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Gone but Not Forgotten

Tech. Sgt. Roy D. Prater. (Curtesy photo)

Tech. Sgt. Roy D. Prater. (Curtesy photo)

COLUMBUS AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. -- When I attended basic training 25 years ago, I purchased a small metal band to wear on my wrist. With the exception of a wedding ring, it was the only piece of jewelry we could wear during training.

I bought a POW/MIA bracelet with the name Tech. Sgt. Roy D. Prater inscribed on it. I chose that particular bracelet because Prater was enlisted, his birthday was a few days away from mine and he died the year I was born. Many years later with the aid of the internet I was able to piece together more information about this Airman.

Prater’s fourth assignment was in the 37th Air Rescue Recovery Squadron, DaNang Airfield, Republic of Vietnam. On April 2, 1972, two EB-66C electronic warfare aircraft were flying near the demilitarized zone.

One of the aircraft took a direct surface-to-air missile hit and the plane went down. Col. Iceal Hambleton, the navigator, managed to broadcast a single distress signal. Because Hambleton was an expert in electronic warfare systems intelligence, the North Vietnamese attempted to capture him.

For several days, Army search and rescue teams attempted to locate and recover the missing Airmen. The results were disastrous and resulted in the loss of numerous aircraft and personnel.

On April 6, another rescue attempt resulted in the shoot down of Prater’s HH-53C helicopter. The chopper was badly hit. It landed on its side and continued to burn, consuming the entire craft, and presumably, all six men aboard. Search and rescue noted no signs of survivors.

These events unfolded in the 1988 drama BAT-21 starring Gene Hackman and Danny Glover and were the largest, longest and most complex search-and-rescue operations during the Vietnam War.

In 1979, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, held a memorial and dedication ceremony and named a new dormitory “Prater Hall” in honor of one man who made the supreme sacrifice in the defense of freedom.

Four years after I bought that bracelet, I was sitting in the commander’s office flipping through Airman’s Magazine when I came across a small article which read: ‘The remains of seven American servicemen previously unaccounted-for from Southeast Asia have been identified and were returned to their families for burial in the United States.’

For three years, joint U.S.-Vietnamese teams excavated a crash site in Quang Tri Province. During the investigation, a local villager reported finding remains and burying them in his garden. The investigators excavated the garden and recovered possible human remains.

Later, a team found numerous bone fragments, personal effects, and aircraft wreckage. The remains were returned to the United States. Among the names of the Airmen repatriated was that of Tech. Sgt. Roy D. Prater. His mission is complete.

This Veteran’s Day is a day of reflection and a day to honor our Veterans, past and present, who have shaped the military and blazed a path for us to continue their legacy.