This well-written and very touching piece by Kennon States is about someone she knew only indirectly. It is a wonderful and fitting tribute to a man I will never forget. He affected both our lives profoundly as you will see in Kennon’s piece. I put a tiny part of his story into my novel Counters, in the guise of a fictional character named James Hoskins.
David J. Rickel, I never knew you. And yet I can barely tell your tale without choking up and shedding hopeless tears. For you are my family’s hero, and I am forever in your debt.
I’m sure your life was meaningful, quite apart from my perspective. You surely had your share of joys and sorrows, hard work and playful interludes, moments of grace and periods of doubt. I know for certain that there were good friends and bitter enemies.
These are the bare facts of your story, which the casual seeker of your life history can uncover with ease. Date of Birth: October 5, 1942; Home of Record: Ft. Lauderdale, Florida; Branch of Service: U.S. Air Force; Date of Casualty: May 16, 1968; Country of Loss: North Vietnam; Status: MIA – even after all these years.
The tale I tell is more than telling of your loss. You were a Captain at the time of the “incident.” You had graduated from the Air Force Academy four years earlier, where you had been named to the Superintendent’s List each of the eight semesters you were a student there. It was widely predicted that a promising career awaited you.
On this day in May, you and your navigator/bombardier, Lt. Gerald Crosson, Jr., were assigned an F4 D bombing mission over North Vietnam. At a point some 20 miles southeast of the city of Quang Khe, Quang Binh Province, North Vietnam, your F4 was shot down. Other aircrews in the area reported seeing no parachutes to indicate you had ejected from your aircraft, nor were any emergency beeper signals detected. Searches were eventually cancelled, and both of you were classified Missing in Action.
There was a good chance that you and Gerald were captured, considering the nature of the loss and the location – the terrain and the presence of enemy forces in the immediate area. Your comrades and superiors finally settled in to wait for the war to end and hoped for some word to come – one way or the other.
In the spring of 1973, 591 American POWs were released from Southeast Asia. You and Gerald were not among them. There were no reports from returning POWs that they had been held with you, and your names never appeared on any lists supplied by the Vietnamese. North Vietnam denied any knowledge of you.
When Saigon fell to the Communists in 1975, tens of thousands of refugees fled Vietnam, carrying with them stories of Americans who were still being held in captivity in North Vietnam. By 1990. the number of reports of captive Americans reached nearly 10,000. Many authorities believed – still believe – that there are hundreds of Americans still in captivity, waiting for their country to set them free.
It is not known whether you survived the crash of your aircraft and were subsequently captured. There are those, however, who believe that someone knows what happened to you. Until you are found and returned home, living or dead, you are still a POW/MIA. Your tale is unfinished.
Where do I come into the story? What is your relationship to me?
My connection begins with Tony, Air Force Captain and pilot whom I married in July 1969, one year after he returned home from Vietnam. The year was 1973. My son, Steve, from my first marriage, was 12 years old and active in the Boy Scouts. We were living in Tucson, Arizona at the time, and Tony and I had a daughter, Louisa, born in July 1971. The four of us were enjoying a Boy Scout Jamboree one warm spring weekend, especially a popular exhibit, manned by personnel from nearby Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.
It consisted of a large cafeteria-style table, piled high with chrome, chain-link I.D. bracelets, each bearing the name of a known POW/MIA. For a modest donation, the public could “purchase” one of these bracelets. Steve picked up one of them and turned to his stepfather, asking if he might have it to wear in honor and memory of the one whose name was engraved upon it.
Tony did not speak for several moments, and when he did, his voice shook with emotion. “David Rickel. I knew him.”
The story Tony told us was like an epic tale in a storybook, of heroes, wars, and twisted destinies. You and Tony had been classmates at the Air Force Academy. As students, Tony remembered you as “an all-around guy, athletic, extremely intelligent and thoughtful. I remember once walking into his room and finding him reading the Oxford Book of English Verse – not because of an assignment, but because he wanted to.” Your Senior write-up in the Academy Yearbook mentions that you spent much of your free time enjoying classical music.
Tony told us more about you during your Academy days. He remembered you introducing him to Mexican food. (Tony was “born and bred” in Rock Hill, South Carolina; you can imagine how uncommon Mexican food would have been there, in the 1950’s and 60’s.) The two of you feasted on tacos and tostadas at a restaurant in Colorado Springs.
Always shy and somewhat of a loner during his years at the Academy, Tony said of you, “I liked him because he became my friend at a time when I had few true friends there. I liked Dave a great deal.”
After graduation and pilot training at different pilot-training bases, the two of you were reunited at Davis-Monthan AFB in 1966 for upgrading to the F4 C, and then again in the 81st Tactical Fighter Wing at RAF Bentwaters/Woodbridge, England in 1967. You had recently married an Englishwoman when your name came up to go to Vietnam. The Air Force allowed personnel to delay their tour of duty in Vietnam by exchanging dates with another pilot. Pilot A would go to Vietnam in Pilot B’s place, and vice versa, when A’s name came up in the next year or so.
(To anyone who is a believer in destiny, as I am, or has simply been paying attention to this narrative, you have already guessed the fateful twist in this story. Tony went to Vietnam in 1967 in Dave’s place, and having survived his tour of duty, returned home to marry me. Serving in Tony’s place in 1968, Dave was shot down and remains MIA.)
Steve wore your bracelet throughout high school, Dave; Louisa took over after that. Over the years, with all the moves and the comings and goings in our house, the bracelet has been, if not lost, then – like its honoree – “Missing.”
Your legacy, as far as I am concerned, consists of my daughter and her two sons, none of whom would be alive, but that you and Tony switched tours of duty, nearly 50 years ago.
Louisa’s older son, Jeffrey, is visiting Washington, D.C. with his 8th grade class, as I write this remembrance. He is the third of my four grandsons to be charged with the same mission, as they make the eighth-grade trek to our capital: find David Rickel on the Vietnam War Memorial Wall and remember with gratitude your sacrifice.
Although my two older grandsons, Todd and Travis, Steve’s sons, are not connected to you in the same way Louisa and her boys are connected, they know your story and how important it is to me, their grandmother, and they know that their father wore your bracelet for six years and what that meant to him.
Jeffrey and his younger brother, Harris, will grow up and teach their sons and daughters to remember David Rickel and to bless him and thank him for the gift of their lives.
I say, Thank you, Dave. You were a true friend. I will never forget you.