John William Kennedy – Captain, United States Air Force


John William Kennedy was born on May 1, 1947 and joined the Armed Forces while in Arlington, Virginia.

He served as an aviator in the United States Air force, and attained the rank of Captain. John William Kennedy was originally listed as Missing in Action.

From a contemporary press report: 29 July 1996

 Over two decades, Sally Kennedy perfected the art of not hoping too much. Of not despairing completely when years passed with no word of her son's fate.

Then one chill January day in 1993, the Air Force told Kennedy, who lives in Prince William County, Maryland, that the remains of her son, an Air Force pilot shot down over South Vietnam in 1971, may have been found.

Every few months, she'd receive an update. Nothing ever was conclusive. “I would read these reports and put them away,” said Kennedy, 78, who wears her deceased husband's silver MIA bracelet engraved with their son's name. “You just put them in a file and put it out of your mind. That's the only way you can keep your sanity.”

In January, the Air Force sent her the report that confirmed what she could only surmise for so many years. Her son, John William “Jack” Kennedy, was killed at age 24 when his O-2A plane crashed in the jungles of Quangtin Province, South Vietnam. “I will admit that I was upset,” Kennedy said. “Now you know he's dead, and there's no chance he's alive. But when it finally came that they had identified Jack, I had the joy of knowing that it was the end of it. My son is going to be buried.”

Jack Kennedy, a 1969 graduate of Virginia Military Institute, is the first Washington area Vietnam veteran whose remains have been returned in more than five years, according to the Washington-based National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia. A military burial will be held Friday at Arlington National Cemetery. His remains are among the first recovered from Southeast Asia to be identified by a new forensic technique that matches a person's DNA – or deoxyribonucleic  acid, the genetic blueprint of life – with DNA from the person's mother. “This is the wonder of this world, that these kinds of things come forth,” Sally Kennedy said. “You never look at your son's death and think that some good doesn't come from all things.”

For years, though, it was difficult for Sally Kennedy and her husband, Daniel E. Kennedy, to know whether to continue the vigil. Sometimes they felt like giving up. But something would always come along to sustain them – a note from a friend, a meeting with a family of another missing service member. Since 1971, Sally Kennedy, as a member of the National League of Families, has pressed the U.S. government to account for service members missing, killed or captured in Southeast Asia.

“We fought long and hard before we made any progress,” said Kennedy, the chapter's Virginia coordinator until 1990. “But here we are, now almost 25 years to the day Jack was shot down, my son is coming home.”

Kennedy refuses to criticize the United States for failing to find her son sooner. She points out that after the war, the Vietnamese government did not allow the United States to search for remains. It was not until the late 1980s that the U.S. and Vietnamese governments cooperated in trying to account for missing service members. Her only regret is that her husband died in 1986, a decade before he could know for sure of his son's fate. The latest years of uncertainty began in 1993, she said, when she learned that remains that might be her son's had been found by a Vietnamese villager. They were sent to the U.S. Army's Central Identification Laboratory in Honolulu for identification. While the lab examined the remains, a task force of U.S. and Vietnamese officials visited the crash site and nearby villages seeking more evidence. They found two engine blocks matching her son's plane, one near the crash site and one in a village a few minutes' walk away. The aircraft parts and remains – a few bones consistent with a man Jack Kennedy's size – suggested that her son had been found. But because no teeth had been found, it was difficult to make a positive identification.

In January 1995, the Hawaii lab sent the remains to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology's DNA identification lab in Rockville. There, scientists extracted DNA from the bones. The DNA came not from the cell nucleus – the more familiar type – but from small oblong sacs, or mitochondria, drifting in the eytoplasm outside the cell nucleus. What makes that type of DNA special is that it is inherited only from the mother. So to determine whether the remains were Jack Kennedy's, the lab
took a blood sample from Sally Kennedy, obtained a mitochondrial DNA sequence and compared the two. They matched. Since 1991, mitochondrial DNA testing has helped the armed forces identify skeletal remains of 37 service members killed during the Vietnam War, the Korean War and World War II. Kennedy hopes that other families will be able to learn the fate of their loved ones.

Since the Vietnam War ended in 1975, the remains of 435 people have been identified. Since 1992, the government has stepped up its efforts to account for 2,149 people, including 41 civilians, still missing. On Wednesday, Daniel E. Kennedy Jr., Sally's older son and an Air Force Vietnam veteran himself, will fly to Travis Air Force Base in California to accompany his brother's coffin back to Washington. Dozens of relatives, friends and VMI “Brother Rats” will attend the funeral.

“This has been a long, drawn-out affair,” Sally Kennedy said. “I'm just happy that Jack is coming home.”

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