SYNOPSIS: On July 3, 1966, Master Sergeant Ralph J. Reno was a passenger On-board a CH34 helicopter which crashed and burned in Northwest Quang Tin Province, South Vietnam. The helicopter landed in a very difficult and hilly area about five miles from the Laos border.
Search missions were conducted from July 4 to July 8, and bodies of all crew onboard the aircraft were recovered except that of MSGT Reno. During searches, Reno's rucksack was found, but no other items belonging to him were seen. The U.S. Army determined that there was little chance that Reno survived, and classified him Killed/Body Not Recovered. The helicopter apparently did not crash due to enemy hostility, and his loss is listed as non-hostile, non-battle related.
Remains of Fort Bragg soldier missing for nearly a half century are coming home
By Drew Brooks, Staff writer
Master Sgt. Ralph Reno's name is etched on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. It's listed on a monument at Fayetteville's Freedom Memorial Park and on at least one memorial on Fort Bragg. But nearly a half century after his death, Reno's name does not appear on any gravestone. That will change Thursday when Reno, a Green Beret with the 5th Special Forces Group who went missing in Vietnam in 1966, is memorialized at Arlington National Cemetery. The ceremony - a funeral with full military honors - marks the final chapter in a 45-year search for Reno that started on July 3, 1966.
On that day, in Vietnam's central highlands, Reno, 38, and two other American soldiers were flying over a jungle-covered mountain ridge along with a squad of South Vietnamese commandos.
Reno and the other Americans were part of an unconventional warfare task force engaged in highly classified operations throughout southeast Asia, according to Task Force Omega, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the full accounting and return of prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action. The helicopter, a UH-34 Seahorse, was flying from Kham Duc, a forward operating base near the South Vietnam-Laos border, to Kon Tum, a province approximately 70 miles to the southeast. En route, the Seahorse encountered severe air turbulence, according to officials. The pitching and tossing of the helicopter snapped a pin in the aircraft's tail, which swung into the helicopter and caused it to crash into the mountains of Quang Nam province. "It fell over 1,500 feet in a tight spiral," according to Task Force Omega's website, "ejecting its passengers, crew and debris over a large area."
Later that day, on the other side of the world, the Reno family - mother Lois and three children, Nancy, Mary and Ralph "Trey" III - enjoyed a cookout at their Fayetteville home off Hope Mills Road. When visitors came to the door, Nancy Reno Philligin, then 8 years old, said the family thought they were guests returning to pick up leftovers they forgot to take with them. Instead, Army officials were there bearing the news of Reno's disappearance and probable death. Philligin, now 53 and living in Greenville, said at first, the family didn't believe their father was gone. "We held out hope," she said. "We were young then, so we didn't understand everything. Up to 20 years ago, I still hoped he was alive." Mary Reno Grier, Reno's oldest daughter, was 10 years old at the time of the crash.
She said she remembers a commotion at the front door, then her mom breaking down into tears before the Army officials entered the house. "It was a very sad and stressful time for all of us," said Grier, who is 55 and lives in Lucama. "I remember. I think you don't ever really forget about stuff like that." In the coming days, the bodies of Staff Sgt. Donald Fawcett and Capt. Edwin MacNamara - the other Americans on Reno's Seahorse - were found, as were a number of bodies of Vietnamese commandos. As for Reno, officials could find no definitive sign of the Special Forces soldier. Decades passed, and the family continued to live in Fayetteville. Reno's wife, Lois, had to learn to drive, Grier said. The family leaned on neighbors and friends for support. All the time, they didn't know if their patriarch would ever come home.
Military officials said they never forgot about Reno.
In the days after the crash in 1966, three search-and-rescue missions were conducted in an attempt to recover the bodies of those killed, said Maj. Carie Parker, a spokeswoman for the Department of Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office. During those missions, officials recovered the bodies of Reno's two U.S. colleagues and seven Vietnamese.
The next attempt to find Reno came years after the end of the Vietnam War, when between 1993 and 1997 a joint U.S.-Socialist Republic of Vietnam team tried to survey the crash site. That team, led by the U.S. Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, turned back because of the hazards of the steep mountainous terrain and dense foliage, Parker said. Officials tried again in September 1999 and were successful in locating the wreckage.
An excavation of the site began the next year, turning up human remains and military equipment, Parker said. Another team returned to the site in 2007 and, in 2010, the site was excavated for a second time, with more human remains and military equipment recovered. While officials searched for Reno in the mountainous jungles of Vietnam, Reno's family was unaware. "For 35 years, we thought we were the only ones who remembered," Grier said. "We didn't know anyone was looking for him. We thought we would just never know. It was really hard for us. We felt so alone." That changed in 2000, when a reporter for The Virginian-Pilot newspaper wrote about the search for Reno and other missing U.S. soldiers in Vietnam. "It was eye-opening," Grier said of the article. "I was overwhelmed."
Reno's brother, Bill, was headed to Fayetteville with his wife when news of the crash reached the Reno home. "I called from McGuire Air Force Base and they told me he was missing," he said. For Bill Reno, his older brother is a bit of a blur. Bill Reno, a decade younger than his brother, said he remembers little of their childhood together. In 1948, as the brothers' parents moved to Chicago from Silver Spring, Md., Ralph Reno stayed behind, Bill Reno said. At first, Ralph Reno joined the Marine reserves, Bill Reno said. Later, he would join the Air Force and fight in the Korean conflict, serving as a gunner on a B-29 bomber. After a brief stint out of the service, Ralph Reno realized civilian life wasn't for him, his brother said. He re-enlisted in the Army and served with the 82nd Airborne Division before joining Special Forces. After his death, Reno was awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart, family said. The Bronze Star was for distinguishing himself between May 1 and July 3, 1966, while serving as a team leader of a joint American-Vietnamese reconnaissance team. "He was an extremely disciplined soldier," Bill Reno said. "A very good soldier." In the Special Forces community, the return of Reno's remains to his family is being applauded.
"Every soldier lost to the Special Forces regiment is deeply significant to us because each loss serves as a reminder of the price the regiment has paid, and a reminder of the heavy toll borne by so many families, friends and teammates," said Lt. Col. April Olsen, spokeswoman for Brig. Gen. Ed Reeder, commanding general of Army Special Forces Command. "Whether we knew him personally or not, the posthumous repatriation of Master Sgt. Ralph Reno reminds us of sacrifice and heartache, of common bonds marked by friendship and fellowship and service together." Olsen said that as soldiers commit to serve their nation as elite Green Berets, Special Forces also makes a commitment to them. "If they should fall, we will never forget them," she said. A year and a day after Reno's helicopter crashed, on July 4, 1967, the Army officially declared Reno dead.
Over the next five decades, as officials made numerous attempts to visit the crash site, Reno's family never forgot him. "He's always been in the back of our minds," Philligin said. "Did he survive the crash? Did he suffer? There's still a lot of unanswered questions."
Growing up, the Reno children spoke of their father often. "I've always been proud of him," Philligin said, explaining how she would tell her children all she knew about their missing grandfather. "It's important for them to understand, to know my father and what he did for America and what he did for his family. They know the sacrifice that he made. They've seen the old photographs." Philligin is married with two children, and Grier is married with four. For Philligin, memories of her father are fleeting and fragmented. She remembers parts of a beach trip here, a trip to the mountains there. She also remembers sitting on her father's lap in his favorite chair, the same chair her mother kept in her Fayetteville home until she died in 1989. "It wasn't fair not to have him around," Grier said.
She recalls her father as a man who loved his country, a dedicated soldier who could have avoided the Vietnam War but instead chose to re-enlist. "He was doing what he believed in, what he felt very strongly about,'' Grier said. "He loved the military and he loved his family. He was protecting us and the rest of this country from Communism, he said."
Grier recalls asking her father, who also served in Africa and Korea, on more than one occasion why he had to go. He always answered that he was doing what he believed was right. "I'm really proud of him," Grier said. "I talk about him a lot to my children, grandchildren. When I look at my grandchildren, I see my father and mother in all of them."
Military officials say that some of the human remains recovered during excavations at the crash site are those of Reno. Parker, the spokeswoman with the POW/Missing Personnel Office, said scientists from the Armed Forces DNA identification lab matched mitochondrial DNA in some of the remains to that of Reno's brother. Philligin said the remains included bone fragments and a tooth believed to be Reno's. After decades of disappointment, family members are hesitant to buy in completely to the idea that Reno's remains have finally been found. "They can't say with 100 percent certainty that any of the remains are my father," Philligin said. "But they know they are American. The site is remote, and no other soldier is missing within a 25-mile radius." Grier said she was told the age and condition of the remains made it hard to test them, but she's confident part of her father will be laid to rest Thursday. "I feel the chances are there are probably some of his remains," Grier said. "He deserves for it to be him." But because of the doubt, some members of the Reno family are approaching Thursday's memorial with trepidation.
"If I knew 100 percent that some of this was my father, things would be different," Philligin said. "For the longest time, I've prayed that one day just a piece of him would come home. We've always hoped that he'd come home." Bill Reno shared that hope. For years, he thought maybe the Army was wrong, maybe his brother somehow survived the crash.
"I hoped for a long time that he was a prisoner," Bill Reno said. "If he was, he didn't survive." While many in the family will attend the memorial, Reno's youngest child will not.
Ralph "Trey" Reno III said he does not understand how the military could find remains at the crash site now but could not find anything 45 years ago. "If they are finding these bone fragments at the crash site now," he said, "back in July 4, 1966, where was his body?" Trey Reno said he feels as if the military is trying simply to clear another MIA case. "The Army is saying this is it, take it or leave it," he said. "I feel that they're forcing this on me." Trey Reno was 5 when his father's helicopter crashed, and he has only a handful of memories of him. "I'm very proud of him and I missed him every day," said Trey Reno, who is 50 and now lives in Charlotte. "As a son, I loved him then and still do today."
While members of the Reno family may have thought they were alone, the name of Master Sgt. Ralph Reno was spoken each year by various groups dedicated to remembering MIA troops and committed to the full accounting of U.S. service members killed at war. Groups like Rolling Thunder, a prisoner of war/missing in action awareness group with chapters across the nation, hold annual programs aimed at remembering local service members lost at war. This year, at a ceremony held days before Reno's funeral at Arlington, the local chapter of Rolling Thunder was able to shorten its list of MIA Vietnam soldiers by one name, thanks to Reno's identification. "It's always good to be able to do that," said chapter president Jim Hollister. Even without Reno, the names of 41 North Carolinians listed as MIA from the Vietnam War were read at a ceremony at Fayetteville's Freedom Memorial Park on Saturday, Hollister said. The ceremony, which recognized missing service members from all parts of the military, came at the end of the second annual We Ride for Those Who Can't Remembrance Run, which raises money to send local ex-POWs to a national conference in Georgia. "There are still a lot of guys who haven't made it home," Hollister said. "We ride for those who can't. Those who can't are the MIAs." "The goal is to make sure we don't forget them," he said. The Reno family doesn't know how it will react Thursday, when Ralph Reno's remains and those of 12 Vietnamese citizens will be buried together in a single casket. "I've never been involved in anything like this," Bill Reno said. "There won't be closure. It's an attempt. Each of us are dealing with it in different ways." Grier agrees but said her father's gravestone will push them closer to finding closure on his loss. "It's going to mean a lot," she said. "I feel at peace. Just because of the fact there will be something at Arlington with his name on it."
And despite their doubts, the family is thankful for the work of the military in bringing Reno home. "I was amazed they looked for so long," said Grier. "They've done everything they could to bring him home."
Lost in Vietnam
A time line of what happened to Master Sgt. Ralph Joseph Reno Jr.:
July 3, 1966: A UH-34 helicopter carrying Master Sgt. Ralph Joseph Reno Jr., Staff Sgt. Donald Fawcett and Capt. Edwin MacNamara, along with a squad of South Vietnamese commandos, crashes into the mountains of Quang Nam province. In the days after the crash, the bodies of Fawcett, MacNamarra and several South Vietnamese are recovered.
July 4, 1967: Reno is officially declared dead by the military.
1993 to 1997: A joint U.S.-Socialist Republic of Vietnam team tries to survey the crash site but turns back because of the hazardous terrain.
September 1999: Officials successfully locate wreckage from the UH-34 helicopter.
2000: An excavation of the site begins, with officials finding human remains and military equipment.
2007: Officials again return to the site.
2010: A second excavation begins, with more human remains and equipment recovered.
Sept. 8, 2011: The remains of Reno and 12 Vietnamese nationals will be laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.