Family Of Muskogee Airman Gets Closure, 42 Years After His Death

Thursday, June 17th 2010, 12:23 pm
By: News On 6

By Richard Clark,

ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY, VA -- The grandson of a Muskogee Air Force officer who disappeared during the Vietnam War says he's elated that his grandfather's remains have finally been repatriated.

On May 22nd, 1968, Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Chambers and eight other Air Force crewmen disappeared while flying a mission in a C-130A aircraft over northern Salavan Province, Laos.

The C-130 was on a mission to drop flares over parts of Laos to mark or illuminate targets on the ground so attack planes could take them out.  The Air Force called them Blind Bat missions and this particular flight was called Blind Bat 01.

According to Chambers' grandson, Lt. Colonel Chambers was a senior navigator in the Air Force, and was on the flight as an observer preparing for a new assignment.

Chris Chambers, who works for the Department of Justice in California, was born eight years after his grandfather's death.  But he knows a lot about his grandfather and the mission Lt. Colonel Chambers was flying that night.

"My grandfather was a Forward Air Controller or FAC for the Air Force assigned to the 23rd TASS," Chris Chambers said.  "His job was coordinating air resources from the air for air strikes, ground support, and rescue operations. On this particular flight however, he was an observer gaining familiarity with a new assignment."

The Pentagon was not sure what happened to Blind Bat 01 that night in 1968, but 15 minutes after the aircraft made a radio call, the crew of another U.S. aircraft observed a large ground fire near the last known location of the plane.  The Pentagon said a search and rescue mission was not attempted due to heavy antiaircraft fire in the area.

Last week, the remains of the crew of Blind Bat 01 were laid to rest with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery, and Chris Chambers was there.

Chambers said it was actually the third ceremony in honor of the crew.  The first took place in 1978 when the men were declared dead.  The second happened last year.  He said the family first heard that remains of the crew had been found in May of 2009, just days from the 41st anniversary of the loss of Blind Bat 01.

The Pentagon was finally able to repatriate the crew's remains, 42 years after it was lost, thanks to dogged detective work.  Its team used interviews with eyewitnesses and research in the National Archives to pinpoint several locations in Laos and South Vietnam as potential crash sites.

According to a statement from the Department of Defense, "Between 1989 and 2008, teams from Laos and Vietnam, led by the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, pursued leads, interviewed villagers, and conducted 10 field investigations and four excavations in Quang Tri Province, Vietnam. They recovered aircraft wreckage, human remains, crew-related equipment and personal effects."

"Scientists from JPAC and the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory also used mitochondrial DNA – which matched that of the crewmembers' families – as well as dental comparisons in the identification of the remains."

Chris Chambers said his grandfather had two children, daughter Sheri and son Michael (Chris' father, who passed away in 1978).

Chris said his grandmother, Jerry's wife, remarried and lives near Tucson, Arizona. This has been trying for her, he said, but she's thankful for the closure.

Chris' aunt Sheri, Jerry's daughter, now lives in Folsom, California.  "I know it was especially trying on my aunt who was young at the time of his going missing.  She recalled in the ceremony memories of the time and that she had just received a letter from him prior to hearing of the shoot down. I think that perhaps this brought more closure for her than anyone."

Chris Chambers and members of his family attended the ceremony last week.  He was impressed by the treatment they received.

"Everyone from the Air Force to the folks at the civilian airports showed great care and respect as we made our way back to Arlington. Delta Airlines in Atlanta even brought out their own honor guard to show tribute.  This was very nice to see and I for one will never forget these folks." 

Chris Chambers said his grandfather moved his family to California for one of his postings and the family stayed there after his death.  He still has relatives living in Oklahoma.

"As a family there were of course a lot of mixed emotions, sadness, yet relief that my grandfather and other members of the crew finally were brought home." 

The complete crew of Blind Bat 01:

Col. William H. Mason, Camden, Arkansas
Lt. Col. Jerry L. Chambers, Muskogee, Oklahoma
Maj. William T. McPhail, Chattanooga, Tennessee
Maj. Thomas B. Mitchell, Littleton, Colorado
Chief Master Sgt. John Q. Adam, Bethel, Kansas
Chief Master Sgt. Calvin C. Glover, Steubenville, Ohio
Chief Master Sgt. Thomas E. Knebel, Midway, Arkansas
Chief Master Sgt. Melvin D. Rash, Yorktown, Virginia
Master Sgt. Gary Pate, Brooks, Georgia