WASHINGTON — It has been 40 years since Maj. John Lee McElroy's C-130 transport plane was shot down from the Kham Duo airstrip in the Quang Tin Province of Vietnam.
In that time, the Kentuckian's son, Russell, who was barely in his teens when his father died, has seen far more years than his father ever did. The major's daughters Linda and Mary, young girls when their father went to war, are married and have careers.
He has nine grandchildren that he'll never meet. And his wife, Regina, died several years ago without ever getting the chance to lay to rest her husband, who was from Eminence in Henry County.
But sometimes the ones we've lost come back ... even if in the most unexpected ways.
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On a cold, gray Thursday, the McElroy family gathered at Arlington National Cemetery just outside Washington, D.C., to honor the Vietnam veteran whose body had been missing for nearly half a century but whose remains were recently recovered. It was a solemn affair and family members braced themselves against the winter chill as soldiers in dress uniforms honored a fallen comrade.
Behind them rows and rows of headstones dotted the winter landscape, stretching back as far as the eye could see.
"The last time I saw him he was flying out from Fayette County Airport in Lexington. He hugged me and said, Russell you need to take care of your mother and sisters," said Russell McElroy, who lives in Bowling Green.
The Air Force officer's last days were spent a world away in a place where the trees had exotic names and the air was hot and smelled of creosote.
American soldiers had spent several days defending their position, on a narrow grassy plain surrounded by rugged jungle, from a near-constant deluge of gunfire and grenade attacks. Officers decided to extract troops after the North Vietnamese Army launched an attack on the main compound. Napalm, cluster bomb units and 750-pound bombs were hurled into the final wire barriers, according to military records.
During the evacuation, panic ensued.
"As more infantry tried to clamber into the outbound planes, the outraged Special Forces staff convinced the Air Force to start loading civilians onboard a C-130, then watched as the civilians pushed children and weaker adults aside," records show.
The crew of that U.S. Air Force C-130 aircraft included McElroy, the navigator; Maj. Bernard Bucher, pilot; Staff Sgt. Frank Hepler, flight engineer; 1st Lt. Steven Moreland, co-pilot; George Long, loadmaster; Capt. Warren Orr, passenger; and an undetermined number of Vietnamese civilians.
The North Vietnamese Army forces fired on the plane and it exploded in midair and crashed roughly a mile from camp. The plane burned quickly and was destroyed—save for a portion of the tail.
All crew and passengers were thought to be dead.
That was on a Sunday, Mother's Day. McElroy's wife and family members waited a day to tell his three young children that their father had died.
"For a long time, me and my sisters believed and hoped that this was just an accident and that my dad was alive. It took us a while to overcome that," Russell McElroy said.
Years later, a grief-stricken son pointed his new motorcycle eastward along the Blue Ridge Parkway and sped through icy evening rains toward Washington D.C. and a memorial wall where his father's name, along with thousands of others, is etched in the black granite.
"The next day was beautiful and it helped get my heart right to see my dad and all those other veterans," he said.
Gov. Steve Beshear ordered flags at all state office buildings lowered to half-staff on Thursday. As family members return to Kentucky, where their ancestors have lived for generations, where they last waved goodbye to their loved one, the McElroys take comfort in knowing that at last their father has come home.