435th TFS

First, the official release:

Pilot Missing in Action From The Vietnam War is Identified

The Department of Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) announced today that the remains of a U.S. serviceman, missing in action from the Vietnam War, have been identified and will be returned to his family for burial with full military honors.
He is Capt. Lorenza Conner, U.S. Air Force, of Cartersville, Ga. He will be buried Oct. 25 in Cartersville.
On Oct. 27, 1967, Conner and his copilot flew an F-4D Phantom II fighter jet in a flight of four on a combat air patrol mission over North Vietnam where the plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire over Tuyen Quang Province, North Vietnam. The copilot ejected safely, was captured and later released by Vietnamese forces, but Conner could not eject from the aircraft before it crashed.
In 1992, Vietnamese citizens told U.S. officials that they had information concerning the remains of missing U.S. servicemen and they turned over Conner’s identification tag.
Between 1992 and 2003, several joint U.S./Socialist Republic of Vietnam (S.R.V.) teams, led by the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), investigated this incident, interviewed witnesses and surveyed the crash site. At the crash site, teams found aircrew-related equipment and aircraft wreckage consistent with an F-4 Phantom II.
In 2007, another joint team excavated the site and recovered human remains.
Among other forensic identification tools and circumstantial evidence, scientists from JPAC also used dental comparisons in the identification of Conner’s remains.

And the rest of the story:

8th TFW F-4D

1967.  The air war over North Vietnam is heating up and the squadrons of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing, based at Ubon, Thailand are in the thick of it.  Led by the legendary Robin Olds, their presence was already being felt in the skies over the North.  Earlier that year, in a masterful piece of operational deception,(Operation BOLO) Olds had lured the North Vietnamese into a trap, resulting in 7 air-to-air kills in one day alone.  But air-to-air wasn’t their only skill in trade — using the latest version of the F-4, the F-4D, received that summer which substantially improved the F-4’s ground attack capability.  One of those aircraft, s/n 7531, was equipped with the Westinghouse AN/ASQ-152(V)-2 Pave Spike laser target designator .  The  Pave Spike laser designator pod was mounted inside one of the Sparrow missile wells on the fuselage underside and used TV optics, which made it daylight-capable only, but included the ability to launch the AGM-65 Maverick air-to-surface missile.

1967.  He was young and talented – and a study in contrasts.  A star quarterback for the Cartersville, GA football team, he also had a penchant for reading, voraciously.  At one time he strck up a deal with the school librarian to set aside the new issues of Time and Saturday Evening Post so he could read them first.  A graduate of Tuskeegee he was in the thick of the air war as a pilot on the 435th TFS, part of the legendary 8th TFW, the Wolf Pack  – adding to the legacy of his Red Tail forebears.

And so, now, a late October morning in 1967 finds 1Lt Conner and his backseater, Capt John Black as part of a flight of four F-4Ds (c/s FORD) over the Hanoi Railroad and Highway Bridge in the Tuyen Quang province, hunting for MiGs.  The mission was a ROLLING THUNDER mission and part of the campaign against NVAF airfelds.  Hunting was good – yesterday, October 26th racked up four more MiGs on the 8th’s talley board and with this vital bridge over the Red River as a target, prospects were good they’d have company.

Down below NVA gunners watched and tracked the flight of four.  Opening up with deadly 57mm AAA (single and the mobile ZSU-57-2 twin 57mm) the sky was suddenly filled with deadly AAA fire.  Jinking madly to throw the gunner’s am off, FORD 04 with Conner at the controls is hit in the left engine and a catastrophic fire results.  At this low altitude, time is precious and measured in micro-seconds.  Ejection sequence is initiated and the back-seater is out, but before he can eject, the mortally wounded Phantom crashes through the forest below.  No parachute seen – no survivor witnessed on the ground.   Black is capture and taken as a POW.

Now the long wait begins for family and friends back home.  Since the crash occured deep in enemy territory, there is no chance to go to the site of the wreck and try to recover remains.  The wholly unsatisfying determination of missing, presumed dead is listed as Lorenza’s status.

“We still had hope that maybe one day, you know, he would find his way back home,” said one of Conner’s cousins, Terri Durrah, in Cartersville

Fifteen years later, Vietnamese officials contact the US government with word that they had information on the crash, passing Lorenza’s dog tags.  Recovery teams form the US and Vietnam visit the site twice in an attempt to locate any remains, any identifying items that could be used to determine the final status.

In the tropics, nothing stays in stasis – vegetation growth is relentless and what was once a smoking, cratered clearing is closed over by dirt, mud and vegetation.  Lots of vegetation.  Buttry as it might, the jungle can’t hide everything.  Despite the violence of the crash remains and artifacts are found – fortunately enough to ascertain through 21st Century DNA techniques that this was indeed the site of Lorenza’s last flight – and now he was coming home.

“He was a smart young man,” said a childhood friend and classmate, Mary Alice Johnson. “He was always neatly dressed. And just memorable.”

Johnson and another Summer Hill H.S. graduate, Calvin Cooley, are involved in the Summer Hill Heritage Association, and help maintain a small museum at the location of the school. Locked inside the glass and wooden cabinets, among the yearbooks and sports trophies, they proudly display the Distinguished Flying Cross and citation that Conner was awarded posthumously, for his actions saving American lives during an air battle two days before he was killed.

“He was humble,” Johnson said. “If he had made it back from Vietnam, he would have done something for this community. Definitely so.”

And she’s sure Conner would have come back to Cartersville.

“Yes he would have, because he loved Cartersville.”

“I’m just waiting to see all the people come out and say, ‘Welcome home, Hero, you’re back on American soil, now.’ He died for our country.”

Indeed, welcome home and rest in peace, 1Lt Lorenza Conner, USAF.

2 Comments

  1. The work done by the folks at JPAC never ceases to amaze me.

Trackbacks for this post

  1. Flightdeck Friday: MIA Edition - Missing WWII Airman Returns Home | Steeljaw Scribe

Comments are closed.