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Army helicopter crew,
lost in Vietnam War,
finally comes home

By Lisa Burgess, Washington bureau

WASHINGTON — More than any war in modern memory, Vietnam tore holes in America’s heart; holes that are only now, a generation later, beginning to mend. But for thousands of families and friends of service members who lost loved ones in that long, strange, messy conflict, the holes can’t heal because their loved ones are still lost — in a faraway spot, known only to God, where they lived their last moments.

On Friday, five of those service members, the crew of a long-lost Army Chinook helicopter, came home at last. With full military honors, the casket that contained the remains of members of the Army’s 243rd Assault Support Helicopter Company was carried by horse-drawn caisson from the chapel at Fort Myer to its final resting place in the heart of Arlington National Cemetery. As the last notes of taps died away, the ghostly, throbbing rotors of a transport helicopter on a 33-year mission to nowhere could shut down at last. And all that was left in the silence was the harsh scream of an eagle.

Freight Train 053 Oct. 20, 1968, did not bring ideal flying weather to Dong Ba Thin Airfield, Republic of South Vietnam. A typhoon had just passed by, and Tropical Storm Hester was gathering steam just over the horizon. The winds were really acting up that morning, recalled Brian Main, a flight engineer with the 243rd. The cloud ceiling was playing games, too, intermittently lowering. Wind or no wind, three CH-47 Chinook crews saddled up, bound for a routine supply mission to Ban Me Thuot.

The heavy-lift cargo helicopters were a lifeline for U.S. troops scattered throughout Vietnam, bringing everything from fresh ammunition to mail from home. The sturdy, slow-moving Chinooks were a favorite target of the Viet Cong, and the helicopter crews never knew, as they descended into a landing zone, whether that trip would be their last. But they all loved to fly. "We just did our thing and crossed our fingers," Main said. On Oct. 20, the crossed fingers lost their charm.

Early into the morning mission, two of the three Chinooks, including Main’s, got radio orders to break away. A pilot was down and needed an extraction, Main said. The third CH-47, tail number 66-19053, piloted by Chief Warrant Officer 4 Charles Edward "Pappy"Deisch and co-piloted by Chief Warrant Officer 2 Henry Clay Knight, was told to keep going forward. The call sign for Pappy’s Chinook was Freight Train 053, after the unit’s nickname, the "Freight Trainers." Riding that day with Deisch and Knight was crew chief Staff Sgt. Charles Howard Meldahl; Sgt. First Class Ronald Stanton, the ship’s gunner; and Staff Sgt. Jerry Bridges, flight engineer. At 0700, as Freight Train 053 was over the Ninh Noa Valley and heading west, Deisch made his first scheduled radio check with air traffic control.

The next check was scheduled for 0710. It never came. When Freight Train 053 did not reach friendly lines by 0800, the Army launched a search-and-rescue mission. But all-out efforts to find the missing helicopter failed to turn up even a trace. No one will ever know what, exactly, happened to Freight Train 053. Did it get caught in a wind shear? Did the heavy winds push it so far off course that it ran out of fuel and crashed? Or was it shot down by the Viet Cong? The helicopter is found On March 4, 1994, investigators on location in Vietnam from the Pentagon’s Joint Task Force-Full Accounting, whose mission is to achieve the fullest possible accounting of Americans still unaccounted for as a result of the war in Southeast Asia, found the wreckage of a Chinook helicopter. The tail number was 66-19053. Human remains found at the site were turned over to the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory, headquartered at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii. Analysts from the Casualty Data section began to compare the remains against the records of the 1,981 servicemembers from Vietnam whose bodies never have been recovered or positively identified.

Army scientists were able to identify individual remains from Bridges, Knight, Meldahl, and Deisch.They were unable to get a positive identification for Stanton, but based on the evidence from the crash site, he is presumed to have perished with the rest of the crew. Friday’s funeral at Arlington included a joint burial for the commingled remains of the crew that the Army was unable to separate. Meldahl’s family chose to have his remains placed in the same joint casket; Knight’s family requested a separate casket, but that he be buried next to the joint casket. Separate funerals also were held in Tennessee for Bridges and in Texas for Deisch. Homecoming Just as they had the day the crew took off on its final mission, clouds threatened rain as Freight Train 053’s funeral procession began.

But just as a trio of Chinook helicopters from Fort Eustis, Va., rumbled over the gravesite in a "missing man" formation overhead, the sun broke through. At the end of the ceremony, another set of wings flew over the grave site — Challenger, a bald eagle cared for by the nonprofit American Eagle Foundation in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. The magnificent symbol of American freedom was rescued as a baby during a storm 12 years ago, and has been hand-raised by foundation workers ever since. When the ceremony ended, the veterans of the 243rd Assault Support Helicopter Company gathered at the grave site to talk, share memories and perhaps cry a little. The "Freight Trainers" have gray hair now, or no hair.

Some sported paunches beneath the "uniform of the day," — khakis, white polo shirts and blue baseball caps with their unit logo — which the men proudly wore in place of the olive-drab jumpsuits that identified them as Army helicopter jockeys 33 years ago. "We may have been sent in harm’s way with a broken sword, but we stood as one," said Colonel Jon R. Beckenhaur, U.S. Army (Ret.), a "Freight Trainer" who gave the eulogy for the crew. "Our shield was our pride."

The 243rd would lose a total of eight men before Vietnam finally ground to a weary close for American troops. But of all the men who passed through the unit, only the crew of Freight Train 053 never went home — until now. The unit mourned, and still mourns, the loss of its own, of course. Yet worse than sorrow was the terrible guilt. "As soldiers, we were trained never to leave anyone behind," Beckenhaur said. "Thousands of times over these past 33 years, we [survivors] have felt guilty for leaving them" in Vietnam. On Friday that guilt finally was laid to rest alongside the crew of Freight Train 053. "Catch the wind, take the lead and soar to the warm light of God," Beckenhaur said in eulogy. "And off your wing, keep watch for us. "Welcome home. "Our last mission is complete."


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