HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. -- An air commando who died when his C-123 Provider flare ship was shot down over Ahn Khe, Vietnam, was laid to rest Oct. 26 at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery, Texas.
The 310th Air Commando Squadron loadmaster, Airman 1st Class Jerry Mack Wall, 24, was killed when his plane was hit by enemy fire and crashed into the central highlands, May 18, 1966. Until recently Wall, who was one of five crew members, was listed as Missing in Action.
In an intense recovery operation, three of the other Airmen's remains were recovered shortly after the crash by soldiers of the 7th Cavalry Regiment. The flight engineer, Bill Moore, remains missing.
"I thought there was a possibility Jerry and Bill were still alive," said retired Senior Master Sgt. Gary Thomas, a volunteer with Wall's unit. "That situation stuck with me for my whole life."
That situation involved a small, tight-knit group of aircrew volunteers from various backgrounds. Thomas, a first sergeant with the 14th Munitions and Maintenance Squadron, spent a few months with Wall. Wall trained Thomas and several others as "flare kickers" loading the 200 or so, 27 pound flares.
"Jerry was so cool and calm, he was one heck of a guy," Thomas said. "He had already been into battle and was highly trained. When I first trained with him, it really shocked me to go into battle, and when he started going over how those flares could blow up and kill us... There's a lot of heroism in the 310th Air Commandos."
The night of the fateful crash, Thomas was scheduled to fly, but was sidelined due to an ear infection. The lead scheduler, Master Sgt. Raymond C. Jajtner took his place.
Thomas said everyone knew the danger of flying those missions, loaded with highly flammable magnesium flares. Wall's flight was hit with a 40mm round according to witness statements.
"When you're in combat and when you make friends, even if it's for a very short time, it's a real brotherhood," Thomas said. "It never goes away."
Air Commandos provided combat air patrol and airlift to the soldiers, delivering ammo, food, supplies and troops. They also flew out wounded and killed in action GI's, as well as prisoners, but one of the most harrowing jobs was the "candlestick" mission. During those missions, loadmasters and flare kickers would load, unload and drop hundreds of flares from the skies over southern Vietnam, illuminating the enemy.
"It was a firefight, the Viet Cong loved to attack," he said. "We had B-52s dropping bombs right outside our wings, ground artillery coming up, everybody is unloading. It got to be like the 4th of July, but of course you were scared."
According to the Defense Prisoner of War and Missing Personnel Office, since 1973, the remains of more than 900 Americans killed in the Vietnam War have been identified and returned to their families for burial with full military honors.
Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command conducted an investigation mission in June 2007 and identified a site that was recommended for recovery. In March 2011 and March 2012 JPAC conducted recovery operations at the site and recovered human remains and material evidence at the site, according to the press release.
For more than a decade the United States has conducted joint field activities with the governments of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia to recover the remains of missing Americans, according to their website. Throughout those countries, teams continue to investigate crash and burial sites, as well as interview locals to gain additional knowledge. Today, more than 1,600 Americans remain unaccounted for from the conflict.
"I'm so very proud of my nation that persevered for so long in searching for my father's remains," said Lea Ann Wall McCann. "It's been a long journey home."
Thomas and several of Wall's family members greeted the flag draped casket when it arrived to San Antonio Oct. 24, aboard American Airlines Flight 497. Passengers on the plane watched from their windows as the fire department honored the flight with a water cannon salute and as the Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland Honor Guard carried Wall's remains to an awaiting hearse.
"Everyone involved in making this happen has been wonderful to our family, from the sergeant who escorted his body to San Antonio, to the VA and the VFW, to the color guard," Wall McCaan said.