Americans 40 years ago sat spellbound in front of their televisions as U.S. prisoners of war emerged from Vietnam's prisons, producing happy homecomings for hundreds of families across the country.
But in and around the tiny farm town of Danbury, Neb., the mothers of Larry Knight, Donovan Walters and Daniel Thomas still awaited any word of their sons gone missing in southeast Asia, clinging to ever fainter hopes they could still be alive.
Of the nearly 2,600 American servicemen missing and unaccounted for when the Vietnam War ended in the spring of 1973, three were Air Force pilots with roots in Danbury, a blink-and-you-miss-it town in southwest Nebraska with a population of just 140. There may not be a community in America where the mystery, uncertainty and pain of the plight of America's MIAs was more acutely felt.
“It was just unique for Danbury,” said Charleen Walters, Donovan's wife. “I don't know if what happened in Danbury happened anywhere else in the United States. But I don't think that it was a bigger sacrifice. Wherever you live, when you lose a son or a husband, it hurts.”
More than 16 years after Charleen Walters' husband went missing, his body was turned over by North Vietnam and buried in Nebraska. To this day, the families of Knight and Thomas have heard nothing of what became of their loved ones, though both were long ago declared dead.
With the arrival of Memorial Day 2013, the amazing story of the little Red Willow County town and the huge void the war left there has been mostly lost to the wider public. But in Nebraska's Beaver Valley, just north of the Kansas border, memories of the three are far from dead.
Some around Danbury still recall how during the early 1950s, all three attended the town's little, now closed, grade school. How the three intelligent and hard-working young men all strove to become officers and pilots in the U.S. Air Force.
And how in a span of six years that largely encompassed major U.S. involvement in Vietnam — from early in the escalation to just before the bitter pullout — all went down in southeast Asia.
“They were the cream of the crop,” said 83-year-old Pat Redfern, president of the American Legion auxiliary in Danbury. “We knew them all.”
Redfern has worked with the auxiliary in recent years to make sure Danbury's MIAs aren't forgotten. As a result of those efforts, pictures of the three now hang side by side in the town's community center, along with those of other local servicemen who made the ultimate sacrifice.
In addition to the three Danbury airmen, two other young pilots from Red Willow County — both raised in McCook, just 23 miles up the road — also went missing in Vietnam. Michael Klingner, an Air Force pilot, and Michael Confer, a Navy flier, remain unaccounted for today.
There was obviously much bad luck involved in having such a small rural area lose so many boys, said Jim Helm of McCook, Thomas' cousin and himself a Vietnam veteran. But he said it should also surprise no one that a part of the country long said to produce great crops and even better sons would turn out such exceptional young men, the kind who would put themselves in harm's way for their country.
“Out here in farm country, we're raised with our feet on the ground and have responsibility from when we're little,” Helm said. “When you have that background, you're really not scared of much. And when you have a job to do, you do it.”
The Knight, Thomas and Walters families all knew one another, living within about five miles of each other in the town of Danbury and on two surrounding farms. Knight's mom and Thomas' dad were first cousins. Thomas' mom taught almost all the local boys in the Danbury school.
Larry Knight attended grade school in Danbury through the eighth grade, when he moved with his family to Oregon. He completed high school and college there and then entered the Air Force. Before the war ended, his family had moved back to Danbury to be close to relatives.
Pam Messinger of Hayes Center remembered her brother Larry as like a father to her, stepping into that role when their dad was disabled by multiple sclerosis. “Larry just kind of took over,” she said.
Donovan Walters was about five years behind Knight in school. The extremely bright, nerdy kid skipped a grade and was just a few months past his 17th birthday when he graduated in 1961 at the top of his three-member class at Beaver Valley High School in nearby Lebanon. He then attended the University of Nebraska and upon graduation was commissioned as an officer in the Air Force.
“From the first time I remember, all he wanted to do was fly airplanes,” said high school classmate James North. “He couldn't wait.”
Daniel Thomas was three years behind Walters at Beaver Valley and the university before he, too, joined the Air Force. During college, he spent summers working on the Redfern farm.
“He was the hardest working boy we ever had, and I don't think he ever did anything wrong in his whole life,” Pat Redfern said. “When the Air Force came to interview my husband about whether he was pilot material, my husband said he never even tipped over an outhouse at Halloween. He was one of the most top-of-the-line boys in our community.”
Knight was the first of the pilots to go missing.
On Oct. 7, 1966, the 27-year-old was co-piloting an RF-4 reconnaissance plane near the South Vietnamese port city of Hue when the plane disappeared from radar.
There was bad weather in the area, so it was never determined whether the plane was shot down or struck by lightning. It also was never known whether the plane was lost over land or the Tonkin Gulf. No trace was ever found. Knight left behind a wife and two young children.
Almost five years later, on July 7, 1971, Thomas was flying an OV-10 Bronco surveillance plane as part of a secret Green Beret mission in Laos. He radioed that he was over the target area but that heavy clouds and rain kept him from seeing much.
That was the last anyone heard from him. Around the same time, a covert ground surveillance unit working in the same area reported hearing a loud impact and explosion. He was 24 years old.
Walters became the third Danbury flier lost. Like the two others, he had flown surveillance planes in Vietnam. But he was later sent back for a second tour in the waning weeks of the war, this time as a bomber pilot.
His first and only bombing mission came on Dec. 21, 1972, as part of “Linebacker II,” a massive campaign over Hanoi that helped bring North Vietnam to the peace table. Walters, 28, was co-pilot of a B-52 flying at the lead of a formation when it was struck by a surface-to-air missile and went into a steep dive.
The plane's pilot later said he saw Walters eject but never saw him again. The navigator reported seeing Walters' identity card in the Hanoi Hilton prison. Both those crew members would later be released as POWs. But North Vietnam offered no information on what became of Walters. He also left behind a wife and two children.
At war's end, Knight, Thomas and Walters were all listed as MIA, among 2,583 U.S. servicemen and about two dozen Nebraskans who had gone missing in the jungles, rice paddies and seas of Southeast Asia. For years, their families wore MIA bracelets engraved with their names. All three were officially declared dead by 1979.
“I can't say that my mom ever recovered from that,” said Thomas' brother, Ed Thomas of McCook. “He was an inspiration to us all, and we lost him.”
Not knowing what happened made their loss even harder to accept. Knight's disabled father by then was in an Arapahoe nursing home. He had trouble communicating, but anytime his son's name was mentioned, he cried.
“It's more difficult when you don't know what happened,” said Knight's sister. “It's been almost 50 years now, and we still have no idea.”
Walters' family would eventually get some answers.
North Vietnam had long denied knowing anything about his whereabouts. But in late 1988, it returned six sets of remains. And on Dec. 22, nearly 16 years to the day he had gone missing, Walters' wife was informed that dental records had proved that one of the bodies was his. The Walters family, including a son who was in the Air Force Academy, buried him near his wife's hometown of Weeping Water.
Up until that point, Charleen Walters had believed that her husband might still be alive in Southeast Asia. She had long been active in lobbying Washington to step up efforts to account for America's MIAs. Thanks in part to such activism, some 600 of those missing at war's end have since been accounted for.
Though the bodies of Knight and Thomas were never found, both men today have memorial markers in cemeteries in Red Willow County.
The names of all three are also on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, though none of them is officially listed as from Danbury. Knight is listed as from Albany, Ore., and Walters from Lebanon, the towns where each attended high school. Thomas is incorrectly listed as from Danbury, Iowa.
Last year, Thomas' mother, the last surviving parent of the Danbury MIAs, was laid to rest near her son's marker in the Danbury-Marion Cemetery. Carol Helm had to the end remained active in the Danbury American Legion auxiliary, one of its only Gold Star members.
She and other women of the auxiliary had made it a priority to preserve the memory of the Danbury MIAs and all local vets. The Danbury Legion post has gone inactive with so many members having died off. The auxiliary became concerned that the history of vets from the Beaver Valley area was dying with them, Redfern said.
So about seven years ago, the auxiliary collected the pictures of vets that now hang in the Danbury community building. They also published a book on local veterans history. And an old poster featuring the three Danbury MIAs put out by an MIA advocacy group hangs on a wall in the local depot museum.
When contacted one day this month, Redfern was at the moment writing a Memorial Day tribute to the Danbury MIAs for the weekly paper in nearby Indianola.
“We don't forget out here,” she said. “Little towns don't let these things die out.”
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