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Maine family searches for answers, decades after deadly plane flight claimed 93 soldiers

It's been almost six decades since Flying Tiger Flight 739 went down on the way to Vietnam.

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — It has been almost 60 years since Flying Tiger Flight 739 went down en route to Vietnam. But for the families of the soldiers who died on that plane, the search for answers, and recognition for their loved ones, hasn’t stopped.

In March 1962 – which was early in the Vietnam war--  Donald Sargent was an Army Ranger in his early 20’s, born and raised in the western Maine town of Cornish.

His brother, Clifton, who was five years older, remembers Donald Sargent's last visit home.

“He was in a Ranger battalion Kennedy was putting together,” his brother said.

On March 16, 1962, Donald and 92 other Rangers boarded a Super Constellation, a large, four-engine prop plane, at Travis AFB in California. They were a special unit, the family said, and along with three South Vietnamese soldiers, took off for Vietnam on a secret mission.

Jennifer Kirk, Clifton’s daughter, knows the story well. Donald Sargent was the uncle she never met because his plane never reached Vietnam.

“They left Guam, and that’s where they disappeared,” Kirk said. “They were headed to the Philippines and then Saigon.”

But after leaving Guam, the plane vanished over the Pacific.

“They disappeared,” Kirk said.

The plane and all on board were lost. Newspapers reported the plane had gone missing. Jennifer said a six-day search found nothing.

In her research, said Kirk, she was able to communicate with former sailors who were on one of the search boats. She learned there had been a report of a mid-air explosion, but no debris. No trace of the place was ever recovered.

Back in Maine, Donald Sargent's family got the telegram, informing them of his death. It was a hard blow for the whole family, said Clifton, but especially for their mother. He said she never accepted the fact her son was gone.

“She always said and thought one day that boy is going to come walking through the door,” he said, choking up on the memory. 

Across the country, other families received the same awful news. Two other families in Maine also lost loved ones. Along with Donald Sargent, there was Sgt. Frank Pelkey of Farmington and Specialist Leonard Wedge from Millinocket. All of them were Army Rangers from Maine, on Flying Tiger Flight 739.

And while there was no way to know what happened to the plane, the families were also unable to learn about the mission the soldiers were headed to in Vietnam.

“This is how secret it was,” Clifton said. “You tried to get information, but nobody would touch it."

It hasn’t been for lack of trying.

Kirk, her father and brother, and other families have spent years searching for records to tell what the secret mission was those 93 Rangers were being sent to do.

They’ve gone to the Army, she said, asked the Defense Department and even went to Congress, looking for answers. 

Somewhere, she believes, there are records about it, but no one has yet been able, or willing, to produce them.

The lack of hard information has given rise to many theories, she said. From some, who think they were going after Ho Chi Minh, to Kirk's belief they were doing intelligence gathering for the President.

“They were going over there maybe to get feet on the ground, to record what was happening [and] send it back to Kennedy. Because they were individually picked by John F. Kennedy.”

They said it has been frustrating for the families to continue hitting dead ends. But it isn’t their only frustration.  

When the families visit Washington and go to the polished black wall of the Vietnam Memorial, the names of those 93 Rangers are not there.

“I think they need to be recognized more than you have now,” was the modest comment from Kirk's brother Donald, named for the uncle he, too, never met.

He has been trying to get the names added to the wall. Kirk's brother is a veteran of the Army Reserve and said he first visited the wall one night when he was doing two weeks of training duty in Washington.  

“The night before I sat there and wrote a letter to my uncle, knowing he wasn’t there, telling him I thought he deserved to be there, and how I hoped I was carrying his name with pride,” the veteran said.

The family said they were told there are rules about the names that can go on the wall, and that they were told their Rangers aren’t eligible because they were lost far away from Vietnam, even though they were on the way to that war.

They, and others, continue to work with members of Congress to try to get permission to add the 93 names. 

But, by chance, someone else decided to place those names on a stone. At Wreaths Across America in Columbia Falls, Morrill Worcester heard Clifton Sargent talking about it, and agreed those soldiers deserved a memorial... so he built one.

At a special ceremony in May of this year, with family members from around the country, Worcester unveiled the monument to the 93 Rangers of Flying Tiger Flight 739. 

A large chunk of stone, fitted with a metal tablet containing all those names, now sits as part of the permanent memorial area Wreaths Across America created in Downeast Maine.

It doesn’t change the pain or end the family mission to get the names on the Vietnam Wall, Donald Sargent said. “I hope they know we aren’t going away. We want to get these people the recognition they deserve.”

And Kirk said it doesn’t end the long search for answers about the mission—answers she thinks may never be found.

“I honestly don’t think we will ever know, and we won’t find out what the mission was,” she said.

But now at least, their names are displayed for all to see, in a place that honors veterans.

Ninety-three brave soldiers, going to carry out a mission for their country. Their stories, their service and their sacrifice, no longer an untold story.

After more than 59 years, they are remembered.

More NEWS CENTER Maine stories.

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