It was 48 years ago this month that the family of Lt. James Kelly Patterson last heard from him.
Patterson went MIA after his plane was shot down near Hanoi during the Vietnam War.
Patterson, a navigator with Navy Attack Squadron VA-35, and the pilot were both ejected from the plane. His squad mate, Dave Cable, remembers it as the worst day of his life.
“We knew that the Vietnamese were close to Kelly,” Cable said. “We were kind of hanging on our fingernails waiting for this word to come back.”
And then the rescue mission was called off. Years later, Patterson was presumed dead.
On this Memorial Day weekend, 40 years after the end of the Vietnam War, more than a 1,000 service members and civilians remain missing. Most likely are dead. But for families, there are no grave sites to visit; and no certainty about what happened to their loved ones, or their loved ones’ remains.
The search for answers can become an obsession for relatives.
In Patterson’s case, his little brother George “Luck” Patterson is still looking for him, hoping that he might come home.
When Patterson and his co-pilot dropped out of the A-6 plane, they were apprehended by the North Vietnamese.
But six years later, in 1973, when the U.S. negotiated the release of prisoners of war, Patterson’s name wasn’t on the list. His co-pilot, however, was released.
“The casualty officer come over to our house, and we were waiting in anticipation,” Luck Patterson said. “He said, ‘Your brother’s not on the list.’ So that was very devastating," he said.
In 1985, the Vietnamese mailed back Patterson’s ID card, saying that he was shot in a fire fight with a soldier and buried on site.
But when Luck Patterson returned to Vietnam to where his brother had supposedly been buried, he found that the soil strata at the precise coordinates had never been disturbed. It seemed impossible to him that his brother was buried there.
The Vietnamese offered their own version of events, but it didn’t make sense to Luck Patterson. They said his brother stood up and was shot in the fight. But Luck Patterson said he couldn’t have stood up, given that his leg was badly broken.
Luck Patterson has wondered if his brother, a highly trained pilot, was possibly traded to the Soviet Union. And so he searches on, looking for clues about what really happened.
Some have urged him to move on, but he says he can’t.
"I'm not stupid, I’m not illogical,” Luck Patterson says. “His chances of being alive today are miniscule, and I realize that, but it's not an absolute yet. I feel like if I just dust my hands off, and say, ‘I’m not going to pursue this anymore’ – that feels like abandonment.”
Dave Cable, too, struggles with his friend’s memory. For decades he has hauled around the shattered windshield of an A-6, the same type of plane Patterson was flying. A few days ago, he put it on display near his house in Friday Harbor, Washington, and raised a toast to his old friend.
They also honored Patterson with a ceremony – a color guard, a 21-guard salute and a flyover by Navy Growler planes from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.
Cable says the ceremony gave him a sense of peace. But more than that, he hopes it inspires other Vietnam veterans to open up about their stories. He hopes to honor the men and women who served, remember the ones who died, and perhaps one day answer the questions about the servicemembers whose fates remain a mystery.