60 years after mysterious disappearance, a memorial event honors those lost on a secret mission in Vietnam

Four Missourians were aboard Flying Tiger Line Flight 739
Wreaths Across America Flying Tiger Line Flight 739

Wreaths lean on the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C. // Courtesy Wreaths Across America

On March 16, 1962 a total of 93 United States Army soldiers, a civilian crew of 11, and three South Vietnamese soldiers boarded the Flying Tiger Line Flight 739 (FTLF 739) to carry out a secret reconnaissance mission in Vietnam—but they never arrived at their destination.

Now, 60 years after the plane’s disappearance, nonprofit memorialization effort Wreaths Across America will host an event in Columbia Falls, Maine with a livestream available to those across the country who won’t be able to attend.

The 107-passenger flight carried soldiers from Texas, Hawaii, Guam, and more, but only four—Elmer L. “Buddy” Smith, Sidney Lee Grissom, Leslie J. Roderick, and Hubert Lloyd Rice—were from Missouri.

Names of each of the four Missourians and the 103 they shared aircraft seats with remain absent from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C., leaving families without proper recognition for the loved ones they lost—until July 17, 2020, when Wreaths Across America founder Morrill Worcester broke ground for the first official FTLF 739 memorial in Columbia Falls.

“When I first heard the story about this mission, I was shocked to learn that nothing has been done for these families,” Morrill Worcester says. “I said that day that we would do something to make sure these people are honored and remembered, and to hopefully give some closure to these families.”

The now-complete memorial will serve as the location of the 60th-anniversary event. Without the opportunity to share details of the secret mission, the 107 victims’ names will be read, and stories about those lost will be shared.

“What really matters, and what really draws the connection between each of us and the men and women that serve, are those micro-stories. The stories of the individuals—every one of them is different,” Director of Military and Veteran Outreach Joe Reagan says. “I think that is what makes this event unique, and what allows it to be so valuable to the families. We’re giving those families a voice that they’ve never had before. We’re giving those families the opportunity to share the memories that they have of their loved ones.”

Reagan says Wreaths Across America has been in contact with nearly all of the families of those on board, adding that many reached out to the organization on their own. They’ve been longing for their lost family members to receive official recognition, and thanks to Senate Bill 2571, it may happen.

The bill, which currently sits in the committee for Energy and Natural Resources, will see the names of the FTLF 739 passengers added to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C. if passed. It was introduced by Senator Gary Peters and features support from Senators Marsha Blackburn, Debbie Stabenow, and Jeanne Shaheen.

“Oftentimes, we have to look to find those connections with someone that allows us to really understand the scope of the sacrifice that others make on our behalf,” Reagan says. “Any opportunity we have at Wreaths Across America to connect folks with amazing stories, like those on board the Tiger Flight, is a real honor for us, to be able to share those stories and be a part of the legacy that these men and women left behind for us.”

Those interested in tuning into the commemoration can watch the event take place via Wreaths Across America’s Facebook page on March 16 at 11 a.m.

An audio stream will be available through Wreaths Across America Radio, which is accessible on the iHeart Radio app.

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