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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, February 10, 2003

Coast Guard MIA may be found

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

Remains found in Laos that could be those of Lt. Jack Rittichier, the first Coast Guard combat casualty of the Vietnam War, will be repatriated to American soil in a ceremony Friday at Hickam Air Force Base.

The U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory, Hawai'i, will seek to positively identify Rittichier, a helicopter pilot who also is the only Coast Guard MIA from the war.

Search and recovery teams of mostly Hawai'i-based personnel from the identification lab and Joint Task Force-Full Accounting are conducting recovery operations at the crash site where the HH-3E "Jolly Green Giant" helicopter piloted by Rittichier went down.

"It's reassuring to the folks in the Coast Guard to know we're bringing our last one home from Vietnam," said Honolulu-based Petty Officer Lauren Smith, who spent two days at the crash site. "Hopefully, when the remains do return to American soil, it will bring a sense of closure to his family."

Rittichier, who was from Ohio and served as an exchange pilot with the U.S. Air Force's 37th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron in Danang, was shot down June 9, 1968, while trying to rescue a downed Marine pilot on the Ho Chi Minh Trail just inside the Laos border, and opposite the A Shau Valley in Vietnam.

Air Force crew members Capt. Richard Yeend, Staff Sgt. Elmer Holden and Sgt. James Locker also were on board. A forward air controller witnessed the helicopter falling to the ground in flames.

Smith, who visited the remote crash site Jan. 29 and 30, said it is about an hour and 15 minute helicopter ride from Savannakhet in Laos.

"It's very far-removed from civilization and there's not a whole lot out there — you'll see small huts and villages on your way to the site," Smith said. Personal effects including captain's bars were found, she said.

"A lot of people don't think of the Coast Guard going overseas to participate in conflicts," Smith said. "But it's a fact the Coast Guard has participated in every major (U.S.) conflict."

Coast Guard patrol boats primarily from the East Coast are being sent to the Middle East as the United States prepares for a war with Iraq. No Hawai'i-based ships are being sent to the region, Smith said.

Reach William Cole at 525-5459 or at wcole@honoluluadvertiser.com.