA—Aircraft—S.E. Asia 19 Sep ’68 Arlington National Cemetery 60-7829
Richard Lee Laws KIA—Aircraft—No. Vietnam 3 Apr ’66 USNA Columbarium
Charles Richard Lee KIA—Aircraft—No. Vietnam 9 Jul ’67 Miramar National Cemetery
Michael Thomas Newell KIA—VF-194 Aircraft—No. Vietnam 14 Dec ’66 Arlington National Cemetery 64-5006
Cyrus Swan Roberts IV KIA—Aircraft—S.E. Asia 6 Mar ’66 Arlington National Cemetery 2-3749A
Clarence Orfield Tolbert KIA—Aircraft—No. Vietnam 6 Nov ’72 Troy Cemetery—Troy, OK
As published in the May-June 2013 issue of Shipmate.