SPANGDAHLEM AIR BASE, Germany -- Low clouds filled the winter, night sky in North Vietnam. A bombardier navigator and his pilot partner steered their A-6 Intruder aircraft through the hills and valleys of the region’s Hanoi province. At the time, the A-6 was a state-of-the-art, attack aircraft – designed to navigate all kinds of weather. The two U.S. Navy officers weaved their way through the haze acting as a decoy aircraft – distracting enemy, surface-to-air, missile targeting systems and enabling other U.S. military aircraft to successfully carry out air strikes in the area.
At first, the men were in radio contact with their ship, the USS Midway – a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, then, deployed to the Gulf of Tonkin, Vietnam, supporting offensive, air-strike campaigns in the region. After taking off from the USS Midway, the officers made it safely over land and were flying their designated route. Then, they reported that enemy, surface-to-air, missile targeting systems were aiming for them. Suddenly, radio communication from the A-6 fell silent. The aircraft’s beacon sent no signal to indicate that the officers had ejected, and the Sailors back on the Midway had no way of knowing what happened to their shipmates.
It was Jan. 10, 1973, less than two weeks before the Vietnam War cease-fire. The USS Midway and its crew members were at the end of their tour and set to head back to the United States a couple of days later. Lt. j.g. Robert Clark, the bombardier navigator, and Lt. Michael McCormick, the pilot, would soon be on their way home, and Clark would finally get to meet his two-month-old son. But first, the men had to finish their mission.
However, the first-time father and the pilot would never make it home; the mission would be their last.
The Navy sent out a search party the next day, but the searchers turned up nothing – no aircrew and no aircraft wreckage. It seemed the two officers and their A-6 had disappeared without a trace. The Navy declared Clark and McCormick missing in action.
For 30 years, that was all Col. Tad Clark, 52nd Fighter Wing vice commander here, said he knew of his father’s fate.
“There are a lot of folks that have a similar story; their spouse, loved one, father, grandparent, or relative was either a prisoner of war, or declared missing in action, or killed in action,” Col. Clark said.
“That’s why we have the POW/MIA Remembrance Day – to carve out some time to make sure that we remember those individuals.”
National POW/MIA Recognition Day is an annual U.S. observance that falls on the third Friday in September, and it is a day to remember service men and women who have never returned home from armed conflicts.
Today, more than 83,000 Americans remain missing from World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, the Gulf Wars and other conflicts, according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency website.
However, Col. Clark’s father did eventually return home – in a sense.
In 2003, a U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency team found a crash site and some bone fragments in Hanoi. The agency, which is responsible for recovering U.S. service members lost during armed conflicts, was able to confirm that the remains belonged to Col. Clark’s dad and McCormick.
“It was amazing how the Defense POW MIA Accounting Agency still searches for remains and can identify our military members by bone fragments,” said Jen Clark, the colonel’s wife of 13 years, adding that finally knowing what happened to his father brought some closure to her husband and his mother.
The fallen officers’ families were finally able to lay the two men to rest during a combined ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia, Jan. 9, 2004, which was Jan. 10, 2004, in Vietnam – 31 years to the day of the Sailors’ fateful mission.
“There was a lot of shedding of tears – a lot of healing,” Col. Clark said. “That was a remarkable time. My dad was in Attack Squadron 115, and that was the first time that squadron had come together since Vietnam.”
But, it wasn’t the first time Col. Clark had met some of the squadron members. A few of them he had met as a child, and it was those men who inspired the colonel to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a military fighter pilot.
“I thought it was very special that he followed in his father's footsteps although he never actually met him,” Mrs. Clark said.
After Vietnam, a couple of his dad’s old squadron mates went on to become pilots for the Navy’s aerial demonstration team, the Blue Angels. Between the ages of 5 and 7, Col. Clark, who grew up in Seattle, Washington, would watch the team perform at the Seattle Seafair Festival, the city’s annual boat and airshow.
“When the Blue Angles would come to town, I would see these jets and see these pilots, and that influenced me very much, so I grew up wanting to fly from the very beginning,” said Col. Clark, who not only joined the U.S. Air Force in 1997 and became an F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot, but who later also spent two years flying for the Thunderbirds, the Air Force’s aerial demonstration team.
Throughout his childhood, the same men who influenced Col. Clark to become a fighter pilot also helped the colonel get to know his dad. They, and his father’s former commanding officer, told him what kind of a Sailor and friend his father was – dedicated and a bit of a prankster, Col. Clark said. Meanwhile, his dad’s sister filled him in on his father’s childhood.
“The only memories he has of his father are those told through pictures and the people who knew him,” Mrs. Clark said.
Of course, Col. Clark’s mom, who raised him on her own, also told her son many stories about his dad’s personality and what his father liked to do.
“I’ve had a unique way of hearing about my dad from a family perspective, a commanding officer perspective, and from a peer perspective,” Col. Clark said. “He was the life of the party. He was from California; he surfed; he raced motorcycles. He played football in college – did gymnastics in college. He had a carefree, fun-loving approach to life.”
That is how Col. Clark remembers his dad – through the eyes of others. However, the F-16 pilot is now a father himself, and although he never had the chance to make memories with his dad, he gets to make tangible moments with his own children, two girls and two boys who range from ages 6 to 11.
“Now he has four kids and loves to make time with each child, so they feel special and loved,” Mrs. Clark said. “He is a great dad.”
Nothing can eliminate the sense of loss the colonel has had to deal with for the past 44 years, but, he said, he finds some peace in finally knowing, for certain, what happened to his father.