Colorado's last Guard Vietnam MIA laid to rest

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Mike R. Smith
  • National Guard Bureau
The remains of a Colorado Air National Guardsman who vanished during an observation flight 39 years ago over the jungles of South Vietnam were to rest April 3 at Arlington National Cemetery.

Maj. Perry H. Jefferson, an intelligence officer with Colorado's 120th Tactical Fighter Squadron, went missing during an observation flight April 3, 1969.

The 37-year-old major was flying aboard an O-1 Bird Dog observation aircraft piloted by Army Reserve pilot, 1st Lt. Arthur Ecklund, and they never returned to their base. Defense officials said a three-day search found no evidence of a crash, and hostile forces in the area prevented other searches. Both men were listed as missing in action.

A closed-casket viewing was held at a funeral home here April 1. Families, fellow servicemembers, veterans and friends to both men attended full-honors funerals April 2 and 3, which started at the Old Post Chapel on Fort Myer, followed by platoon, band and caisson escorts to their gravesites on the nation's most sacred property.

More than 150 people attended Major Jefferson's services, including nearly 100 members from Colorado who watched the state's reported last Guard Vietnam MIA put to rest.

Major Jefferson received his bachelor's degree from Southern Methodist College and worked for Aramco in the Middle East before joining the Air Guard. His wife, Sylvia, died in 1992. He and 375 other Colorado Air Guard members deployed to Phan Rang, Vietnam, in April 1968. They were the first Air Guard fighter squadron assigned to active duty in Vietnam.

For retired Col. Don Neary, an F-100 Super Sabre pilot who served with Major Jefferson, said the major didn't need to fly on visual reconnaissance missions from Phan Rang.

"I think what his motivation was is he probably wanted to be a pilot ... but also the aircraft was our forward air control airplane," Colonel Neary said. "I think it gave him an appreciation for us, and he went out to get that experience for when he would come in and brief us in the morning."

"We were within a month of coming home," said Maj. Gen. John L. France in "Colorado Pride," a Colorado Air Guard history book.

General France was the unit's operations officer in Vietnam and later served as Colorado's adjutant general. In the book, he shared the moments leading up to Major Jefferson's disappearance.

"Clyde Seiler and Don Neary were on a (F-100) mission together. Clyde got shot down and went into the jungle -- no parachute. He didn't get out. Then, we lost Perry Jefferson a few days after Clyde. It was a rough time," General France said in his book.

The unit returned home in April 1969, and the Air Guard members who served at Phan Rang were immortalized later in the National Guard Heritage Series painting "Scramble at Phan Rang."

After defense officials received human remains in 1984 from a suspected military crash, eyewitnesses were interviewed. One witness said the aircraft crashed on a mountainside and the pilots died and were buried there. An excavation led by the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command uncovered the aircraft's wreckage, but no human remains were found at the crash site.

In 2000, the remains turned over in 1984 were identified as Lieutenant Ecklund's. The lieutenant was interred April 2 and was previously interred in Knoxville, Ill., by his family in 2004. The reservist attended Arizona State University and was drafted in 1966. He attended helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft training prior to his combat deployment.

Defense officials said Major Jefferson's remains were not identified until 2007, after a Vietnamese national living in California turned them in.

The day before Major Jefferson's interment ceremony, visiting Colorado Guard members walked among blossoming cherry trees to the Vietnam War Memorial to lay a wreath. They also located Major Jefferson's name on the dark granite and took a rubbing for their military museum.

"Perry was everybody's friend. He took off on a normal observation run and never returned. He just vanished," General France said.