WASHINGTON -- The remains of two Airmen who died when their F-4D Phantom II was shot over Laos in 1969 were returned and honored at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors Oct. 19.
Col. Wendell Keller, of Fargo, N.D., and Capt. Virgil K. Meroney III, of Fayetteville, Ark., were killed when their aircraft was hit by enemy fire March 1, 1969, and went down while carrying out a nighttime strike mission in the Khammouan province, Laos.
Their remains were buried in a single casket representing the crew.
Michael Keller, son of Wendell, recounted his father's story during an interview with Inforum.com.
He described how Keller and his copilot, Meroney, prowled the night sky above Laos in their F-4D Phantom jet, on the lookout for North Vietnamese forces stealthily making their way along the Ho Chi Minh Trail far below when muzzle flashes revealed the location of anti-aircraft guns.
Although nearly out of ammunition after sustained strikes on enemy positions, Keller spent his last moments protecting his wingman.
While radioing his intentions to a spotter plane that helped direct his attacks, Keller pointed his plane into a dive and sent his final volley of rockets at the enemy. Members of Keller's squad in the spotter plane watched enemy tracer bullets stream skyward from the ground.
They reported seeing small blooms of fire erupt on the ground as Keller's rockets hit their mark.
Then, moments later, the flashes were dwarfed by a much larger explosion nearby when Keller's aircraft hit the ground.
Michael Keller, who was 4 years old in 1969, knows the story well, having collected declassified data on the mission and accounts of the incident published in military magazines.
"I pretty much knew he had been killed in action, and I just thought that, after all these years, they'd never find anything," Keller said.
But in 2010, more than 40 years after his father's plane went down, a search team traveled to Laos to take a closer look at a spot that had been identified many years before as a crash site.
From 1994 to 2011, joint U.S. - Lao People's Democratic Republic teams, led by Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, conducted several investigations and excavations of the crash site in Khammouan province. The teams located human remains, military equipment, a military identification card and the wreckage of an F-4, including an engine data plate and radio call-sign plate. During the 17 years of investigations, analysts evaluated the material evidence and the accounts of more than 40 eyewitnesses to confirm the information correlated with the crew's lost location.
To identify the remains, scientists from JPAC used circumstantial evidence and forensic identification tools, including dental comparisons and radiograph comparisons.
Today, 1,655 Americans remain unaccounted for from the Vietnam War. The U.S. government continues to work closely with the governments of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia to recover Americans lost during the Vietnam War.