By Staff Sgt. Aaron J. Jenne, 436th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
/ Published September 11, 2017
DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. -- From a distance, there appeared to be a giant, gray, bug-eyed swamp dragonfly attacking the flightline during the 2017 Thunder Over Dover Open House. Brave and inquisitive people who ventured a closer look discovered it wasn’t some herculean insect, but rather an Army OV-1 Mohawk observation and surveillance aircraft used during the Vietnam War through Operation Desert Storm. An even closer inspection would reveal the gray fuselage was covered end-to-end in hundreds of names – names that memorialize the 1,636 American service members that are still unaccounted for from the Vietnam War.
Under the warbird’s pilot-side wing sat two people: Joe Masessa, the aircraft’s lead pilot, and Wayne Klotz, a veteran technical officer on the OV-1 during the Vietnam War. He flew 125 combat missions operating radar and infrared equipment and taking surveillance photographs.
The OV-1 has been touring air shows since 2015, when Mohawk Airshows painted on all 1,636 names, making it the first Vietnam POW/MIA memorial aircraft.
“I know six of them,” Klotz said of the memorial names. “I flew with some of them, I worked with some of them and I went to school with some of them. Joe did a great thing by putting those names on there. Most planes have one or two names of a previous pilot who died. Joe never met any of these people, but he did a good thing. It makes me feel good, but I fall apart. I can’t talk about it.”
“One of them … it was his first flight,” Klotz went on fighting back tears. “He went to Vietnam as an 18 year-old kid. He didn’t want to fly. He went to the sergeant and said, ‘I don’t feel good, I don’t want to fly,’ so the sergeant gave him a job maintaining and preparing the chemicals we used in photography and infrared equipment. He lived in that [storage container]. He slept there. He ate there. He was great at his job. There were 50 of me’s flying in 25 planes, but there was only one of him.”
“About October, he went to the sergeant and said, I want to fly,” Klotz concluded. “He was very capable, and he got shot down, two hours in the air. The worst part about it is you’re on the ground, and you’re talking to him and it quits.”
Klotz said he was there that day not only because of what the plane meant to him, but because of his connection to those names, and what they represent.
“I ask people if they know what the POW/MIA flag looks like,” Klotz said. “Do you have an image of it? They’ll say, ‘yeah.’ I’ll say, ‘walk around the plane.’ These 1,600 names are what that flag represents. Your image of that flag will not be the same after you’ve seen the names,” he added as tears formed at the corners of his eyes and his throat began to crack. “That’s what I tell everybody. That’s all I can do.”
The monument’s impact was even more pronounced at Dover AFB, Masessa added, thanks to the efforts of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System, located on the installation, to identify recovered remains from past conflicts.
AFMES personnel provide DNA-based identification of remains recovered by the Defense POW/MIA Accountability Agency, headquartered at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii.
AFMES personnel collect family reference samples from family members of missing service members for a baseline to compare the DNA of recovered remains to.
“This is incredibly important work,” said Dr. Timothy McMahon, AFMES Department Of Defense DNA Operations director. “When you sit down next to these families, you’ll find that even though their brother was lost in Korea or their son was lost in Southeast Asia, it is still fresh in their mind. These men and women swore to uphold the constitution and defend our country. It means a lot to know that your country will not forget you, that it’ll do everything in its power to recover you, to identify you and to return you to your loved ones.”
The hard work and dedication of these agencies to repatriate and identify fallen service members is represented on the memorial.
“If you look closely at the names, you’ll see American flags next to some of the names,” Masessa said. “Each of those are individuals whose remains were returned home and identified. It’s amazing that we live in a country that’s so dedicated to bringing closure to families that suffered such a loss more than 40 years ago. It makes me proud to be here today knowing that this base helps bring them home.”
McMahon echoed the sentiment.
“I think memorials like this are extremely important, because they honor not only that service member, but their families as well,” McMahon said. “When you get the opportunity to present the DNA results to a family, you can almost feel the relief and the thankfulness that now they have their loved one back. We should never forget the honor and dignity of these service members. That’s why we have memorials like this, and remembrance ceremonies.”
The flying memorial participated as a static display during the open house to give spectators a chance to see, touch and feel the names written on it. Most of the time, Masessa performs with the plan, but at this venue, the plane couldn’t do both.
“This was a very acrobatic plane,” Klotz explained to an open house guest. “It handled like a much smaller plane. We had a hard time following enemy troop movements because they would dig-in in such a way that you couldn’t see them from overhead, so we’d fly down into these ravines and bank to one side to get the camera into position.”
Masessa chimed in, “That’s what makes it such a great acrobatics plane. It had to be nimble and powerful to get the job done. It’s such a fun plane to fly, and it’s such an awesome story that we get to tell with this plane in particular.”
With the open house’s theme of sharing the heritage of American air power, this aircraft was an excellent addition, reminding all to never forget.
“We are proud to be the world’s first POW/MIA flying monument,” Masessa said in a brochure about the aircraft. “This is our thank you to these men and women – our way to say that they are not forgotten – and our promise to fight for them as they fought for us. We vow to attend as many airshows as possible to bring awareness to, and gain support for, our mission to help recover these brave soldiers. We will not stop flying until every man and woman is accounted for.”