MONTROSE (AP) – In 1967, two U.S. Air Force pilots went down, plunging into a vast Vietnam river with their F-4C Phantom II.
One came out, plucked from danger by a Navy vessel. The other didn’t – not until 2010, long after the military had given up hope of locating his remains.
And now, Air Force 1st Lt. Robert Elwood “Woody” Bennett is coming to Montrose to be laid to rest. A public service with full military honors and flyover was planned for Saturday.
A dredger pulled up Lt. Bennett’s remains on March 17, 2010. He was officially identified in 2011.
“Apparently, he got wrapped up in his parachute,” said Ret. Marine Corps Maj. Bill Bennett of Montrose, Lt. Bennett’s cousin and designated next of kin.
“It (1967) was a bad December. His favorite aunt died, he died and then our grandmother. We knew when he went missing and when they ended the search.”
Lt. Bennett was piloting the Phantom in South Vietnam on Dec. 13, 1967. As the plane made its last pass in the target area, it was hit by ground fire, Col. W.E. Davis explained in a letter to the 25-year-old’s parents in New Jersey.
The flight leader on the mission saw Lt. Bennett and his aircraft commander, Capt. William Sakahara, eject and land in the Pang Tra River, 900 feet from shore.
The forward air controller saw Sakahara deploy his life preserver, but when he looked to Bennett’s position, “he could only see his parachute sliding under the water, and no further signs of Woody,” Davis wrote on Dec. 20, 1967.
Bill Bennett said Sakahara told him the plane felt like it hit a wall.
“It went out of control, and they punched out,” Bennett said.
Sakahara was picked up by the Navy boat within eight minutes. But a 3½-hour search that covered 10 miles on either side of the crash position failed to turn up Lt. Bennett.
Davis eventually concluded there was no chance Bennett had survived, and on Dec. 29, 1967, he notified Lt. Bennett’s parents and wife. He was classified as killed in action.
Lt. Bennett’s survivors received information, sympathy and his decorations: the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Purple Heart and others. But there was one thing no one could tell them: where his remains were. The military in 1994 concluded they were “unrecoverable.”
But Lt. Bennett happened to have been among the 20 percent or so of servicemen from whom the military had collected a hair sample in the 1960s.
The sample, along with persuasive circumstantial evidence, helped conclusively identify bones discovered in the Tien River in 2010 as Lt. Bennett’s.
Lt. Bennett’s parents had passed away by the time the ID was made. His wife had long since remarried and was therefore no longer considered his next of kin. That left Bill Bennett, who was paid a visit by Air Force Mortuary Service representative Allen Cronin late last year.
“I never figured they would find him,” Bill Bennett said. “It’s tremendous.”
Bill Bennett could have had his cousin buried at one of the national cemeteries. He opted to bring Woody home, to be laid to rest at Cedar Creek Cemetery, where Bennett has purchased a plot.
“I decided to bring him here because it’s friendly. We really love the community. I wanted to get him home and in the ground here, where his service is appreciated,” Bennett said.