From a contemporary press report: Courtesy of Stars & Stripes:
Final Arlington National Cemetery salute for Marine lost in Vietnam
By Eric B. Pilgrim and Chuck Vinch, Stars and Stripes
In April 1967, Keith Brewer proudly stood next to his uncle, 1st Lt. John Gardner, as their two families gathered in Hawaii for Gardner’s farewell flight to Vietnam.
Nobody knew why Uncle John, fresh out of college, volunteered to join the Marines. But looking back on that day, Brewer, now an Army staff sergeant in Germany, knew his uncle must have felt proud to do his duty and continue a long family tradition of military service.
The only thing missing was a photo to remember the occasion. So a camera came out, and right before the shutter snapped, the tall Marine placed his hand on Brewer’s head.
A snapshot of time, a picture of hope, a moment suspended in dreams of a joyous homecoming.
It was the first time little Keith had met his uncle, but no one knew it would be the last. No one knew that Gardner, a Marine helicopter pilot, would die in June 1967, just two months after he said goodbye in Hawaii and shipped out to Vietnam.
But on Friday, 33 years later, Gardner finally made it back when his remains were interred at Arlington National Cemetery in an emotional ceremony that included a full Marine honor guard, a 21-gun salute and a six-horse caisson from the Army 3rd Infantry Regiment's “Old Guard” at Fort Myer, Virginia.
And while Gardner gave his life trying to carry Army soldiers to safety, he relied on his family to get him to his final resting place. The servicemember who performed the traditional duty of escorting the remains — more specifically, a single molar tooth — to their burial was none other than Brewer.
“I’ve gone through every emotion imaginable in the last three days,” said Brewer, who flew to the military’s Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii earlier last week. “I was sitting with the casket in the chapel in Hawaii and said, ‘Uncle John, I’m taking you home.’
“I’m so proud to be his nephew,” he said. “This is the greatest honor I’ve ever had.” The Marine Corps offered to provide an escort, but Susan Gardner Daigle, Gardner’s only child, chose Brewer for that honor.
Daigle was only 4 months old when her father left for Vietnam. But despite never having the chance to know him, she wanted her father to be with family from Hawaii all the way to Arlington, Virginia.
“I remembered my cousin [Brewer] was still in the Army,” Daigle said. “When I saw the photo with my dad standing there, his hand on Keith’s head, I thought if I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it right.”
Although Keith Brewer observed that the family “had 33 years to prepare for this,” finding out for sure what happened to Gardner, and then experiencing a full-blown memorial and burial on the hallowed ground of Arlington National Cemetery, still had a powerful impact.
Family members expressed deep appreciation for the way the military handled the memorial service and burial and seemed somewhat awed at the solemnity, ceremony and dignity of the proceedings.
“What a great, great tribute,” Brewer said. “I don’t know what I expected, but I didn’t expect all this,” said Margorie Daigle, Gardner’s widow, who remarried Texas businessman Paul Daigle in 1973 and had two more children, both sons.
Margorie Daigle said she had a lot of time to think about long-buried memories as she and Paul drove to Washington, D.C., from their home in Sugar Land, Texas, just outside of Houston.
“This has been hard, much harder than I thought it would be, even though it was a short courtship and a short marriage,” she said of her union with Gardner. “We had been married only 14 months when he left for Vietnam. But we had good times. We weren’t together long enough to have bad times.”
Susan Gardner Daigle said her grandmother, Mamie Gardner, remained convinced that her son John “was going to walk through that door any day, pretty much until the day she died” of kidney cancer in January 1999.
“I don’t know whether it was good or bad that she passed before we found out for sure what happened to John,” Margorie Daigle said.
Details on the Marine officer’s death still are fuzzy.
On June 3, 1967, Gardner’s helicopter crew and four other crews flew their CH46A Sea Knights into the Saravane Province of Laos. Their mission: pull out a team of Army Special Forces and South Vietnamese soldiers from a jungle floor filled with enemy soldiers.
They successfully flew in and loaded the Americans and South Vietnamese, but moments after liftoff they came under heavy fire, and three of the birds went down, including Gardner’s.
One soldier who was captured by the Viet Cong that day and later released testified to U.S. military investigators that he last saw Gardner strapped in the cockpit.
“The soldier said the pilot and Gardner had both survived the crash, but he never saw whether they got out of the helicopter or not,” said Larry Greer, a spokesman for the Defense Department POW/MIA Office at the Pentagon.
Over the past decade, as relations between Vietnam and the United States have improved, some U.S. soldiers’ remains have been returned. Missions to Vietnam and Laos typically take place five times a year, with six teams deploying to Vietnam and three or four teams deploying to Laos, according to Defense Department officials. To date, about 2,100 Americans still remain unaccounted for from the Vietnam War.
It took investigators at the Joint Task Force Full Accounting Office and the Central Identification Laboratory, both in Hawaii, several years and three major expeditions to discover Gardner’s remains, along with several other Marines and Army soldiers at the crash site.
It wasn’t until January of this year that they finally identified a molar tooth of Gardner’s through DNA tests provided by blood samples previously provided by his mother and several other family members.
Although the Brewer and Gardner families have been in shock since military investigators announced their findings, at least now the truth has come to light.
“It is such a relief to get it settled and finalized, to get some closure,” Susan Gardner Daigle said. “I now know what happened, and it was important to my grandmother that he be honored. It was important to me that I get this done right. It was my duty.”
At left, a caisson from the Army 3rd Infantry Division’s “Old Guard” at Fort Myer, Virginia, carries the remains of Marine Corps Capt. John Gardner to his final resting place at Arlington National Cemetery on Friday. At right, Margorie Daigle, Capt. John Gardner's widow; Susan Gardner Daigle, his daughter; and Army Staff Sgt. Keith Brewer, his nephew, watch the solemn military burial ceremony.
Full Name: JOHN GARRETT GARDNER
- Date of Birth: 7/28/1940
- Date of Casualty: 6/3/1967
- Home of Record: HOT SPRINGS, NORTH CAROLINA
- Branch of Service: MARINE CORPS
- Rank: CAPT
- Casualty Country: LAOS
- Casualty Province: LZ
- Status: MIAGARDNER, JOHN GARRETT
- CAPT US MARINE CORPS
- VETERAN SERVICE DATES: 05/27/1965 – 11/07/1973
- DATE OF BIRTH: 07/28/1940
- DATE OF DEATH: 11/07/1973
- DATE OF INTERMENT: 09/08/2000
- BURIED AT: SECTION 68 SITE 2580ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY
Reviewed by: Michael Howard