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Posted: March 4, 2014 10:00 p.m.

Downed pilots finally come home

An airfield in northeast Thailand designated as NKP (Nakhon Phanom) during the Vietnam War was actually a Royal Thai Naval Base. The Thais utilized NKP as a home base for river patrols along the murky Mekong River, the internationally accepted border between Thailand and Laos. The small community of Nakhon Phanom on the banks of the Mekong became a boom town during the American involvement in Southeast Asia.

On the night of July 8, 1969, U.S. Air Force Maj. James Sizemore, pilot, and his navigator, Maj. Howard Andre Jr., completed the final checklist on their World War II era A-26 Douglas Invader. The vintage fighter-bomber, painted solid black with no identification markings, was part of a clandestine interdiction crusade against Communist North Vietnam’s well-protected Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos and Cambodia.

Throttling both engines to full power, Sizemore held the Invader stable until achieving proper lift for takeoff. Banking eastward toward the "Trail," Sizemore and Andre readied the A-26 for a nighttime armed reconnaissance mission.

The A-26 Invader was a formidable aircraft. A maneuverable and solid gun platform, an Invader could carry eight .50-caliber machine guns in its nose, three .50 calibers in each wing, and during World War II, the twin .50 calibers on the front turret could be locked into a forward position for the strafing impact of 16 forward-firing .50-caliber machine guns. Toss 4,000 pounds of bombs into the bomb bay and/or attach rockets to the wings, and it’s easy to understand why you’d want to avoid being on the receiving end of an Invader mission.

Over the rugged mountainous Communist-held region of Xiangkhouang Province, Laos, the two American airmen spotted enemy personnel and vehicles. Rolling in for a strafing run, the A-26 Invader was immediately hit by anti-aircraft fire. She never recovered. Continuing straight down, the Invader exploded upon impact with the mountainous terrain. With the area totally under enemy control, a determined recovery effort was not possible. No parachutes were seen; no emergency beepers heard; the boys were gone.

Majors James Sizemore and Howard Andre were listed as Killed in Action/Body Not Recovered. By war’s end, almost 600 Americans disappeared in Laos.

On that same night back at NKP, a young airman had just finished his 12-hour shift in the Intelligence building, or more than likely, was already neck-deep in a poker game at the base club, unaware another Invader had gone down. He was in his 16th month at NKP with two months to go before reporting to Saigon, Vietnam, for yet another year of war.

An aviation enthusiast and military historian, the young airman couldn’t believe his good luck when he first arrived at NKP. The smallish airbase was a throwback to a World War II Pacific island landing field, dusty or muddy depending on the weather, cut from thick jungle, isolated, with a flight line clogged with aircraft from a bygone era: the 1950s era prop-driven A1E Skyraider, the lovable C-47 Gooney Bird, and the celebrated A-26 Invader. For the next 18 months the young airman would beg, borrow and steal, even lie, to catch a combat "hop" aboard an A-26 – he never succeeded. The best he ever managed was totally unauthorized flights on Huey and Jolly Green rescue choppers, until his superiors found out and grounded him permanently due to his security clearance.

After 30 months in Southeast Asia, the airman returned home. He had been one of the lucky ones, granted a new lease on life, to live out that life as best he could. A college degree; marriage, a kid, divorce, single parenthood, and another marriage that worked lay in his future. Still, the nagging memories of his return from Vietnam to an uncaring and sometimes hostile public kept his thoughts bottled-up. Even worse, he lost all respect for a government that had abandoned its military when that same military had been asked to do the impossible.

In time, a smidgen of respect returned for the federal government due to the leadership of men like Ronald Reagan and World War II veteran George Bush. Yet, that smidgen of respect disappeared into the quicksand of political correctness and a society based on government dependency instead of individualism and patriotism. He no longer recognized the country he once proudly fought for, and if need be, would have died for.

In 1993, joint search teams from the U.S. and Lao People’s Democratic Republic discovered a crash site of an A-26 Invader in Laos. A complete excavation was not possible at the time. In 2010, the teams returned to do a proper excavation. They found personal belongings, U.S. Air Force equipment, additional aircraft wreckage, and human remains linked to Sizemore and Andre.

The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), using forensic, dental and DNA techniques, confidently identified the remains as belonging to Majors Sizemore and Andre. After 41 years in the jungle, the boys were coming home.

In August 2013, family, friends and military dignitaries gathered at Arlington National Cemetery as Majors Sizemore and Andre were laid to rest. Due to sequestration, a military flyover to honor the American aviators was denied.

Warrior Flight Team and its affiliate, WarrAviation, both non-profit organizations, stepped to the forefront to honor Sizemore and Andre. Using their private vintage military aircraft and personal bank accounts, the two groups conducted a flyover that included an A-26, P-51 Mustangs, and privately owned jets for the missing man formation.

Upon hearing of yet another national humiliation heaped upon the men and women of our military, that once-young airman decided to write an article in tribute to Majors Sizemore and Andre. Yes, that sometimes undisciplined and poker-playing airman was yours truly.

I may have attended a briefing with Sizemore and Andre; it’s feasible I mighty have passed them in a hallway; and it’s more than feasible that I rendered them a salute on one of many pathways at NKP. What rips at my gut is the miserable fact that these two heroes of the skies were not allowed a proper tribute upon their return because of the inaction and wretched bickering among politicians in Washington, D.C.

I love my country. I’d still fight for her even as a senior citizen. But to waste another decent and patriotic life in defense of this self-centered and heartless federal government seems inconceivable.

Notwithstanding, welcome home my brothers. You did your duty; you did what had to be done. May you finally rest in peace.

Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at aveteransstory@gmail.com or aveteransstory.us.

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