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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, April 10, 2001

Seven killed in Vietnam part of Hawai'i unit

By Walter Wright
Advertiser Staff Writer

Comrades in Hawai'i mourned yesterday as the names of seven U.S. service personnel killed in a helicopter crash Saturday in Vietnam were released in Honolulu.

Six were members of Hawai'i-based Joint Task Force-Full Accounting on duty in Hanoi, including Air Force Master Sgt. Steven L. Moser of Honolulu. The seventh casualty, Army Sgt. 1st Class Tommy Murphy of Honolulu, was working out of the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory here.

"Any time a small unit like ours, with only 160 personnel, loses as many members as it lost, it has a devastating impact," said Army Lt. Col. Franklin Childress, public affairs officer for the task force.

"I know these guys," Childress said yesterday. "It has been a deep personal loss for all of us."

Childress and unit commander Brig. Gen. Harry B. Axson Jr. from Camp H.M. Smith, will leave for Hanoi tonight to help bring back the remains of the seven for services here, probably by week's end.

They also will pay their respects to the nine Vietnamese killed when a Russian-made MI-17 helicopter crashed into a hillside in Quang Binh province.

Murphy's wife and two daughters, ages 3 and 4, may be participating in a memorial service as early as Thursday at Hickam Air Force Base.

The unit has been America's only official contact with Vietnam for most of the years since the war. Because of this, Childress said, "this is not only a national tragedy for both the United States and Vietnam, but there is a tragedy within a tragedy: we feel very strongly about these Vietnamese men who were out there with us to recover remains of Americans."

The other five Americans killed in the crash were identified yesterday as:

  • Army Lt. Col. Rennie Cory Jr., Detachment 2 Cmdr., Joint Task Force-Full Accounting, of Oklahoma City.
  • Tech. Sgt. Robert M. Flynn, Vietnamese language specialist, JTF-FA, of Huntsville, Ala.
  • Navy Chief Petty Officer Pedro Juan Gonzales, Consolidated Divers Unit, of Buckeye, Ariz.
  • Air Force Maj. Charles E. Lewis, Detachment 2 Dep. Cmdr., JTF-FA, of Las Cruces, N.M.
  • Army Lt. Col. George D. "Marty" Martin III, Incoming Detachment 2 Cmdr, 1st Bn., 32nd Infantry Regiment. Martin, of Hopkins, S.C. was based in Fort Drum, N.Y., and was to take over command of the Hanoi-based JTF-FA in July.

Central Identification Laboratory liaison Staff Sgt. Earl Bushong described Murphy as "a gentle giant" who stood six feet, four inches tall, weighed about 225 pounds, and "always had a smile on his face, was the type of person you always wanted to be around. He was one like no other."

The laboratory, with 177 personnel on duty, is one of the Army's smaller organizations, Bushong said, but like both large and small units "considers the loss of one individual very significant."

A team sergeant, Murphy was participating with the task force in preparation for a major "joint field activity" with Vietnamese troops that had been scheduled for May 5. It was to involve investigation of several sites.

Anthropologist Peter Miller of Kailua recalled Murphy yesterday as a man who during his two tours at the identification laboratory had been willing to put himself into dangerous situations.

"I'm not making this out to be rosy because he is dead," Miller said. "(The unit) was impressed with him from his first tour of duty. He worked hard in difficult field situations, in the tropics in Southeast Asia, hiking into the wilderness, taking photos and recording what a site was like.

"The fact that he came back again showed he believed in what we are doing — that if we put people in harm's way the least we can do is account for them if they are missing or lost," Miller said.

"He was squared away, efficient, with a real professional approach."

Miller said the death of Murphy and the others "are great losses ... of outstanding people."

Childress noted that extra efforts are being made to help task force members cope with grief.

"Sometimes people put up a strong front and are really suffering," he said.

"We are a family, and a real close-knit family because of the mission we have ... We have lots of linguists, for example, not that many of them in the military to begin with, and these are Vietnamese linguists, an even smaller community. You get them in one place and a lot of people know each other from past assignments."

Childress, who said he was close to Flynn, Lewis and Cory, described Cory as "a good friend of mine, a consummate professional."

"Everything he did was excellent. He was one of those guys that you know is a born leader, who had natural charisma. He had a stellar future in the U. S. Army, on his second battalion command. He is in my opinion an American hero who left his family behind to go on a hardship tour."

Cory, 43, was married and had four children.

Like Cory, Lewis was married. He became involved in the Hanoi operation about the time that former President Clinton visited Vietnam in November. Childress said, "He was the right person for that deputy job; he and Cory complemented each other."

"Major Lewis had an engineering background, and was able to focus on details," Childress said.

Childress described Flynn as a "very light-skinned, blue-eyed individual" and noted that "the Vietnamese were very surprised that he spoke Vietnamese as well as he did.

"He was one of those guys who really had a touch with the language, and an ability to communicate with people."

According to Childress, Moser was an "an excellent linguist, who always pitched in where he could. He was a very big asset to the organization." He added that Gonzales was an "augmentee" with the task force, providing medical support for the team in Hanoi as a medical corpsman previously assigned to a diving unit in San Diego, Childress said.

"He was the equivalent of a physician's assistant, and able to provide extensive medical support. As a chief he was very very skilled and experienced."

Childress said he did not know Martin, who was in Hanoi for the first time and had come from New York to take over the operation from Cory.