James Edward Widener – Private First Class, United States Marine Corps

  • Date of Birth: 11/12/1948
  • Date of Casualty: 6/11/1967
  • Home of Record: CHURCHVILLE, NEW YORK
  • Branch of Service: MARINE CORPS
  • Rank: PFC
  • Casualty Country: SOUTH VIETNAM
  • Casualty Province: QUANG TRI
  • Status: MIA


NEWS RELEASES from the United States Department of Defense
November 02, 2006

Marine Missing in Action from Vietnam War is Identified

The Department of Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) announced today that the remains of a U.S. serviceman, missing in action from the Vietnam War, have been identified and returned to his family for burial with full military honors.

He is Private First Class James E. Widener, U.S. Marine Corps, of Churchville, New York. He will be buried November 10, 2006, at Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, D.C.

On June 11, 1967, Widener was one of 11 passengers on board a CH-46A Sea Knight helicopter that was inserting ground forces into Quang Tri Province, South Vietnam, when the aircraft crashed. Pilots from two nearby helicopters saw the crash and reported that none of the men on board could have survived. Aircraft flew over the site for several hours, but aircrew members did not observe any survivors. A patrol was sent the next day to confirm the status of the 11 crewmembers, but the site could not be accessed due to enemy forces in the area. Later that month, enemy activity prevented a second attempt to patrol the site.

Between 1993 and 1994, U.S. and Socialist Republic of Vietnam (S.R.V.) teams, led by the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), conducted two surveys of an area that was believed to be Widener’s crash site. The teams also interviewed several Vietnamese citizens who recalled the crash. Two of the citizens claimed to have seen bone fragments while scavenging the site years earlier. When the teams visited the purported crash site, they found small pieces of wreckage, but found no human remains.

In May 2005, Vietnamese officials notified U.S. specialists that possible human remains were present at a district security compound in Quang Tri province. The Vietnamese claimed to have confiscated the remains and other items, including Widener’s identification tag, from a Vietnamese local in 1996. The remains were then buried in the security compound, but the ID tag and other material evidence had supposedly been lost over the years. Later that month, a U.S./S.R.V. team excavated the burial site in the security compound and recovered a box containing human remains.

Among dental records and other forensic tools and circumstantial evidence, scientists from JPAC and the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory also used mitochondrial DNA from two known maternal relatives to confirm the identification of the remains.

For additional information on the Defense Department’s mission to account for missing Americans, visit the DPMO Web site at http://www.dtic.mil/dpmo or call (703) 699-1169.

The Boeing-Vertol CH46 Sea Knight arrived in Southeast Asia on 8 March 1966 and served the Marine Corps throughout the rest of the war.  With a crew of three or four depending on mission requirements, the tandem-rotor transport helicopter could carry 24 fully equipped troops or 4600 pounds of cargo and was instrumental in moving Marines throughout South Vietnam, then supplying them accordingly.

Because the war in Vietnam lacked a defined front line, the enemy strategy made Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols (LRRP) a needed tool to gather intelligence about communist activities throughout Southeast Asia.  The ground commanders who fought the day to day war readily recognized the need for special reconnaissance units at the onset of the fighting.  During 1965 provisional LRRP units were formed with all assets they could spare.

On 11 June 1967, Capt. Curtis R. “Dick” Bohlscheid, pilot; Major John S. Oldham, co-pilot; LCpl. Jose J. Gonzales, crewchief; and LCpl. Thomas M. Hanratty, door gunner; comprised the crew of the lead CH46A helicopter (aircraft #150270) on a troop insertion mission.  A total of four aircraft were involved in the mission, two CH46 troop transports and two UH1E helicopter gunships that were providing air cover for the transports.  In addition to being the aircraft commander of the lead Sea Knight, Capt. Bohlscheid was also the mission commander.

Cpl. Jim E. Moshier, LCpl. Dennis Christie, LCpl. James W. Kooi, LCpl. John J. Foley, LCpl. Michael W. Havranek, PFC Charles Chomel and PFC James E. Widener comprised half of Marine Reconnaissance Team (RT) Somersail One, being inserted into a designated landing zone (LZ).  RT Somersail One was on an intelligence gathering mission.  Early that morning Capt. Bohlscheid briefed the aircrews on the mission flight plan, while the reconnaissance team waited outside.

The flight of four aircraft departed Dong Ha and proceeded to the southern boundary of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) to an area located in the jungle covered mountains approximately 4 kilometers north of Hill 208, which was identified as the NVA’s 324B Division Command Post during Operation Hastings.  It was also located 900 meters west of Hill 174, another well known NVA position.

Capt. Bohlscheid first attempted to insert the RT Somersail One west of a landmark known as “The China Wall.”  The flight pulled away from the briefed LZ when the gunships, which were clearing the LZ by making low strafing passes over the landing zone to set off any booby traps that might have been placed there as well as to locate any enemy positions, began taking enemy ground fire.

The flight returned to Dong Ha to refuel, rearm and plan a second insertion mission attempt.  The second attempt was made directly at the base of The China Wall, but once again it was driven off.  For the second time the helicopters returned to Dong Ha to rearm, refuel and evaluate their options.

Because of the heavy NVA pressure in the area and the need to gather current intelligence about their activities, headquarters ordered RT Somersail One be inserted at all cost.  The four aircraft returned to the DMZ for the third time in a matter of hours.  This time the location chosen was approximately 5 miles northwest of Firebase Vandergrift, 9 miles south of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) and 11½ miles northwest of Dong Ha, Quang Tri Province, South Vietnam.

Before the Sea Knights landed, both gunships again went to work clearing the proposed LZ.  This time no booby traps were sprung and no enemy fire was received.  As the Hueys strafed the area, the members of RT Somersail One prepared to initiate their mission once the insertion was completed.  Hank Trimble was the pilot of one of the gunship escorts.  After clearing the LZ, he stationed his aircraft to the left of Dick Bohlscheid’s, then radioed him to proceed to the LZ.

At 1115 hours, the Sea Knight made its approach. At an estimated altitude of 400-600 feet above the ground, the helicopter transitioned from travel to landing speed.  As the lead troop transport did so, other flight members observed it climb erratically in a manner similar to an aircraft commencing a loop.  At the same time Capt. Bohlscheid radioed that they had been hit by machinegun fire.

As those aboard the other helicopters watched in horror, portions of the rear rotor blades were seen to separate from the Sea Knight.  In almost slow motion, the helicopter’s nose rose, then rose more sharply and continued to climb toward the sky until it was nearly vertical to the ground.  It rolled to an inverted position then appeared to perform a “split S” maneuver before it burst into flames and continued out of control.  Hank Trimble reported that Dick Bohlscheid keyed his mic at the time he was inverted and started to say something, but what came out was a strangled cry, “Mama.”  The Sea Knight crashed into a steep ravine on the north side of a stream that ran through it.

Ground units subsequently entered the area to search for survivors or recover the remains of the dead if possible.  Due to a well-entrenched and equally well camouflaged enemy bunker complex surrounding the entire LZ and crash site, the ground units could only inspect the site through binoculars from a distance of approximately 500 meters.  During the brief time available to them, they observed no survivors in or around the aircraft wreckage.  At the time the ground mission was terminated, all eleven Marines were listed Killed In Action, Body Not Recovered.

22 September 2006:

The Widener family never gave up hope. But they were realistic about the odds of ever hearing word about their son, who was declared missing in action after a helicopter crash during the Vietnam War.

On Wednesday, a Marine Corps officer came to Jay and Lenore Widener’s Union Street home and ended their long wait. The remains of their son, missing in action for 39 years, had been identified.

Private James E. Widener of Chili was reported missing June 11, 1967, when his helicopter was shot down over South Vietnam. James Widener was a student athlete at Churchville-Chili High School who received scholarship offers from the State University College at Buffalo and the University of Dayton.

However, he chose to enlist in the Marines after graduating in 1966. Trained as a radio operator, he volunteered for reconnaissance duty after arriving in Vietnam. On his mother’s birthday, his squad was pinned down by heavy enemy fire. The helicopter that pulled them out was hit by ground fire, knocking off its tail and sending it to the ground. All seven aboard were reported missing in action.

As of January 1, 2006, 1,382 people remained on the roll of those missing from the Vietnam War, according to the U.S. Defense Prisoners of War/Missing Personnel Office.

James Widener, who was 18 at the time of the crash, will have a full U.S. Marine Corps military funeral at Arlington National Cemetery.

The remains had been recovered by the Vietnamese.

“His body was stored in a warehouse and they never let us know he was dead. We tried to find him after the war, hoping for years that maybe he was alive,” said his father, who still holds bitter feelings toward Vietnam officials. “Even in war, there should be some fairness. This is awful, but at least it closes the situation.”

The military recovered some of Widener’s bone fragments in May 2005, including part of his skull, his teeth and a leg bone. The military took DNA from Widener’s aunt on his mother’s side, Gloria Alves, and last week told the family they were coming to visit.

Widener’s remains are at Hawaii’s Hickam Air Force Base, and the family gave the military October 27, October 30 or November 3 as possible funeral dates at Arlington. The Widener family has lost at least five members during various wars, going back to the Civil War, said Jay Widener.

James Widener’s brother, Peter, 61, said family members, especially his mother, were devastated 39 years ago when they first received the news from the Marines.

“When we heard he was missing in action, it was a tremendous loss. I never gave up hope but I still didn’t think it was possible,” said Peter Widener, who lives in Chili. “I’m happy that I got my brother back and this has been resolved. We thank the U.S. military for all the hard work they have done all these years.”

Peter Widener was enlisted in the Marines at the same time as his brother, but he was sent home after his brother’s crash.

November 3, 2006:

On a very breezy, but sunny afternoon, about 70 family, friends and former Vietnam Veterans today paid respect to Private James E. Widener, who had a U.S. Marine Corps military funeral at Arlington National Cemetery.

A black hearse with silver trim drove up to the gravesite a few minutes before the 1 p.m. burial service. A number of wreaths lay around the gravesite where other fallen soldiers had already been buried.

The family sat in seats covered with green velvet near the gravesite with several Marine Honor Guardsmen ready to play their bagpipes during the ceremony.

Widener of Chili was reported missing June 11, 1967, when his helicopter was shot down over South Vietnam. He was missing in action for 38 years before the military found his remains in 2005 at a district security compound in Quang Tri province.

After a year of lab tests at the Central Identification Lab at Hickam Air Force base in Hawaii, the military positively identified Widener, using DNA from his aunt. In late September, the military visited the Widener’s home in Chili and told them the news.

Widener was a student athlete at Churchville-Chili High School. He received scholarship offers from the State University College at Buffalo and the University of Dayton.

He enlisted in the Marines after graduating from high school in 1966. Trained as a radio operator, he volunteered for reconnaissance duty after arriving in Vietnam.

As of May 1, 2006, there are still 1,805 Americans missing in action from the Vietnam War in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and China.

The Widener family also had a local remembrance service six days ago at the Chili American Legion Post 1830. More than 150 friends, family, and current and former military personnel attended the service.


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