Sergeant, United States Air Force
Date of Birth: 6 September 1936
Date of Casualty: 3 June 1966
Home of Record: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Branch of Service: AIR FORCE
Casualty Country: LAOS
Casualty Province: LZ
Airmen are laid to rest at last
A plane bearing six crew members went down in 1966 in Laos. The plane lay undisturbed for nearly 30 years. An Overbrook man was among those aboard.
By Gayle Ronan Sims
Nearly 40 years after their plane went down on a night mission in Laos, six members of the U.S. Air Force's Fourth Air Commando Squadron were laid to rest yesterday at Arlington National Cemetery. Their remains, which had laid undistrubed in dense jungle for years, were buried in a single standard stainless-steel coffin. The solemn ceremony was accompanied by all the pageantry the Air Force could muster.
On a crisp, windswept fall morning, the casket covered with their nation's flag was carried on a horse-drawn caisson that followed a military band that could be heard before it came into view of the hundreds of people who travled from all parts of the country for the burial of men long dead.
The caisson was followed to the graveside by family members, some on foot, and others who rode in vehicles. There, an honor guard removed the casket and placed it on the ground, and chaplain Colonel David E. Boyles delivered a eulogy. That was followed by taps, a rifle volley, and a flyover by a single C-130, the successor to the AC-47 "Spooky" gunships, one of which for years held the bodies of Air Force Colonel Theodore E. Kryszak, of Buffalo, New York; Colonel Harding E. Smith, of Los Gatos, California; Lieutenant Colonel Russell D. Martin, of Bloomfield, Iowa; Chief Master Sergeant Harold E. Mullins, of Denver; Chief Master Sergeant Luther L. Rose, of Howe, Texas; and Chief Master Sergeant Ervin Warren, of the Overbrook section of Philadelphia.
Their grave will be marked with a single headstone containing their names.
Their plane went down about 9:25 p.m. on June 3, 1966, in the jungle 30 miles northeast of Tchepone in Khannouan province. The plane had been on a reconnaissance mission over southern Laos, where U.S. forces were secretly fighting communist Laotian and North Vietnamese forces.
According to the Pentagon, the crew radioed, "We have hot fire," and another transmission was heard to order: "Bail out!" After that, nothing.
The Pentagon said witnesses reported the plane
was on fire, then crashed into a heavily wooded area. No parachutes from
the crew were seen, and no emergency beepers were heard. An aerial search
of the site yielded nothing.
The AC-47, however, flew low and was vulnerable
to enemy fire. Also, crews had to manually ignite and throw flares out
to light up the target area, increasing its exposure to hostile fire. That
was Chief Master Sgt. Warren's job.
The youngest of nine children, Chief Master Sergeant Ervin Warren was born September 6, 1936, in Live Oak, Florida, and moved to West Philadelphia when he was a child. He graduated from Overbrook High School in 1953, and the following year married Ida Johnson and joined the Air Force. He planned to make the Air Force his career, his family said.
The couple had three children and moved from
station to station before he was assigned to Fourth Air Commando Squadron
based in Nha Trang, South Vietnam. The family was living at McCord Air
Base in Tacoma, Washington.
In their hearts, the children of Ervin Warren - missing in action in Laos since 1966 - buried their father along with their mother in 1977. Though his exact fate remained a mystery, they assumed he was dead and put away the pain of losing him, put their photos of him in storage and tried to get on with their lives.
But the pain - and plenty of questions - came rushing back last week when the Defense Department informed them that the remains of their father and five others lost in a plane crash during the Vietnam War had been located and identified.
Warren's three children - all Tacoma residents - say they're glad they're getting new information about their father's death. But they're also upset his full remains have not been recovered, and they still have questions about how he died.
"This has all kind of sucker-punched us," said Angie Waters, 56, Warren's stepdaughter.
Ervin Warren was a 29-year-old Air Force Staff Sergeant when he disappeared. He'd been stationed at McChord Air Force Base and was a loadmaster on cargo planes.
But on June 3, 1966, Warren was aboard an AC-47 "Spooky," a World War II-era cargo plane converted to a gunship. The plane's six-member crew was on a night reconnaissance mission over Khammouan Province in southern Laos.
According to the Defense Department, the crew reported a "hot fire" on the plane at 9:25 p.m. Witnesses saw the plane on fire, falling from the sky. The last radio transmission from the plane was an order to "bail out!"
Witnesses saw no parachutes. And no crew member activated an emergency homing beeper indicating survival. Reconnaissance flights over the area spotted no evidence of survivors.
The military declared Warren and the other crew members missing in action and presumed dead. Waters remembers the day two uniformed men and one woman came to her Tacoma home to deliver the news. Her mother, Ida, knew immediately why they were there. She told Angie, then 19, to be brave for her two younger brothers, Terry, 7, and Kevin, 8.
"I will never forget that day as long as I live," she said. "It's etched in my mind, those people coming to our door."
The Warrens didn't hear much after that until their mother died in 1977. At that time, Ervin Warren was declared killed in action, though his body had not been recovered. They marked their mother's grave with a headstone that also commemorated their father.
"That's when I buried both of them," said Terry, now 44.
But the military continued to investigate and resolve reports of service members missing in action in Vietnam. Since the end of the war, the number of those missing in action has been reduced from 2,783 to 1,902.
In October 1994 a small U.S.-Lao team traveled to the suspected AC-47 crash site and found debris from the crash. A larger group returned in 1995 to excavate the site and recovered human remains, a crew member's identification card and other personal effects. Over the next several years, the military tested DNA samples from the remains and examined dental records.
Larry Greer, director of public affairs for the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office, said the military recovered usable DNA from seven of 11 samples.
Last month the investigation yielded a positive DNA identification of one of the crew members. Though usable DNA from Warren and the other four crew members was not obtained, Greer said some of their remains were recovered. He said those remains, along with other evidence found at the scene, convinced investigators that all six crew members died in the crash.
The military notified the Warrens on May 19 of the investigation's results.
They were surprised to learn their father was on a reconnaissance mission in Laos, instead of Vietnam. They want more information about the cause of the crash. They want to know more about efforts immediately after the crash to search for their father. And they wonder how their father can be declared dead if his DNA has not been positively identified.
Greer said the body fragments recovered from five crew members, including Warren, were too small to be positively identified. He compared the investigation to the crash of a commercial airliner, where it's often impossible to individually identify every victim from remains.
The Warren family may learn more details next month at a Defense Department conference for MIA families in Washington, D.C.
Because they were so young, Terry and Kevin Warren have hazy but happy memories of their father. Terry remembers playing ball with him. Kevin remembers fishing and camping.
"Everything you remember about your dad at that point was he was a good guy," Kevin said.
Angie knew her father better. She remembers a happy-go-lucky man who was serious about his work but who enjoyed life and had a good sense of humor. And although she was not his biological child, she said he always considered her to be his daughter.
"He was a person who loved cartoons," she said. "He was a practical joker. He loved to laugh."
All three siblings share an aching loss for what might have been had their father lived. Warren's sons talk about missing the mundane things that fathers and sons do: working on cars and going to ballgames. Angie wonders what her father would have done with his own life if he'd lived.
"It could be wishful thinking on my part, but if he had ever got out of the service, I think he would have wanted to be an astronaut," she said.
Ervin Warren will be buried in a few months at Arlington National Cemetery along with the four other crew members whose remains were not positively identified.
Warren's children are struggling for some kind of closure. If anything, the latest news has reopened old wounds.
Angie said she lived on details of her father's
death for years. "And then, when it looked like it was never going to be
addressed, we put as many details as we could behind us," she said.