Recovery efforts help write final chapter for missing pilot's wife
Sallie Stratton holds what is believed to be the boot sole worn by her husband, Lt. Col. Charles W. Stratton, whose bomber went down Jan. 3, 1971, over Laos. Her husband's body was never recovered, and he was missing and presumed dead until 2007. Uniform and boot material found at the site, along with DNA extracted from small pieces of bone found, were used to confirm his death. (DOD photo by Fred W. Baker III )
by Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
12/4/2008 - WASHINGTON (AFRNS) -- Sallie Stratton always knew she wanted to write a book, but she just couldn't bring herself to put pen to paper -- until now.
It is truly a Texas-sized love story that starts nearly 50 years ago in a small record store near Dallas. It chases a pilot's dream around the globe to a foreign land, turns on its end in a fiery jet crash, returns to a grief-stricken widow and three small boys, and ends in a southwestern cemetery just last year.
Chuck was Mrs. Stratton's first love. On New Year's Eve in 1959, the young man bent on flying for the Air Force happened into the record store where Mrs. Stratton was working and tried to flirt with her. She was busy closing the shop, so he had to buy a record to get her attention, Mrs. Stratton said. Though she wouldn't break her date that night to go out with him, she did yield her phone number.
They went out a few days later, and Chuck proposed within a month. But, Mrs. Stratton was only 17 at the time and had yet to finish high school. Chuck was set for pilot's training for the Air Force. So after she finished school and he finished training, they married. The two had a one-night honeymoon and left for their first duty station the next day.
"I knew it was Air Force from the time I met him. He was a flier, and that was what he was going to do," Mrs. Stratton said.
The two would spend the next decade traveling from base to base and starting a family. But the war in Vietnam was raging, and Jan. 3, 1971, found Capt. Charles W. Stratton with a fellow pilot, Maj. James H. Ayres, flying an F-4E Phantom II, a long-range supersonic fighter-bomber, on a night mission over Savannakhet province, Laos.
The two made a dry pass over the target, but did not drop their bombs. The plane did not return from its second pass.
Pilots flying nearby reported seeing a large explosion on the ground. No one saw anyone eject, and communication was lost with the jet. Hostile activity in the area prevented any search and rescue attempts, according to reports.
Captain Stratton and Major Ayres were listed as missing in action that day.
While her husband was deployed, Mrs. Stratton had moved back to Dallas to live with her mother. She thought it would be a good opportunity for their three boys, ages 3, 5 and 8, to spend time with grandparents.
The next morning at 6 a.m., there was a knock on her door. An officer read to her a brief telegram detailing the facts of the night's events, then turned and left to relay the same information to Captain Stratton's parents.
And Mrs. Stratton began grieving, and waiting.
"Human beings, ... we can survive anything, if we know what it is we're surviving," Mrs. Stratton said. "I think that the unknown is probably the most difficult situation to be confronted with. We want to know. We want to know the answers."
Mrs. Stratton said she knew it was likely her husband had died in the crash. But because no body was recovered and no one knew for certain, there was always a question of whether he was still alive and held in a prison camp. So she waited to hear something -- anything -- that would let her know for certain one way or the other. But information was not forthcoming.
"We didn't get any information for the first couple of years, while the war was going on," Mrs. Stratton said.
She pinned her hopes on the Jan. 27, 1973, peace accord that put an end to the war and the U.S. military involvement. U.S. prisoners of war were to be released and returned home. Foreign and U.S. military officials both promised lists of those who were held in the various prison camps.
Mrs. Stratton received word via another telegram; this time an officer read it to her over the phone. There would be no such list from Laos, so her husband would continue to be listed as missing.
"I believed for years that Chuck was alive -- that he had survived the crash," Mrs. Stratton said. "I clung to the dream I had of him where he was a POW. That dream gave me the hope I needed to survive at the time. I was so sure he would be on that list in 1973 and come home to us."
By 1977, Mrs. Stratton had gone back to college, become active politically with other wives of POWs and served on the board of directors for the National League of Families, an organization for family members of servicemembers taken prisoner or missing from the Vietnam War.
And she had come to a point at which she needed to resolve her husband's case, Mrs. Stratton said.
"By then, I decided I needed to figure what was going to happen. It was pretty obvious I wasn't going to get much of an answer at that point," she said.
Mrs. Stratton decided she would request a status review of her husband's case by the military, she said, though she knew it would result in his being classified as presumed dead.
"There was this fear that if I have a status change, I'm killing him off," she said. But a status change would allow for his insurance to be paid and other benefits to begin. It also would allow her to be free socially to date or remarry.
"At that point, I really didn't think I would ever know anything. It was just one of those things we'd have to live with," Mrs. Stratton said. "I had done everything I knew to get an answer, and there wasn't an answer."
She spent months considering her options and finally decided that the status review was best for her and her sons. And, Mrs. Stratton said, she knew her husband would have supported her decision. Promoted twice during his time listed as missing, Lieutenant Colonel Stratton officially was classified as presumed dead July 8, 1977.
The family went through the motions of a memorial service. Mrs. Stratton said she really didn't want to, but she knew it was important. Surprisingly, after the service, it was as if her husband had rejoined the family, she said. They told stories about her husband, and the children began remembering little things about him, she said.
"It had become very apparent that we didn't talk about Chuck [before]. And the boys particularly didn't talk about their daddy," she said. "How do you talk about somebody you haven't seen in forever? If you talk about him as if he's alive, it feels weird. ... But if you talk about him as if he is dead, then you are killing him off."
For the most part, after the service, life moved on for Mrs. Stratton. She traveled, taking different jobs. She lived abroad for a few years. And she almost forgot about the nagging question of what really happened that night her husband didn't come home.
But from time to time, things happened to remind her that she never really knew.
Around 1992, rumors circulated that American POWs were being kept in Laos near where her husband's jet crashed. A native even identified her husband from a photograph as one of the POWs kept there. The military discounted the reports, though, and did not view the source as credible.
Then, in 1999, Mrs. Stratton was back in Texas, living with a friend in Houston. She received a letter from the Defense Department's POW/Missing Personnel Office. The Washington, D.C.-based office is charged with developing the policy and overseeing the efforts of the nearly 600 men and women in a handful of agencies across the country who work to research, recover and identify those who still are listed as missing from past wars.
People assigned to the office travel across the country a dozen times each year to update families on the status of missing servicemembers. The next meeting was nearby and Mrs. Stratton decided to attend.
There, she found out that her husband's crash site was next on the list to be excavated by a team from the U.S. military's Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command on its next visit to Laos. The command sends out research and recovery teams on about 70 missions each year. The JPAC is based in the U.S. Pacific Command and conducts 80 percent of its missions there. It has identified nearly 1,500 formerly missing servicemembers.
"I didn't realize that they were still excavating and that they were really going to those lengths," Mrs. Stratton said.
While she was excited about the possibility of finally knowing whether her husband died that night, Mrs. Stratton said original questions she had tried to quell began to resurface.
"It was almost like replicating those first few years of waiting for information," she said. "It's like [you feel] that hope again that you're finally going to get an answer. We started the waiting game again."
It would be five years before the site was fully excavated and all remains were recovered.
In 2001, a joint U.S./Laotian team, led by the JPAC, traveled to Savannakhet province and interviewed citizens about aircraft crash sites. One of the men led the team to what was believed to be the Ayres and Stratton crash site, according to military reports. Later that year, another team began excavating the site. The team recovered human remains and aircrew-related items. Between 2002 and 2005, joint teams visited the site six more times to complete the excavation.
Mrs. Stratton received detailed reports from each trip. And finally, she learned that the teams had found bones and possible material evidence. Pieces of flight suits, boots, and a survival vest were found.
In August 2005, Mrs. Stratton found herself at the Life Sciences Equipment Laboratory in San Antonio. The lab supports the JPAC mission and deals mostly with identifications from aircraft crash sites, because they are less likely to yield human remains. The heat, fed by jet fuel and loaded munitions, incinerates most human remains as temperatures reach several times those of a crematorium.
But many pieces of military uniforms and equipment will withstand those temperatures. Most times, the equipment analysts at the lab are able to piece together with scientific accuracy the likely final moments of servicemembers based on the artifacts.
Analysts estimate that with the full bomb load that then-Captain Stratton's jet was carrying that night, temperatures would have been eight times that of a crematorium. Yet they recovered 58 pieces of flight suit material.
Using those, analysts pieced together two right-leg pencil pockets -- evidence that both pilots were in the crash. Also, boot sole material was recovered. The tread on military boots made during the Vietnam era varied, and analysts found boot sole material with two different treads.
"Looking at that, it was like 'This was just incredible.' I felt so blessed," Mrs. Stratton said. "I never thought I would get that much of a definitive answer. Now I know that he wasn't ever a prisoner. He died instantly on the third of January, 1971. That felt ... comforting to finally know."
That would not be the only evidence that her husband had died in the crash. The small amounts of bone material found at the site remarkably had rendered DNA, allowing technicians at the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory in Rockville, Md., to help conclude that the remains were those of her husband.
The lab also supports the JPAC mission and extracts the DNA of 800 bone and tooth samples each year provided by the JPAC. DNA testing, once deemed unreliable by the scientific community, has developed to become a key piece of evidence in nearly 85 percent of all missing troop identifications.
On July 5, 2007, Mrs. Stratton finally got the call she had been waiting on for more than 35 years.
"I was just like dumbstruck," Mrs. Stratton said.
She said she asked the officer from the DNA lab on the other end of the line about a "buh-zillion times" if he was sure of the results. He was.
After she got off the phone, Mrs. Stratton said, she walked only a few steps and stopped.
"There was just this wail, this scream ... this grief that just came up I think from my toenails. I cried like I have never. It just erupted," she said. "Getting the positive DNA [results] unleashed grief that was still buried somewhere in my body. It was just amazing."
So the family had another funeral service last year for Chuck. In stark contrast to his first funeral decades earlier, hundreds of family, friends, grandkids, and even some of Chuck's old cadet buddies gathered Oct. 9, 2007, at the Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery for what turned out to be more of a celebration than a memorial.
"It was like Dallas and the world welcomed Chuck home. It was absolutely awesome," Mrs. Stratton said. "We laughed. We cried. We told stories. We celebrated his life from beginning to end. And it was just awesome."
But, truth be told, Chuck is not buried under the stone in the cemetery. Mrs. Stratton chose to keep her small bone fragments with her in an urn. The two pieces of bone, thought to be the two ends of his thighbone, are roughly the size of a thumbnail.
"He was gone a long time. He's going to stick around for a while," Mrs. Stratton said.
She has dated other men, but never remarried. She has never checked the "widow" block on a form. In some ways, she said, that question was always there.
Mrs. Stratton is now writing a memoir of her experiences. She had always wanted to, she said, but had not been able to start. Mrs. Stratton said she cried and wrote in her journal for four days after hearing of the DNA results. It was then, Mrs. Stratton said, that she knew she could write her book.
"This is why you haven't been able to write your story yet," Mrs. Stratton said she realized. "It didn't have an end. Now [I] have an ending."