From a contemporary press report: 15 January 2000
David May went with the Army to fight in Vietnam.
He left behind the life he'd known in Hyattsville–the football games at DeMatha Catholic High School, the St. Jerome's bowling team, the double dates with his friends. He left behind his parents, and his wife and infant son.
The war had already strained some old relationships, even that with Pat Clancy, with whom he'd grown up, starting in first grade at St. Jerome's in Hyattsville and continuing through graduation from DeMatha. At the University of Maryland, they had drifted into different circles.
“David and I had strong differences of opinion about the war,” said Clancy, now an attorney in the District. “There was a divisiveness about that time. If you were opposed to the war, you had one group of friends, if you were in favor of it, you had another.”
Yesterday, at Arlington National Cemetery, all the people in David May's life came together, any acrimony long gone, replaced by a bittersweet mixture of sadness, relief and regret. Three decades after May's Army helicopter was shot down in Laos and he died at age 26, they were there to bury him.
There were Army mates from his helicopter company, who showed up from across the country. His schoolmates from DeMatha, thinking about the lives they had been able to live for 30 years. His former wife, who was left a young widow but started a new life, marrying David May's best friend. His son, who was 6 months old when his father died, and is now a father himself.
“In some ways, everybody is 30 years older,” said Thomas Glennon, a DeMatha classmate. “Dave is always young, and finally we know what happened.”
Captain David May‘s remains, lost in Laos all those years, were buried yesterday, commingled in a single coffin with those of his friend, Chief Warrant Officer Jon E. Reid, who had been in the pilot's seat next to him when their UH-1C Huey gunship was shot down by anti-aircraft fire on February 20, 1971.
“Through the fog of controversy which surrounded our country's involvement in Vietnam, some may ask ‘Why?' ” Rick Lester, a member of May's platoon, said in a eulogy delivered at a joint service for the men yesterday morning. “But let no one question the intentions of these honorable men.”
May had been a serious youth, the type who would forgo his friends' drinking jaunts into the District. “It was a model life,” said Glennon. “Either he was talking on the phone with his girlfriend, Barbara, or he was doing homework.”
Morgan Wootten, the famed DeMatha basketball coach, coached May in football and remembers him well. “A real fine player, great competitor, a fine student,” Wootten said. “He was enthusiastic, excited about the things he did.”
May and Clancy would go on bowling dates with the women they would eventually marry. May's best friend, Mickey Casey, would come along too. “It was that kind of close-knit relationship,” said Clancy.
May's friends got the news quickly when May was shot down, but for 29 years they knew few details. “There was an aura of mystery about it,” said Clancy.
Yesterday, May's Army mates were able to tell them more.
In January 1971, May's unit, the 48th Assault Helicopter Company, nicknamed the Jokers, was supporting a large-scale offensive against the Ho Chi Minh Trail. South Vietnamese troops, with U.S. air support, had moved into Laos to cut off enemy supply routes.
In February, the Jokers were sent on an emergency resupply mission in support of South Vietnamese forces about 15 miles southeast of Tchepone, Laos. As they began to clear the area, two Huey gunships on the mission, including the one piloted by Reid and May, spotted an enormous enemy 23mm anti-aircraft gun. Flying low over the treetops, the two gunships fired rockets and machine guns at the position.
On the last pass, May's and Reid's Huey was hit by the big gun. Chief Warrant Officer Stephen Knowles, commander of the second gunship, watched the flaming helicopter try to land in an opening but instead hit trees and crashed.
Knowles's gunship made desperate efforts to land, but was hit by intense enemy fire. Finally, with its fuel and ammunition nearly depleted and the gunner badly wounded, the gunship flew off. “I had to make a terrible decision to leave,” Knowles said quietly yesterday. Further search-and-rescue efforts were unsuccessful.
Back in Hyattsville, word was delivered to May's parents. “The Army sent a chaplain out to my parents,” said Paul May, David May's younger brother. “All they knew was his helicopter had gone down, and he was missing.”
May's parents died not knowing that their son's remains would one day be found. “It's pretty tough to think you're never going to know,” said Paul May, who lives in College Park.
Beginning in 1994, U.S. and Laotian investigators interviewed villagers in the area of the crash. Using DNA evidence, the Army was eventually able to identify remains found as belonging to May and Reid. Two other crew members aboard the helicopter, Sgt. 1st Class Randolph L. Johnson and Staff Sgt. Robert J. Acalotto, have not been positively found.
Yesterday, with May's and Reid's Army mates standing at attention, four UH-1 Huey helicopters flew in a diamond formation just above the treetops by the graveside.
May's son, David Casey, was presented with the folded American flag that had draped his father's coffin. May's former wife, Barbara Casey, who later married Mickey Casey, was also present.
“Today marks the end of a very long journey,” the family said in a statement. “After nearly 30 years of waiting, families and friends of Captain May now have final closure. Our continued thoughts and prayers remain with those families who still have loved ones listed as missing in action due to the Vietnam War. May God's mercy bring you peace.”
To MIA families, Helicopter Veterans, the 48 AHC:
On Friday January 14th my brother, David May, and his friend Jon Reid were laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery. Their helicopter gunship was shot down in Laos February 20, 1971 and they have been classified as MIA for nearly 30 years. All we knew about what happened was contained in a few paragraphs on a page or two with a great deal of “Army Speak”. The army people with whom I spoke told me that my brother's unit had been disbanded for the Laotian invasion and that he may not have even known the men with whom he flew his last mission.
David and Jon's remains were recovered from the crash site in much the same way an anthropological dig is conducted at ancient historic sites. The dig occurred as a result of efforts and negotiations of which I know little and by people whom I do not know at all. The remains were identified by pathologists using dental records and DNA testing techniques. To all of these unseen, unknown people, be assured you are in my prayers and have all my thanks and very best wishes. What follows is meant to be a letter of thanks to everyone who made the funeral possible and some who made it very special. The letter is not intended to offer hope or encouragement to MIA families those things cannot be given and I dare not offer false hope because that would be just sinful. The letter is offered to MIA families partly for their information but mostly because they are the only people who can understand what the recovery of my brother's remains means to our family.
When my brother's wife and I spoke prior to the funeral we decided that very few people would attend; just a few old friends, our respective families. At the memorial service on the 13th we met the Reid family and while we were exchanging pleasantries, five or six men appeared whom neither of our families knew. We thought they had come to the wrong room at the funeral parlor. These turned out to be men who knew my brother and Jon Reid well.
They were members of the 48th AHC with which David and Jon served. They related stories about the living conditions, good times and things about the details of the lives of our loved ones prior to their deaths. One man signed the guest book and hugged me saying, “you must be Dave's brother you two look so much alike.” There were other men who were at the hotel that had not come to the memorial because they were afraid of overwhelming us. We collected the entire group and went to a restaurant and ate and drank and shared. These men had books of photographs and many more stories. The pilot of the other helicopter on my brother's last mission told us exactly what happened, how he was about to call off the engagement with an anti-aircraft battery because he was completely out of ammunition at the moment when my brother's helicopter was hit. He watched it catch fire, fly to a clearing and crash. He tried to land but was forced to evacuate due to heavy fire, one man aboard his aircraft was badly wounded. The look on his face told me that everything possible was done to rescue my brother and that he did not die among strangers. We learned that a group of machine gunners from other gunships stole a helicopter in order to rescue the men aboard my brother's ship, but crashed.
The funeral was attended by men from the 48th who knew my brother and Jon Reid, men from the 48th who served before or after my brother's time (one from Anchorage, Alaska), a large group of Vietnam helicopter veterans from all over the country came to pay their respects. It seems that all of these men knew people who were left behind, MIAs like my brother. Perhaps they came to my brother and Jon Reid's funeral for the love of others, for themselves somehow or out of respect for the deeds of many seemingly forgotten men. The Old Post Chapel at Arlington Cemetery was filled to capacity and many dozens followed the caisson on foot to the grave in freezing temperatures and brisk wind. These men had to come to Jon Reid and David May's funeral because of things that are beyond my understanding but not beyond my appreciation. I must thank all of these men, but apologize because I lack the elegance to do so properly. At the funeral service four helicopters of the Vietnam era performed a fly by. The feeling that stirred among those attending the funeral at the sight of this tribute from now antique machines cannot be accurately conveyed.
My brother's wake was attended by a few old friends and family members, but it turned out to be a rather large affair. It was not the May family, not the Reid family, it was David and Jon's family. I can tell MIA families our sons, brothers, husbands and fathers are not forgotten they are remembered by and are important to large contingents of folks we do not know. I only hope that all MIA families could meet the men who served with their loved ones because it is a very good feeling.
Kindest best regards and many thanks to all who came to the funeral I will remain forever in your debt.
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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