Once MIA in Vietnam, Lt. Col. Pietsch to get proper burial

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In 1978, the military told Robert Pietsch's family it had found no evidence that he had survived being shot down over Laos a decade earlier in the Vietnam War.

Until then, the family had held onto hope that he may have survived, maybe been taken prisoner.

Audrey, his widow, had continued to write letters to him through the early 1970s; their home on Folkstone Drive in Mt. Lebanon featured a portrait of him in every room; each year at Christmas, the youngest of the five children had asked Santa Claus to bring their daddy home.

At an Air Force base in San Antonio, Texas, they learned he was considered killed in action.

"That was the funeral finally," one of his daughters, 18-year-old Lori, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette at the time.

Today, Lori and her four siblings are well into their middle years. The war that claimed their father is a dark and distant memory.

Map: Savannakhet Province, Laos
(Click image for larger version)

But 45 years after his death, this family will finally have the opportunity to attend a proper funeral for him.

The remains of Lt. Col. Pietsch, a Green Tree native, will be buried Wednesday at Arlington National Cemetery along with those of his navigator, Maj. Louis F. Guillermin of West Chester, Pa.

Both were killed on April 30, 1968, when their two-man A-26A Invader bomber crashed in Savannakhet Province. Lt. Col. Pietsch was 31; Maj. Guillermin 25.

At Arlington, a white cross will bear both of their names, and the single casket will contain an Air Force dress uniform to symbolize their service.

Lori Angelo, now 53 and living on a farm in Greene County, was 8 when her dad disappeared and spent much of her life wondering about his fate.

"I think it will be a real sense of relief," she said of the Arlington ceremony. "We just never knew for sure what happened to him. Now they [the military] feel strongly that it was a non-survivable crash. At least it was quick and he didn't suffer."

Her older sister, Carole, 54, of Palmyra, Pa., said she had hoped military forensics experts could have identified her father's remains through a DNA match, as they did Maj. Guillermin's. The fragments were too tiny for a conclusive test, but all the circumstances indicate Lt. Col. Pietsch died in the crash and the case has finally been closed.

"I wish there had been something more definitive," Carole said. "Still, I'm grateful for all the work that went into trying to locate that site."

Audrey, who now lives in North Carolina, declined to discuss her husband or the funeral.

Born in 1936 in Green Tree, Lt. Col. Pietsch grew up with two sisters, Judy and Barbara, and graduated in 1954 from the former Dormont High School, where he was known as quiet and a touch shy.

He attended Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland, now Case Western, to earn an engineering degree and learned to fly in the ROTC program there. He and Audrey, whom he had known from high school, married in 1958 and started a family.

After college he joined the Air Force, and in the next decade the family moved around the country to bases in Texas, Alabama, Louisiana, Kansas and New York.

In 1967, he shipped off for Vietnam for a one-year combat tour.

For the first time, he was away from his wife and children and it weighed on him.

"I'm wondering whether this [Air Force] is the life I want, mainly because I want to participate in these growing-up years with the children," he wrote in a letter home. "Another year of separation would be intolerable."

A routine mission, 4/30/1968

Flying his A-26A, a fast twin-engine bomber converted from a World War II B-26, he and Maj. Guillermin took off on April 30, 1968, from Thailand on a mission to attack supply lines on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The flight was supposed to be Lt. Col. Pietsch's last before transferring to a desk job.

Over a remote area of Laos, the plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire and went down.

A combat controller on the ground reported seeing a pillar of smoke and the radio went dead. A search the next day was called off because the area was deemed too dangerous.

At home, two officers came to the Pietsch home to tell Audrey her husband was missing in action.

Time passed, the war ended, and she carried on the best she could, determined to give the children a normal life. The family was convinced Lt. Col. Pietsch was a POW. The kids wore POW bracelets for years and always talked of "when" their dad would come home, not "if."

"I'm simply doing what every mother does and what Bob would expect me to do -- take care of his children," Audrey said in 1972. "I don't feel we can seal them in a box until we get word of their father. And I don't want them looking back on these years as deprived or lonely."

Later, she said, "If he doesn't return, we'll adjust; in the meantime, we hope."

But the years went by with no word. Audrey remarried in 1976. Two years later, the Air Force changed Lt. Col. Pietsch's status to KIA and presented the family with his medals at an event held at the 911th Tactical Airlift Group near the Pittsburgh airport. The two youngest children, David and Georgia, wept throughout, although both were too young to remember their father.

"I guess it's just the feeling that I lost something that I had before I knew I had it," said Georgia at the time.

The work of JPAC

More years passed, but in 1994, a team of U.S. and Laotian personnel led by the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command surveyed the crash site. No one knew for certain which wreck it was; within a few miles, there are some 20 other crash sites from the war years.

The team recovered human remains and evidence, but a full survey wasn't possible because the plane still carried live bombs.

It wasn't until 2006 when the teams came back, this time with bomb disposal experts, to clear the site for excavation.

"There were multiple visits to this site over the years," said Lt. Col. Melinda Morgan, public affairs officer with the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office. "It took some time to clear the ordnance."

Teams then gathered more remains and personal items, including Maj. Guillermin's dog tags.

Nothing was ever found from Lt. Col. Pietsch.

The remains were tested at a lab in Hawaii. It took seven years, but portions of bone fragments were eventually identified as belonging to Maj. Guillermin through a DNA match from a hair sample.

No such match was possible for Lt. Col. Pietsch.

"They didn't find anything to specifically identify my brother," said his sister, Barbara Chew, 73, of Mt. Lebanon. "The fragments are too small."

The remains that could be identified as Maj. Guillermin's were buried next to his parents at a cemetery outside Philadelphia earlier this month.

The rest will be interred at Arlington with remains believed to be those of Lt. Col. Pietsch.

More than 83,000 Americans remain missing in action from the nation's wars -- some 73,000 from World War II; nearly 8,000 from the Korean War; 1,645 from Vietnam.

To find them, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (known as JPAC) does the heavy work, conducting field investigations to recover and identify remains around the world. The Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office oversees those efforts.

More than 1,000 cases are active at any one time, and in an average month, JPAC is able to identify eight missing servicemen from long-ago battlefields.

Many of them are buried at Arlington.

"I hadn't realized how important it is to have someone home," said Lori Angelo. "It means a lot to be buried on sacred land. He was a career pilot, he was very proud of what he did, and that would make him happy."

region - neigh_south

Torsten Ove: tove@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1510. First Published October 12, 2013 8:00 PM


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