The Traveling Wall in Surprise, AZ Photo Credit Terry Bartels
CDR Richard Buell, USN
National POW/MIA Recognition Day
DLA, Columbus, Ohio
September 15, 2017
Thank you Jiwon, and as she mentioned, I am fortunate and blessed to return to work at DLA Land and Maritime. I have attended and observed many of these ceremonies throughout my career and in this building and have always left satisfied and moved. As a rule, I have always declined an active role in these ceremonies, because I feel strongly that as one who serves, the spotlight should not be on me, but on the families as a whole who share losses like mine. I have tried to keep my naval career separate from my father’s career.
*Brief personal story about meeting VADM Stockdale 16 October 1987 w/ my mother Mary Buell
Because I have set a new course towards retirement in May of next year, I am willing to waive my personal convictions to keep my career distinctly separate from my father’s legacy. I ask for your patience as I work to find the right words and to speak about something that is important, but difficult to talk about for me. But as they say, nothing worthwhile is ever easy, and as with service to this great nation, we should always be “all in.”
So, greetings to all and my sincere thanks for joining together on this National Day of Recognition for our POW/MIAs. As the son of an MIA, I have used this ceremony every year as a vehicle to provide myself an opportunity, much like yourselves, to pause and reflect on the sacrifices of our service men and women and their families who suffered great pain until their release was won or their remains were returned to American soil. In either case, it is the knowledge that fellow citizens like yourselves, here in the audience, have not forgotten about them that provides the inspiration needed for a POW and the family of an MIA to persevere.
As you saw in the video, DPAA manages the records for all American servicemen and women still missing and otherwise unaccounted for since World War II. According to their website, that count is 82,477. For the Vietnam War in particular, the number of missing is currently at 1,602, down from 2,646 at the end of the conflict. Every one of those 1,602 has a family and story worth telling. My dad is one of those 1,602. I genuinely appreciate the opportunity to speak about him today as it serves to keep his memory alive, while shining a beacon of light on the other families of MIAs who have their own stories to share.
My father, LCDR Kenneth Richard Buell, was lost 45 years ago the day after tomorrow, on September 17th 1972. He was flying right seat serving as Bombardier Navigator on board an A-6 Intruder, launched on a night time attack mission from the USS AMERICA (CVA 66) over North Vietnam. He was 33 years old. I was five, my sister, Susan, was 8 and my mother, Mary, who never re-married, was 28. That day changed my family forever. But I would offer to you that where there can be despair, you can always find hope. Hope, for me, that is kindled by the knowledge that this nation will never rest until everyone who was taken prisoner or went missing while fighting for their country, will be accounted for.
Forty Five years is a long time to not know what happened to your loved one, but as you heard in the DPAA video, there are families that have waited longer than ours. I would be lying to you if I said I have not experienced feelings of despair or frustration or anger or some combination of emotions that cannot be put into words here, as we wait for any news of his return. However, I chose and continue to choose to be optimistic about my family’s circumstances. I choose hope. I would argue I am stronger because of the challenges that life put in my path. My spirit and resolve is strengthened because I have witnessed far too many fine service members and fellow citizens, like yourselves, that share my concerns and stand the watch with me until the day comes that they are all returned.
As mentioned earlier, the DPAA, in concert with the Naval Personnel Command, Navy POW/MIA Branch, maintain a record for my father, as they do with all MIAs, which is filed as case number 1924. As the record shows:
“On September 17, 1972, an A-6 Intruder (call sign: Ray Gun 504) with a crew of two embarked on a solo nighttime armed reconnaissance mission over northern Vietnam. Final radio contact with the pilot, CDR Verne G. Donnelly, the skipper of Attack Squadron 35, occurred at 0150 hrs as he approached North Vietnamese air space. [This milestone is routinely reported by aircrews as they transition from “feet wet” when they launch from a carrier in the Gulf of Tonkin, to “feet dry” when they are over land in enemy territory]. Seven minutes later another aircraft operating at a higher altitude in the area, reported seeing an orange explosion on the route the A-6 should have been following. A search and rescue effort was launched but had no success.”
Other redacted reports released many years later provided a little more detail indicating that they “launched on a combat mission over the vicinity of Hai Duong, North Vietnam. As the aircraft was about eight miles west of that city, it went down, and both crew men were declared Missing in Action. No remains were recovered.”
I want to stop here with the chronological sequence of events and paint a picture for you that may be hard to hear, but when an aircraft is flying low and fast at night, fully loaded with 500 pound bombs, evading enemy fire as they race towards their target, later released to be an electrical power plant, bad things happen. Whether they were blown out of the sky or juked into a mountain while evading incoming fire, we will never know. Because of some personal experiences everyone in my family had after that day, I can tell you we all knew or had an intuition that he was gone that night.
The case goes cold here for the better part of 20 years. About six and a half years after his loss, we received a letter from the Department of the Navy, Naval Personnel Command, in March of 1978, expressing their deepest condolences for our loss on behalf of a grateful nation. Along with the letter was a Report of Casualty document, DD Form 1300, that changed his status from Missing in Action to presumed Killed in Action (KIA). “Presumption of death was made in accordance with the Missing Persons Act, 37 USCA 555.” I did not know it at the time, but this was the moment we became a gold star family.
Although the Navy offered, my mother understandably chose not to have a ceremony to receive the package of medals, certificates and other documents affiliated with the declaration of death. I remember the day we pulled up to a U.S. government building near our home in California. Mom went inside as I waited with my sister, Susan, in the car. She returned with a set of his medals they had mounted for us.
The decorations included the Purple Heart, the Air Defense Medal with a strike/flight device numeral 4, National Defense Service Medal, Antarctica Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal and an Expert Pistol Shot Medal. She has them displayed prominently in her home today.
The rest of the story is recorded in my father’s case file 1924. I would be remiss not to mention that all the MIA families would know very little about their loved ones if not for the relentless efforts of the National League of POW/MIA Families to keep our nation’s leaders focused on this worthy cause. A cause that can often fall out political favor and experience funding shortfalls or other damaging shifting priorities experienced at the DPAA.
Following the restoration of diplomatic ties with Vietnam in the early 1990s, teams from the Joint Task Force Full Accounting began travelling to Vietnam, following leads and interviewing possible eyewitnesses to the incident. The family case summary document they maintain for my father is five pages long today.
Because of their efforts on behalf our government, the efforts of my grandparents Buell who never stopped pushing for answers working closely with Liz Flick here, the un-waivering pursuit for action and closure by my family, and the support of the National League of POW/MIA families, we know a lot more today than we did 45 years ago. I will save the summary of my father’s case file for the end of my remarks, but first, allow me the privilege of briefly telling the story of my father’s naval career, in the spirit of keeping his memory alive and in keeping with the tenants of this National Day of Recognition.
Ken Buell was born in Louisville, KY in August of 1939 [he would have been 78 years old this year]. He was the only child born to my late grandparents Louis and Elizabeth Buell. After things didn’t work out at Purdue University, he joined the Navy as an enlisted sailor going to boot camp in Great Lakes, IL in 1959. As the story goes, he was asked if he wanted to take some achievement tests by his company commander. He concluded it would get him out of marching and shoveling snow so he agreed. A few months later, he learned that he was offered an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy and he joined the class of 1963.
These were the best days of my dad's life. He loved being a midshipman. It was also the period in time when he met my mother on a blind date during his Youngster Cruise during Fleet Week in NYC. As my mother tells me, it was love at first sight. He was commissioned and married in June 1963. Following a cross-country road trip honeymoon, he reported for Pensacola and transitioned into Naval Flight Officer training, receiving his wings at Corpus Christi, Texas.
His first duty station was with the Airborne Early Warning Squadron (AEWRON) Thirteen (VW-13), navigating the Lockheed Warning Star aircraft. They flew missile detection missions around the Arctic Circle out of Argentia, Newfoundland. This was an accompanied tour and my mother who joined him there joked that anything bigger than a couple feet off the ground in Newfoundland was man made. Many other “Newfie” jokes exist but I will spare you. My only sibling, Susan, arrived during this tour in May of 1964.
With the advent of satellite surveillance technology, he was reassigned as navigator to the Navy’s Antarctic Experimental Patrol Squadron, called the Ice Pirates or AIRDEVRON SIX (VX-6) located at Quontset Point Naval Air Station, Rhode Island. They were less formally and affectionately referred to as the “Puckered Penguins” and fell under Operation Deep Freeze, Task Force 43, flying the ice-rigged C-130s.
He wintered over in Antarctica and spoke about enjoying his time hanging out in his orange exposure suit with the Emperor penguins. My mother tells a story of his return from Antarctica when she cooked him his favorite meal...a steak dinner. She did not know that steak was the staple daily entree in a place that had a meat freezer that needed no electricity. Needless to say he did not care for the offering along with some other words that I will not share now. It was during this tour that I arrived in March of 1967.
His next and final assignment was with attack squadron 35 (VA-35). Dubbed the black panthers, they were stationed at NAS Oceana Virginia. I remember him being gone for periods of time while training in preparation for a deployment scheduled for the Mediterranean in the spring of 1972. We had plans to meet up with him when his ship, USS AMERICA, was scheduled to pull into Athens, Greece. As history records, those plans changed. The aircraft carrier was diverted to the Gulf of Tonkin along with several other aircraft carriers to bolster bombing missions while negotiations for peace continued without agreement.
I do not have many memories of my father. I was Kindergartener when the Casualty Assistance Calls Officers knocked on our door in Virginia Beach to break the news that he was missing. Believe it or not, I remember that period of my life as being happy for the most part. I have some vague memories of watching him work in the garage on our white ‘65 fastback Mustang and our metallic green ‘66 Mercury Cougar. I remember him being gone a lot, but he always came home.
The day of his departure on what would be his final deployment was especially memorable for me. I remember watching him say goodbye to my Mother from the back seat of our car parked on the pier next to the USS AMERICA in Norfolk, VA. Something was different about the tone of the conversation and the way he looked at us...the way he held on a little longer than usual when we said goodbye...I remember watching him walk across the pier with his sea bag and as he crossed to step up on the gangway he shielded his face with his arm.
My mother later told me that she and my father both seemed to know that because of world events and the nature of A-6 attack missions, that this deployment felt particularly ominous. She said they struggled with words before he left as apparently dad too felt this may not end well for him.
But he went.
While many protested the war, he left his family that day to do his job. He chose to serve in a time of war. I have no words for the respect I have for his choice to deploy to war that day.
I believe now that my life was blessed. Unlike my dad, I had the opportunity to watch my children grow up. [They are not here today because they are both in college and working]. This lesson, along with a call to serve, was one of many gifts my father gave to myself and my family.
So now the rest of the story. On 05 Feb 1991, the U.S. announced that remains returned by the Vietnamese had been positively identified as those of CDR Verne G. Donnelly, the pilot on that mission with my dad. Those remains were later buried at Ft. Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego, CA.
Obviously, this left more questions than answers for my family. Since then, nearly a dozen different Joint Field Activity (JFA) Teams have travelled to Vietnam between 1994 and 2012 searching for the crash site of their plane. None of these trips were easy. None of these trips were inexpensive. Vietnam is the most expensive area for teams to operate due to the diplomatic hurdles, clearances and associated costs to work there.
According to my father’s case file, in November 2012, a JFA recovery team was sent to Vietnam to dig on a mountainside near the Cam Ly village, Luc Nam district, Bac Giang province. The recovery team’s trip was the culmination of 10 other JFA Team trips to Vietnam, pursuing leads and often running into dead ends. The team excavated 585 square meters encompassing what was determined to be the crash debris site associated with case 1924. The crash site was adjacent to the area where CDR Donnelly’s remains were reported to be buried in a shallow grave on the night of their crash. I will spare you the gruesome details of those eyewitness accounts recorded in his file.
The recovery team worked on the crash site from 1-20 November 2012 and reported the recovery of a few pieces of aircraft wreckage, closed the site, and recommended no further excavation.
The case has gone cold, but there is still hope.
There is the possibility that the human remains identified to be CDR Donnelly and buried in San Diego, were co-mingled with some of my father’s remains. Before their passing, I was able to collect a sample of his mother’s MtDNA along with DNA samples now on file from myself, my sister and my mother. I recently formally requested the disinterment of those remains to have them re-evaluated by DPAA. An identification is now possible using the DNA technology that was not available when the identification of CDR Donnelly’s remains was made in 1991.
As of today, Ken Buell is still classified as one of the 1,602 Americans listed as MIA, body not recovered. You can find him memorialized on the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington D.C. along with a placard hung on the wall of Bancroft Hall at the U.S. Naval Academy by the class of 1963.
I still attend National League of POW MIA Family annual update meetings to network with similar families and obtain the latest news about my father’s case.
There is still no grave for my father, but we have a nation that spends its energy and resources to never forget those left behind. They were never forgotten by my family and god willing they will all someday come home. I still have hope that case 1924 will conclude with the positive identification of my father’s remains. We will have the closure we need as a family and another MIA will be accounted for. I thank you again for allowing me to share my story. May God continue to bless America, and as my Mom taught me to say, “Go Navy! Beat Army!”
I’ve been working on the dedication and information page for my upcoming release, What Lies Beyond the Fence. Bronson works closely with a teen named Roger Cobb Hallberg. Together, along with another teen, Norma Orr Karsteter, they go on a great adventure that will save a lot of people’s lives. I had fun writing this book, but all of this time, the name Roger Cobb Hallberg kept tagging at the back of my mind. You see, Roger is a real life hero. Back in 1967 he made a sacrifice so that you and I can keep enjoying our freedom and our way of life. Roger is a MIA (Missing in Action.) His sister, Anne Hallberg Holt won the drawing held by the National League of Families of the POW/MIA’s to have a character named after a loved one in one of my books. As a result, I never thought much about how the families of the MIA’s and POW’s suffer–an ongoing pain that only grows as time marches. Now I’m a bit more aware and it’s with great honor and humility that I dedicate this book to Roger Cobb Hallberg and all of the other MIA’s and their loved ones. Thank you for your service and your sacrifice. May God be with you all.
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