Fallen Warrior Finally Laid to Rest at Arlington
Kevin Hocevar and his sister Shawn Johnstone were 6 weeks old when their father's airplane crashed into the jungles of Laos.
It was Nov. 19, 1966, and even though the site was known and the wingman who witnessed the crash went back to Laos years later to make sure government investigators were in the right place, it was 46 years later -- this past summer -- before the remains of U.S. Army Capt. James M. Johnstone and his co-pilot, Maj. James Whited, were recovered.
Johnstone was buried earlier this month at Arlington National Cemetery.
"We treated it as a celebration, a coming-home ceremony," said Hocevar, a former Lewiston resident who took his stepfather's name. He and his wife, the former Tracey Wilkins of Lewiston, and their two children live at Boise, where he is a federal probation officer.
Identification was made with a 46-year-old American Express card recently turned in by a Laotian villager, a piece of a military identification card and two molars, one from each of the two men. Remnants of personal gear that was in the aircraft because the men were going to stay overnight in Thailand also was found, Hocevar said.
When the crash occurred, Johnstone had been in Vietnam for several months; it was Whited's first flight to orient him to the countryside.
Hocevar grew up knowing what had happened, and as an adult was kept in the loop as the search continued. Then about 18 months ago, the wingman, the pilot of the plane flying above and behind his father's OV-1A Mohawk, found him and invited him to a reunion in Las Vegas. He met some of his father's squadron mates, he said. "We stay in contact."
The wingman, John Pfeiffer, now of Allegany, N.Y., said they were flying low-level reconnaissance over the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It was daylight and Johnstone and Whited were looking for enemy equipment or troops. Pfeiffer and his co-pilot's job was to hang back and provide cover if needed.
Pfeiffer said they were clearing a ridge when Johnstone's plane went nose down into the ground and exploded. There was no Mayday call, no ejection, just a fireball rolling upward.
Pfeiffer said he believed the cockpit of the plane took a direct hit.
The official report said they clipped a tree, Hocevar said, but Pfeiffer said no. His father had been wounded a couple months earlier in the neck, and it was routine for the planes to be hit.
They called for Air Force rescue helicopters. They could see the burning aircraft on the ground, along with smoke, fire and enemy activity around the scene -- and at one time possibly a body.
"(Pfeiffer) wrote Mom, to assure her that there was no doubt that he died there that day," Hocevar said. He didn't want her to live thinking that he might someday walk through the door.
"My grandmother (Johnstone's mother) was convinced that at some point he might come home, and without confirmation, she was always hopeful," Hocevar said, even though the official record listed him as missing in action, presumed killed in action.
His mother remarried a Marine Corps pilot, who made sure Hocevar and his sister stayed in touch with his birth father's family in South Carolina. They moved around a lot until the elder Hocevar retired in 1977 and they moved to Coeur d'Alene. His mother, now Jan O'Halloran, lives in Hayden.
He went to college for a year out of high school, then followed his stepfather into the Marines. "I realized I had some growing up to do."
After his discharge, he enrolled in the criminal justice program at Lewis-Clark State College.
There was never any pressure for him to follow both his fathers into the military, Hocevar said, but for him it was the right thing to do.
At Arlington earlier this month, he thought about his mother and uncle. His mother was living with her family and the two infants in Great Falls, Mont. "They're the ones who had to carry it, the being notified by the green sedan that comes up to your house in '66. Obviously, it affected me. I was inquisitive, wanting some finality when it might come."
The memorial service was not just closure, he said. "There's a lot of principle involved. Our country is dedicated to finding these people who weren't recovered."
It's a debt owed, Hocevar said, to do everything they can to bring everyone home.