Heading into the fourth year of the war in Iraq, Americans have become all too familiar with the military rituals of death – the uniformed officers going to the family home to break the sad news, the flag-covered coffin and the dignified funeral, complete with honor guard and three rifle volleys in salute of the fallen.It wasn't always this way. Turn back the clock to March 15, 1962.
A Lockheed Constellation airliner with 93 soldiers aboard lifts off from Guam and heads west over the Pacific, aiming for a little-known country that has become a battleground in the war against communism – South Vietnam. Among the soldiers on board the Flying Tiger charter airliner is Army Master Sergeant Henry F. Biernacki, a 31-year-old veteran of the Korean War, where he was awarded the Silver Star for bravery in combat.
The Detroit, Michigan, native had left his wife, Nikki, and six children behind at Fort Carson when he “deployed,” as the military now says, to Vietnam. He wasn't excited about it, though.
“My Dad loved being in the Army, but he just had a bad feeling about going to Vietnam,” his son, Nick Biernacki, remembered in a recent interview. Nick was the oldest child at 20, when his father took him aside before leaving Colorado Springs.
“Before my Dad got on the plane, he pulled me aside and said, ‘I don't care for this one (assignment), so you take care of the family if something happens to me,’ ” Biernacki said with emotion. “Of course, I didn't think anything of it. I figured my Dad would come home. I didn't even know where Vietnam was.”
Not many Americans knew there was a war going on in Vietnam in 1962 and that U.S. soldiers were already in the rice paddies, working as combat advisers to the South Vietnamese Army. The first “official” deployment of U.S. ground troops to Vietnam was still three years away.
But on March 15, 1962, the Flying Tiger Constellation disappeared from the sky. Somewhere between Guam and Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, it went down into the Pacific. U.S. officials launched a search-and-rescue mission but not even debris was found. Sergeant Biernacki and the other soldiers on board never even got to see the war they died in. Back home in Colorado Springs, the Biernacki family learned the terrible news when a telegram came to the door. That was all. A telegram dated March 16, 1962.
It said: “The Secretary of the Army has asked me to express his deep regret that (and here is typed in ‘your husband Master Sergeant Henry F. Biernacki') was a passenger aboard a chartered aircraft that was reported missing while in flight over the Pacific Ocean on 15 March 1962.”
That was it. No telephone call from Fort Carson officials. No memorial service. The Biernackis didn't even have a body to bury.
“But that's just how things were done in those days,” explained Nick Biernacki, the owner of the Pueblo NAPA Auto Parts store. “But we were an Army family, so we knew that's how things worked. When people got killed, you got a telegram. Things are a lot better today.”
Of course, nobody spent much time “getting in touch” with their feelings in 1962 America. The Biernackis moved on, grieving for their missing husband and father, but busy with the job of getting six kids to adulthood. Nick Biernacki helped his mother as best he could and joined the National Guard himself in 1964. He stayed in Colorado Springs and became a successful businessman.
It wasn't until the Vietnam Memorial was unveiled, listing the names of all the 58,000 U.S. servicemen and women killed in Vietnam, that Nick Biernacki felt a stab, that his father was being forgotten. Sergeant Biernacki's name wasn't on “the Wall” and the Defense Department said he didn't qualify because the serviceman wasn't killed in Vietnam. On his way there, yes, but not in Vietnam.
“Some friends called because a Biernacke's name was listed,” said Cindy Biernacki, Nick's wife. “But it wasn't Hank.”
“I think my Dad would have wanted to be on the Wall,” Biernacki said frankly, not wanting to sound too emotional about it. “He was certainly an early casualty of the war.”
The Biernackis contacted Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell's office and in the following years, developed a considerable pile of correspondence between the Pentagon and themselves, as well as Campbell's staffers acting on their behalf. The Army located some records for the family, such as Sergeant Biernacki's Silver Star citation from the Korean War and other papers. Some of his records remain “classified,” however.
And his name is still not on the Wall.
But on Monday, April 17, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund is hosting a special service at the Wall for Sergeant Biernacki and many others like him – people who died in the long Vietnam War but somehow didn't quite fit the criterion to have their names cut into the black marble slabs. NBC newsman Tim Russert will host the ceremony and the Biernackis will be there for the service – all six children, plus grandchildren.
And the next day, Tuesday, April 18, a white marble veterans headstone will be erected in the green grass of Arlington National Cemetery for Sgt. Biernacki. The blue-coated “Old Guard” honor guard from Fort Myers will be there to give Henry Biernacki's memory the honor it deserves, even if his body never came home from the Pacific.
“It was the Silver Star that got him into Arlington,” Cindy Biernacke said. The famous national cemetery at Fort Myer, where President Kennedy lies buried, has become so crowded over the years with the nation's veterans that there are limits now on who qualifies for an Arlington burial. Being awarded the Silver Star – the nation's third highest honor for bravery in combat – made Henry Biernacki eligible.
“I was talking to an Army Sergeant in their Records division about the frustration of trying to get Hank listed on the Wall and he suddenly asked me whether we'd ever had a funeral for him,” Cindy said with a small laugh. “When I told him no, he said, ‘Well, he's still entitled to a military funeral', and that's how we got the headstone in Arlington.”
For the record, Sergeant Biernacki was a member of the 24th Infantry Division on June 28, 1951, when he took part in an attack on an enemy-held hill near Hudong-ni, Korea. Carrying machine gun ammunition up the hill, Biernacki picked up the weapon when the gunner was wounded. Setting it up in an exposed position, he traded fire with several enemy machine guns until he destroyed them, then continued to the top of the ridge where – according to the citation – “he continued firing into the retreating enemy troops and succeeded in so demoralizing them that no counterattack was received.”
Master Sergeant Henry ‘Hank' Biernacki is shown in his best-known photo.
Nick Biernacki doesn't remember a lot about his father's military career. Growing up on Army bases in the U.S. and overseas, he enjoyed being a kid and said his father didn't talk a lot about military work.
Some family members of the men who died aboard the Flying Tiger flight have written that all of the Vietnam-bound soldiers were Special Forces or Rangers. Nick doesn't remember his father having that training. He was a combat engineer, however.
“I don't think we'll ever know what happened to that airplane,” he said. “A ship in the area reported seeing a bright flash in the sky. There has been talk that it was on some covert mission. We don't know.”
Cindy Biernacki said the military is supposed to declassify records after 50 years, so she is hopeful the family will learn more when that deadline passes. “We've been told indirectly there are still more records, they are just classified,” she said.
And thanks to his children, Henry Biernacki's place in history will not be forgotten.
BIERNACKI, HENRY HANK FRANCIS
- MSGT US ARMY
- DATE OF BIRTH: 07/14/1930
- DATE OF DEATH: 03/16/1962
- BURIED AT: SECTION MK SITE 4
- ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY
Michael Robert Patterson was born in Arlington and is the son of a former officer of the US Army. So it was no wonder that sooner or later his interests drew him to American history and especially to American military history. Many of his articles can be found on renowned portals like the New York Times, Washingtonpost or Wikipedia.
Reviewed by: Michael Howard