They left their homes and jobs, said goodbye to their family and friends, walked away from whatever peace and comfort and certainty they had – and headed for the jungles of Vietnam.
Kenneth Bradford Goff Sr. and his wife, Annie (Quigley), of Warwick, would say goodbye to their soldier son, Kenneth Jr., and pray for his safe return.
Life as he knew it was about to change drastically for the 24-year-old. Thickly grown, heat-permeated jungles were concealing the enemy. The atmosphere vibrated with the beating whirl of helicopter blades overhead, and the air hung heavy with the stench of gunpowder. Machine gun fire was a monotonous reminder of ever-present danger. Relying on detailed ground maps and always at the ready to dive from the path of a hand grenade, Vietnam was a living hell in which over 9 million active duty Americans were expected to persevere.
On Aug. 24, 1967, a Bell Iroquois Utility Helicopter from the 119th Assault Helicopter Company, 52nd Combat Aviation Battalion, 4th Infantry Division, was taking part in an operation known as Paul Revere IV, near the Cambodian border. The crew, all stationed at Pleiku, was en route with their passengers to Plei Krong as part of a support liaison mission. Those in the aircraft included pilot Dayton Witherall, Richard Morrison, John Ulp, Cynthia Colburn, Sterling Aiden Wall, Richard John Schell, Richard Michael Allard, Ronald Lee Holtzman and Kenneth Bradford Goff Jr.
The pilot, flying at low-level along the Dak Bla River, was attempting a 180-degree turn when the aircraft was caught in a down-draft and suddenly crashed into the Krong Bo Lah River. The water was only 10 feet deep, but the current was strong and the occupants were quickly swept downstream.
Less than an hour later, rescue helicopters arrived at the scene, but the aircraft was never located. Witherall, Morrison, Ulp and Colburn were rescued from the water. One of the survivors later stated that Holtzman was seen being pulled away by the current while yelling that he could not swim.
In September, Wall’s body was retrieved from the river. Despite a search for the other four men continuing into December, no trace of them was found. It was assumed by many that they were taken captive.
In the years that followed, reports of the missing men being seen were brought to the American government’s attention. Allard’s mother was certain she had recognized him in a video clip showing American prisoners of war. The propaganda films sent to horrify American audiences showed prisoners being marched at gunpoint, contained in bamboo cages, and being reduced to nothing but skin and bones by a meager diet of rice and disease-infected water. POWs were tied up, put into stocks, threatened with bayonets and guns, physically and mentally tormented and often killed.
But there are many who do not believe all of our MIA soldiers from the Vietnam War are long-deceased. Over 1,000 men are still unaccounted for, and sighting reports of live POWs over the years have been in the tens of thousands.
During the 1970s, the four men never recovered from that crash of Aug. 24, 1967, were legally declared dead.
Goff’s patriotism merited seven medals for heroism, including the Purple Heart. In 2014, an Honor Flight was dedicated to the memory of Goff. The following year, the POW-MIA Honor Guard of Minnesota marched in the Gaspee Days parade carrying a flag that honored Goff.
Annie Goff died in 2008. Perhaps the only thing worse than your child coming home from a war in a casket is him never coming home at all – the years passing, one after another, with no answers. Perhaps it’s seeing the Vietnam War sink down into the history of an earlier century, and still wondering whether or not your son is dead or alive.
Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.