Missing pilot’s remains bring sister closure after 51 years

  • Published
  • By Kat Bailey
  • Air Force Personnel Center Public Affairs
Maj. Dean Klenda, an F-105 Thunderchief pilot, went to Vietnam in 1965. He never returned. His sister, Deanna, has been searching for answers ever since. Last year, she got them, and his remains are finally home.

Thanks in part to the team of the Missing Persons Branch at the Air Force Personnel Center, Klenda was laid to rest Sept. 17, 51 years to the day from when his aircraft was shot down in North Vietnam.

On Sept. 17, 1965, Klenda was flying the No. 2 position in a flight of four F-105s as part of a Rolling Thunder operation. While pulling up from an attack, Klenda’s aircraft was struck by enemy ground fire. Although his canopy was seen leaving the aircraft, no parachute was observed and no beacon contact was established as he went down.

“My brother’s case was so impossible,” Deanna said. “My family had no expectations of ever finding his remains due to the circumstances surrounding his crash. We knew there was probably nothing left to find.”

America recognizes unaccounted-for service members annually on the third Friday in September during National Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Recognition Day. There are still 1,477 unaccounted-for Airmen from the Korean War, Cold War and Vietnam conflict, as well as current-day operations.

“Our duty is to locate and maintain contact with the next of kin for each missing service member to provide them with any new information on their loved ones’ cases,” said Sandra Kolb, AFPC Missing Persons Branch chief. “We currently maintain contact with about 3,700 family members around the world, including Ms. Klenda.”

The service casualty officers of the Missing Persons Branch honor those unaccounted-for Airmen year-round, serving as the liaison between the next of kin and U.S. government accounting agencies. They travel around the country responding to requests for information and providing updates to families.

“So many Americans don’t realize there’s still an active mission to find these missing Airmen and bring them home,” Kolb said. “There’s always hope for new evidence. Family members want to know the next steps or how close we are to finding the crash site or the alleged burial location. Although we can never truly understand what they’ve been going through for the past 50 years or more, we do our best to help answer their questions.”

Klenda remained in a missing status until 1974 when his case was administratively changed to killed in action by the Air Force.

In the past year, three previously unaccounted-for Airmen from the Vietnam conflict were brought home to their families. Due to the efforts of the Missing Persons Branch, Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations, the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Affairs office and the Armed Forces DNA Identification Lab, a positive identification of Klenda was made from a tooth.

“I always said if I even had a knuckle to bury, I’d be happy,” Deanna said. “Now the impossible has happened and I’m going to bury a little piece of Dean next to Mom and Dad.”

For the events of Sept. 17, 1965, Klenda was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and posthumously awarded the Purple Heart. He was buried with full military honors in his hometown of Pilsen, Kansas.

For more information about Air Force personnel programs, go to the myPers website. Individuals who do not have a myPers account can request one by following these instructions on the Air Force Retirees Services website.