What happened is a mystery that remains unsolved, but the families of those lost say what matters most now is making sure their loved ones are never forgotten.
Jennifer Kirk’s uncle Specialist 4 Donald A. Sargent was among those on the plane. Sargent had enlisted just out of high school.
“He had just turned 22 on January 13th of that year,” Kirk said. “He decided he was going to join the Army and see if he could venture out and get something good for his life.”
Sargent was one of four siblings, two girls and two boys.
“He got chosen by John F. Kennedy to be on this special team, elite team,” Kirk said.
On the day he left, the family remembers that Sargent struggled to say goodbye.
“He’d come back up and he said, ‘I just need one more hug. I just need one more hug and then I can go,’ so he would start down. And then he came back for the third time and just gave the biggest longest hug and just said, ‘I gotta go. I don’t know when I’ll be back,’” Kirk said.
On March 16, 1962, there were 93 United States Army soldiers, a civilian crew of 11, and 3 South Vietnamese soldiers on board Flying Tiger Line Flight 739 on a secret reconnaissance mission to Vietnam.
They disappeared without a trace over the Pacific.
“The cab driver just handed him this telegram, and it said, you know, ‘We regret to inform you . . . ’” Kirk said.
They are the words military families fear most.
For Sargent’s mother, it was simply too much.
“She never accepted it, and so for the full time from that moment until she passed, she always swore that he was coming home like there was no doubt in her mind,” Kirk said.
When Sargent’s trunk of belongings was returned to his family, his mother refused to let anyone open it.
“Because he was going to open it when he came home. And so that’s how life was after he disappeared. There wasn’t really a grieving process,” Kirk said.
Because of the nature of the mission, the families were left with few answers and even fewer honors.
“There was no military funeral,” Kirk said. “There was no folded flag given to the family.”
When the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was built, the families hoped their soldiers would finally be recognized for their service But once again, their hopes were dashed.
“They sent back a message saying that he wasn’t eligible to be on the wall because he didn’t die in combat in Vietnam,” Kirk said. “It was really hard on the family. Not having him anywhere. They just felt like you know the government was having them forgotten, that he didn’t exist.”
The families have joined together to lobby to have their loved ones included.
If passed, it would add the names of the soldiers on Flying Tiger Line Flight 739 to the Vietnam War Memorial.
“These were individuals who were going into harm’s way to fight for their country,” said Peters. “They were lost on their way to that fight but were still part of the conflict. Had it not been for the conflict, they would not have been on that airplane. They need to be recognized as folks who, who gave their lives and service to their country.”
It’s an honor long overdue says Kirk.
“It would mean everything to these families to get them on the wall, Vietnam Wall. It proves that they did live in the eyes of the government,” Kirk said. “They won’t ever be forgotten being on that wall. Millions of people pass through that wall yearly, thousands daily, and his name and their names would be said.”
The Senate bill is currently sitting in the Committee for Energy and Natural Resources. It is co-sponsored by Senators Stabenow, Blackburn, Shaheen, Hyde-Smith, and Wicker, but needs more support to move forward Previous exceptions have been made to add other names to the wall. The families are urging everyone to voice their support for the bill to their senators.
“Trying to add names, is, has proven to be more difficult than I think any of us would have liked it to be, but we’re not going to give up, give up the fight,” said Peters. “We’re going to do everything we can to make sure that those individuals who gave the ultimate sacrifice are recognized for that sacrifice.”
In 2019, Kirk and her family, including her father, went to Washington to meet with others who lost loved ones on the flight.
“That’s the first time that my dad actually spoke in my lifetime about his brother,” Kirk said. “My dad, when we left Washington, he stood a little taller and walked a little prouder. And from that moment on, has been able to have discussion about his brother and what it was like and how he felt.”
It was significant for another reason too.
“That’s when he decided he was going to open the trunk,” Kirk said.
They were hoping for documents, perhaps some clue to the nature of the mission.
“Of course, there were no documents in there, but it did have his uniform in pristine condition, not a moth hole in it, a 1950s tuxedo, his military jacket, and it did have a little notepad in the pocket but it didn’t have any writing in it,” Kirk said.
On the 60th anniversary of the plane’s disappearance last month, families gathered at a memorial in Maine, erected by Morrill Worcester, founder of the non-profit Wreaths Across America.
The inscription on the monument reads: “Missing in action; Presumed dead. Flying Tiger Line Flight 739 went missing on March 16, 1962, with 93 U.S. Army soldiers on board. These men and their flight crew perished in what would become one of the biggest aviation mysteries out of the Vietnam War era.”
It’s a special place for the families, but they’re determined to see their larger mission through.
“I think every person that you know signed their name to go and protect the United States of America should be on that wall. Someday. I’m hoping so,” Kirk said.