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Air commando laid to rest after 46 years missing

By Capt. Kristen Duncan | Air Force Special Operations Command Public Affairs | Nov. 9, 2012

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas — An air commando who died when his C-123 flare ship was shot down over Ahn Khe, Vietnam, was laid to rest Oct. 26 at the Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery.

The 310th Air Commando Squadron loadmaster, Airman 1st Class Jerry Mack Wall, 24, was killed when his plane was hit by enemy fire and crashed into the central highlands, May 18, 1966. Until recently, Wall was one of five crew members who was listed as missing in action.

In an intense recovery operation, three of the other Airmen's remains were recovered shortly after the crash by Soldiers of the 7th Cavalry Regiment. The flight engineer, Bill Moore, remains missing.

"I thought there was a possibility Jerry and Bill were still alive," retired Senior Master Sgt. Gary Thomas, a volunteer with Wall's unit, said. "That situation stuck with me for my whole life."

That situation involved a small, tight-knit group of aircrew volunteers from various backgrounds. Thomas, a first sergeant with the 14th Munitions and Maintenance Squadron, spent a few months with Wall. Wall trained Thomas and several others as "flare kickers" loading the approximately 200 27-pound flares.

The night of the fateful crash, Thomas was scheduled to fly, but was sidelined due to an ear infection. The lead scheduler, Master Sgt. Raymond Jajtner, took his place.

Thomas said everyone knew the danger of flying those missions, loaded with highly flammable magnesium flares. Wall's flight was hit with a 40 mm round, according to witness statements.

"When you're in combat and when you make friends, even if it's for a very short time, it's a real brotherhood," Thomas said. "It never goes away."

Air commandos provided combat air patrol and airlift, delivering ammo, food and supplies to the troops. They also flew out wounded and killed-in-action GI's, as well as prisoners.

One of the most harrowing jobs were the "candlestick" missions. During those missions, loadmasters and flare kickers would load, unload and drop hundreds of flares from the skies over southern Vietnam, illuminating the enemy.

"The Vietcong loved to attack," he said. "We had B-52s dropping bombs right outside our wings, ground artillery coming up, everybody is unloading. It started to look like the 4th of July."

According to the Defense Prisoner of War and Missing Personnel Office, since 1973, the remains of more than 900 Americans killed in the Vietnam War have been identified and returned to their families for burial with full military honors.

"I'm so grateful and very proud of my nation that persevered for so long in searching for my father's remains," said Lea Ann Wall McCann. "It's been a long journey home."

Thomas and several of Wall's family members greeted the flag-draped casket when it arrived in San Antonio Oct. 24, aboard American Airlines Flight 497.

Passengers on the plane watched from their windows as the fire department honored the flight with a water cannon salute and as the Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland Honor Guard carried Wall's remains to a waiting hearse.

"Everyone involved in making this happen has been wonderful to our family, from the sergeant who escorted his body to San Antonio, to the Veterans Affairs and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, to the color guard," McCann said.