Soldiers Lost On Flying Tiger Line Flight Are Finally Memorialized

Photo Credit: Wreaths Across America
Photo Credit: Wreaths Across America

Over 20 families gathered in May to witness the unveiling of a new memorial in Columbia Falls, Maine, dedicated to the victims of Flying Tiger Line Flight 739.

Onboard were 107 people, all of whom remain missing as the aircraft was never found after its disappearance. As their deaths did not occur in the Vietnam combat zone, their names were not placed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, nor have they since been honored.

Flying Tiger Line Flight 739

The secrecy of the mission and the total lack of wreckage has kept the victims’ families in the dark about the details of the crash.

A Lockheed Constellation of the Flying Tiger Line, 1964.
A Lockheed Constellation L-1049, similar to the aircraft that disappeared, at Gatwick in 1964. (Photo Credit: RuthAS / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

The top-secret mission began in 1962, three years before the first U.S. troops arrived in Vietnam. Ninety-three U.S. soldiers boarded the Lockheed Super Constellation at Travis Air Force Base in California on March 14, 1962. The Constellation was en route to Saigon, where the U.S. personnel onboard would take over from soldiers training Vietnamese troops to fight the Viet Cong. The flight also carried 11 crew and three Vietnamese military personnel.

After leaving California, it landed in Hawaii, Wake Island, and Guam for refueling, before carrying on to the Philippines. It was in this area between Guam and the Philippines where the aircraft would disappear. The pilot gave his last position 280 miles from Guam at 14:22 and was never heard from again. The weather and seas were calm at the time of the aircraft’s disappearance.

Flying Tiger Line Flight 739 was declared missing the next morning, and one of the Pacific’s largest search and rescue operations began shortly after. The eight-day search covered over 200,000 square miles but produced no evidence of wreckage.

The only lead investigators had were the reports from a Liberian tanker crew, who claimed to have witnessed a mid-air explosion near the aircraft’s intended flightpath about 90 minutes after the pilot’s last transmission. The tanker even headed in the direction of the explosion but found no wreckage.

Without any physical evidence, the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) were unable to determine the cause or even the outcome of the aircraft’s disappearance, concluding:

“A summation of all relevant factors tends to indicate that the aircraft was destroyed in flight. However, due to the lack of any substantiating evidence, the Board is unable to state with any degree of certainty the exact fate of N 6921C.”

Families finally get closure

The families of the victims have been seeking answers for their relatives’ disappearance for years without any breakthroughs. Equally, they were frustrated that those lost in the crash were never honored like others who died during the Vietnam War.

Monument to the fallen of Flying Tiger Line Flight 739
The new monument displays the engraving of each of the 93 Army soldiers aboard, as well as the names of the 11 flight crew members, many of whom were veterans themselves. (Photo Credit: Wreaths Across America)

Dianna Taylor Crumpler of Olive Branch, Mississippi, lost her brother in the tragedy, and said, “I do feel frustrated. It’s almost as if they never existed as soldiers. It’s almost like they don’t matter, that their deaths don’t matter.”

In recent years, work has been done in order to honor the victims, with the case even being pushed by Senator Gary Peters to have their names put on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial; however, this too was unsuccessful.

“It is past time that we properly honor those lost. That’s why I will continue to work with my colleagues and the families of those lives lost on ways we can honor the servicemembers,” Peters said.

The founder of Wreaths Across America heard about the story and was so moved that they wanted to create a memorial for the victims. The memorial was unveiled to the families of the victims along with a rifle salute and a wreath laying.

This bittersweet moment is a great achievement for the families involved.

Josephine Gilpatrick, sister of Donald “Duckie” Sargent, who was aboard Flying Tiger Line Flight 739, and has waited 59 years to see her brother’s name in stone.
Josephine Gilpatrick, sister of Donald “Duckie” Sargent, who was aboard Flying Tiger Line Flight 739. (Photo Credit: Wreaths Across America)

“It’s incredible,” said Donna Ellis, of Haslett, Michigan, who was only 5 years old when her father was lost onboard the Constellation.

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Susie Linale, of Omaha, Nebraska, also lost her father in the accident, and believes the memorial is very important. “This will be closure for a lot of families,” she said.

The mystery of what happened to the 107 people aboard the 1962 flight may never be solved, but for the families, the newly unveiled memorial will immortalize their missing relatives.

Jesse Beckett

Jesse Beckett is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE