Pilot's family finds closure

Steamboat men to bury father's remains 30 years after he was shot down in Vietnam

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Tom Dunlop was 12 years old when he waved goodbye to his father from a Hawaii military base. Thirty-three years later, he finally knows what happened to his dad in the skies over Vietnam.

It was November 1971 when the USS Coral Sea pushed out of port and headed to Southeast Asia. For Navy Cmdr. Thomas Earl Dunlop, a 41-year-old decorated war pilot, the tour would be his fifth in Vietnam.

Cmdr. Dunlop's four children had grown accustomed to their father's regular trips into combat. They also had grown accustomed to their father eventually returning home.

"When he came home, it was like Christmas," said Tom, a longtime Steamboat Springs resident and Moffat County social worker. "He'd bring back all these great toys and gadgets" from stops in the Philippines, Japan and elsewhere.

"Unfortunately, it never lasted long."

But with each new deployment came the anticipation of another happy homecoming.

"I always thought my dad was indestructible," Tom said.

Then, one day in the spring of 1972, a 13-year-old Dunlop came face to face with the cold reality of war.

"I got home from school, and my mom met me at the door," he said. "She was upset and said, 'I have some bad news.' Inside our home were a Navy chaplain and a captain who said he'd been shot down.

"My first instinct was that he's still alive. But they were real clear -- there was no parachute seen. They did their best to convince me he was dead."

Back in California, Tom's older brother, Dave, was in his college apartment when he answered a knock on the door. It was a casualty assistance call officer, or CACO.

"I felt like the rug had been pulled out from under me," said Dave, also a longtime Steamboat

resident.

Five tours of duty in Vietnam proved one too many for Cmdr. Dunlop. On April 6, 1972, the A-7E Corsair II jet he was piloting was struck by a surface-to-air missile during an armed reconnaissance mission over North Vietnam. Dunlop's wingman didn't see him eject and didn't hear any radio transmissions from him. As he evaded additional enemy fire, the wingman observed the flaming wreckage of Dunlop's A-7E fall to the ground.

Heavy enemy presence prevented the military from returning to the area to search for Cmdr. Dunlop and his destroyed plane. One year after the incident, his missing in action status was revised to "presumed dead."

Building relationships

News of the incident hit the family hard. Death was part of growing up in the military, but it always seemed to happen to somebody else.

"It was the reality of the time," Tom said. "You'd see the moving van come and move the family off the base."

"When you see other families losing people, it makes it a real possibility that you could lose someone," Dave said. "But like most kids, you don't think it will happen to you."

Even before their father was shot down over Vietnam, the military life had taken its toll on the Dunlop family.

"My mom had a huge job to raise four kids on her own without much support from him," Tom said.

And moving up the chain of command was important to Cmdr. Dunlop.

"That was his lifestyle," Tom said. "He really loved to fly, and he loved the military. His last assignment was something I think he really aspired to."

But military life eventually proved too much for Tom and Dave's mom, and the couple separated in the late-1960s. Tom went to live with his dad in Miramar, Calif., shortly after the divorce.

"We got really close," he said. "It was the only time I really had him to myself. He was a good man. I think the time I spent with him made me a better man."

Dave also had a chance to get closer to his father shortly before his fifth and final Vietnam tour. He remembers being 17 years old, playing cards with his dad and talking about flying.

"When he first got the A-7, he said it was pretty thrilling to get in a jet where you could point it straight up, hit the throttle and not stall out until you ran out of oxygen," Dave recalled. "The last few months we were together, we became a lot closer."

Lingering questions

The years that followed news of the incident did little to provide closure for the family. With no body and no plane wreckage ever recovered, questions lingered about what really happened to their dad and hero.

"There was always a question mark," Tom said. He sometimes wondered whether his dad was alive and happy, living a new life in Vietnam or elsewhere. "Every conclusion that you could possibly come up with was there."

Like his siblings and others related to Cmdr. Dunlop, Tom always wanted resolution to his father's fate. But year after year, decade after decade, that resolution never came, and his questions were never answered.

Tom and Dave eventually started families of their own and settled into life in Steamboat, a place they think their father would have liked. They never imagined they'd get answers to their father's disappearance.

"I was under the impression that they had just dropped the case," Dave said.

But unbeknownst even to Cmdr. Dunlop's children, the Department of Defense hadn't dropped the case. In fact, beginning in the early 1990s, a team of investigators was making annual trips to Vietnam to solve Case No. 1816.

The search team

Established in 1993, the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office, or DPMO, leads investigations into every unaccounted for American serviceman and servicewoman since World War II. More than 600 people, including forensic scientists, anthropologists, genealogists and intelligence officers, are part of the investigation efforts that search the globe for evidence that could lead to the discovery of a missing serviceman or woman. The country spends $104 million annually toward those ends.

"The serviceman or woman volunteered to sacrifice their lives to defend this country or carry out its directives," said Larry Greer of the DPMO. "What we're doing today is carrying out an obligation we have to them and their families to bring them home with dignity and honor."

Each investigation is like a detective case, Greer said.

But unlike TV shows such as "CSI," these cases aren't solved overnight.

U.S. government officials weren't allowed into Vietnam until the mid-1980s, and it wasn't until the early 1990s that government teams were allowed to conduct more thorough investigations throughout the country. During the past two decades, the DPMO has recovered and identified the remains of 747 American servicemen and women who died in Vietnam. More than 1,800 still are missing.

Uncovering evidence

The investigation into the fate of Cmdr. Dunlop picked up in 1990, when an unidentified source told government officials that a parachute was spotted on the morning of April 6, 1972, after a surface-to-air missile launch in Vietnam's Quang Binh Province. According to the source, the pilot of the downed plane was captured and moved to an undisclosed location. U.S. officials determined that Cmdr. Dunlop's plane was the only reported aircraft loss in the area during that time.

In 1992, an investigative team interviewed 17 first-hand and hearsay witnesses who had varying degrees of knowledge about Cmdr. Dunlop's incident, according to a government report detailing the investigation. The investigation team also discovered plane wreckage near the area of the alleged crash site. However, it was later determined the wreckage was that of an F-111 aircraft, not Dunlop's A-7E.

During the next several years, DPMO teams continued to interview potential Vietnamese witnesses to determine Dunlop's fate. But members of his family were largely unaware of the efforts. Tom and Dave Dunlop think some updates were sent to a cousin and a half-brother, but little information trickled their way.

Then, in 2002, an investigative team uncovered several pieces of A-7E wreckage thought to be related to Dunlop's aircraft. Subsequent excavations of the remote site filtered through more than 700 square meters of soil and recovered numerous items consistent with U.S. aircraft personnel.

One of the items recovered was a combat boot commonly issued to Navy pilots. Inside the boot were two socks, and inside the socks were a number of human bone fragments. The team also uncovered personal items such as part of a watch and comb, pieces of cockpit instrument panels and the ejection seat modification plate of an A-7E aircraft. For investigators, there was little doubt the excavated items were the evidence needed to finally close the chapter on the disappearance of Cmdr. Dunlop.

'He'd be proud'

Military officials contacted Dave and Tom last August to give them the news. The brothers were shocked. And Tom was angry.

"My initial reaction was, 'Too little, too late,'" Tom said. "I was angry. I just felt like here's this guy who devoted his life to the military and the country and putting his life on the line hundreds of times, and it didn't seem like anyone cared about him or any of the other MIAs."

In October, a group of military officials came to Steamboat to present the detailed investigation report. They spent more than four hours poring through the pages of the report, which includes photos of the excavation work and the mud-caked combat boot thought to belong to Cmdr. Dunlop.

Confronted by the enormity and detail of the investigation, the brothers' anger quickly subsided.

"The effort that it took took some of my bitterness away," Tom said. "It was amazing to me how much work had gone into finding my dad's body."

"I was amazed and honored at all the work," Dave said.

The poor condition of the skeletal remains found at the crash site prevented DNA testing to confirm their source, but the wealth of circumstantial evidence left little room for doubt. After several weeks contemplating the evidence presented to them, Tom and Dave formally acknowledged that the remains uncovered in a remote region of Vietnam belonged to their father.

Saying goodbye

On Monday, nearly 33 years after Cmdr. Thomas Earl Dunlop disappeared from the skies over Vietnam, his children and dozens of other family members finally will get to say goodbye. They will gather at the country's most prestigious military burial grounds, Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, where, in the midst of the neat rows of thousands of grave markers identifying American men and women who sacrificed their lives for their country, they will honor a man who dedicated his life to his country.

Cmdr. Dunlop's remains will be buried with a uniform and his many medals, including the Purple Heart, Bronze Star and Distinguished Flying Cross. He will receive full military honors.

"I think this is something he would have really wanted," Tom said. "He'd be proud, and we're all proud."

"I'm proud for him," Dave said. "I think he'd be very honored to know he'll be put to rest at Arlington National Cemetery. He loved the United States and he loved flying, and he was dedicated to both."

-- To reach Brent Boyer call 871-4234

or e-mail bboyer@steamboatpilot.com

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