‘No man left behind’
May 29, 2011
Col. Leo Boston loved to fly, so on April 29, 1966, his hand shot up to volunteer for a search and rescue mission in North Vietnam. A U.S. pilot had been shot down and Boston was among those going after him.
He put on his flight suit, helmet and sidearm, climbed into the cockpit of an A-1E Skyraider, a turboprop fighter plane loved by pilots – and Boston’s Skyraider was packing the most advanced weapons of its time.
Boston roared low into the Vietnam sky, and soon he and another pilot were skimming treetops, searching near Quang Minh village in North Vietnam.
Suddenly their radios crackled with news that North Vietnamese MiG fighter jets were stalking them. A Skyraider is a gutsy, powerful aircraft, but the turboprop was no match for a MiG.
Boston and his wingman banked toward Son la Province, where they could wait safely in a holding pattern.
The kill shot came quickly.
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It’s unclear whether it was cannon fire below or a MiG above. It is clear that Boston’s plane was blown into two pieces, the rear bursting into flames, and the front, where Boston was strapped in, crashing into the jungle.
Neither Boston nor his aircraft were seen again.
When his country called, U.S. Air Force pilot Boston left his young wife and three small children behind in the U.S. and went to war.
Dorothy Deanna Boston, his widow, waited for a phone call and any word about her husband.
One of those children, Bethany Boston-Johnson, is a realtor here in the valley. She was 6 years old when her father went to Vietnam. She, too, spent her entire life waiting.
Her call came last month, April 15, from the Air Force mortuary.
Allen Cronin was on the other end. He’s chief of the Past Conflicts Branch of the Air Force Mortuary Operations Center.
She picked up the phone in her Prudential real estate office in Edwards. At once, she was a jumble of emotions. The mortuary would only call if there had been a positive identification.
There had been, Cronin said.
On April 4, the Air Force positively identified Col. Boston’s remains, Cronin said.
The wait was over.
“My uncle, sister and I have been active with this for the last 45 years,” Bethany said. “We didn’t know anything at all for 30 years.”
The Vietnamese and U.S. governments began working together to find and identify those the war had killed. A joint team made several trips to Son La Province and finally caught a break in November 1997.
A few elders from Quang Ming Village said they had seen a U.S. plane crash around 1966, shot down by Vietnamese fighter jets.
There were no parachutes and no one ejected. The pilot was likely killed instantly, the villagers told the team.
One of the elders found a flight helmet, pieces of parachute and part of a kneecap while farming near the plane’s wreckage. They showed the team.
The team checked and rechecked Air Force records. Boston’s was the only A-1E Skyraider to come within 50 kilometers of the village.
“If a fighter pilot was not going to make it out that day, we didn’t want him to suffer,” Bethany said. “Pilots are ready to go in the air.”
“He loved his job and he was happy doing it.”
A search immediately launched for Boston, but the weather was terrible and they couldn’t find any evidence, either visually or electronically.
Ironically, the pilot Boston was flying to rescue made it out alive. That’s been a help over the years, Bethany said.
For more than four decades they’ve kept up to date with the Pentagon and Air Force. They’re members of a nonprofit, National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia.
The kneecap was shipped to laboratories where Air Force scientists tried to match it to DNA they had collected from Boston’s family 20 years earlier – just in case something ever turned up.
“Once we had the bone our hopes soared,” Bethany said.
But the kneecap – left kneecap – was too small and decomposed to test accurately with the DNA technology available in 1997.
So they waited years for DNA technology to improve.
And slowly, it did.
On April 4, the results were final. The Air Force put everything in order. On April 15, Cronin called Bethany.
“I feel an increased sense of closure,” Bethany said.
They met at an airport hotel in Denver and signed off on the results. That triggers a chain of remarkable events over the next 60 days.
On July 10, she’ll fly to Honolulu with Cronin to a forensic base and escort her father’s remains home. There’ll be a full military funeral at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.
The Air Force has been relentless in trying to identify Boston. When the Air Force contacted her five years ago to tell her about the bone fragment, she knew in her heart of hearts it was him.
She was 6 the last time she saw her father, the oldest of three children. Her sister was 5 and their little brother was 3 – too young to get to know him as well as she wishes they could have, Bethany said.
“My father signed a bi-lateral agreement with the Air Force and did everything they asked of him. They’re now doing what they promised. They’ve been very humble about it,” Bethany said.
“I’m grateful. Their motto is, ‘No man left behind,’ even if it takes 45 years.”
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.