OSI leader escorts fallen Vietnam War pilot home

  • Published
  • By Thomas Brading, OSI Public Affairs

Over half a century after Col. Ernest De Soto went missing in action during the Vietnam War, his homecoming was led by one of OSI’s top leaders: Col. Benjamin Hatch, OSI’s 6th Field Investigations Region commander.

Despite Hatch's day-to-day at the helm of OSI 6 FIR, on June 29, he found himself on the San Francisco International Airport's tarmac with a different kind of mission. Adhering to military protocol, Hatch, a full-bird colonel, volunteered to escort De Soto, a fallen Air Force pilot of equivalent rank, to his home state to California.   

This mission put Hatch in the heart of a journey to find the truth about what happened to a missing Airman that stretched over five decades, one which marked the closing chapter of a fallen fighter pilot's story steeped in loss, hope and ultimately, resolution.

‘Never leave an Airman behind’

In 1969, De Soto, then a major, piloted an F-4D Phantom II jet, a workhorse of the 390th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 336th Tactical Fighter Wing, along with Capt. Frederick Hall, his navigator who was then a first lieutenant. The pair were on a return path with another aircraft following a cancelled strike mission near the Quang Nam Province in Vietnam.  

Both aircraft ascended into heavy cloud cover. The lead aircraft noticed De Soto’s jet was not in sight and immediately began an aerial search without success. Although the lead aircraft completed the search, the efforts were fruitless. De Soto and Hall were never seen again. 

While in missing status, De Soto was promoted to the rank of colonel. His counterpart, Hall, later received his captain bars, both honors given while they were listed as missing in action.

At the time, search and rescue airborne missions sprang into action to locate the downed aircraft, however, there were no signs of the crew and the hostile activity in the area prevented a ground investigation of the site.

Decades passed before any significant breakthrough, but in May 1995, a Joint Field Activity team located the crash site and sent another joint team in July 1996 to recover evidence. Their discovery spurred another expedition in July of the following year, this time a Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency investigation whose recovery efforts took place between 1998-2020. 

In March 2021, a recovery mission conducted by the host nation, finding possible osseous remains and material evidence, was sent to the DPAA laboratory for identification. On March 23, 2023, the findings were conclusive – De Soto and Hall had both been identified. 

Hall’s homecoming is tentatively slated for Oct. 2023, said Sandra Kolb, Air Force Personnel Center's Chief of Missing Persons.

“For these families, not just the De Soto family, many have been waiting decades to not only have their loved ones recovered and returned to them, but also have some sense of understanding of what happened to them,” Kolb added. 

“Ultimately, it's our nation's promise to not leave American servicemembers on foreign battlefields,” Kolb continued. “It’s our promise in the Airmen Creed leave no one behind. For the families who don't know where their loved ones are, we owe it to them to find whatever answers we can possibly give them.”

A hero’s homecoming

In the spirit of that promise, Hatch took on the mission to escort De Soto home. It began with a flight from Pearl Harbor to the California’s Bay Area. In morning of the transfer flight, Hatch said he drove past Hickam Air Force Base’s Missing Man Formation Monument and noticed the POW/MIA flag flutter – a reminder of his upcoming mission that day, he said. 

At the Honolulu International Airport, passengers embarked on what seemed like a typical commercial flight. At the time, they were unaware of the significance of that day. Their normal pre-flight routine was disrupted when the pilot addressed the cabin, recounting De Soto's fateful mission on April 12 1969. 

The pilot told the passengers how, after 54 years, the flight they were on was meant to return the fallen pilot to his family. The cabin echoed with the sound of applause and cheers, Hatch said, the passengers collectively expressed deep respect for De Soto.

Hours later, as the plane descended toward San Francisco, the commercial pilot's voice once again took to the PA system, this time preparing passengers for the imminent ceremony. He asked for their understanding and patience, as Hatch, distinguished as the military escort, was to be the first to disembark upon landing.

“When I got up and started walking, the entire plane applauded, really in celebration of this homecoming for Col. DeSoto,” Hatch said. 

Around this time, DeSoto's casket, draped in the American flag, was gently unloaded from the plane by the Base Honor Guard from Travis Air Force Base, California. 

“It was just an incredible experience,” Hatch said. "It was an emotional encounter, filled with shared tears and heartwarming stories by the family and others about their father, husband, relative and friend."

De Soto was much more than a fighter pilot, Hatch said. He was once a young man who had a talent for football, who earned a scholarship to Stanford University to play. However, he chose a different path for various reasons and enlisted in the Air Force. As an Airman, De Soto aced the officer qualification test, received his commission and ascended the ranks to become a fighter pilot. 

“He had a goal of becoming a professor after he completed his military service,” Hatch said. 

The memorial service, held June 30, was at Our Lady of Angels Church in Burlingame, California, was followed by full military honors at the Golden Gate National Cemetery, including a flyover.

Hatch, as he watched the jets overhead, was moved as one aircraft pulled up spectacularly from the rest, leaving an empty space in the formation to represent the fallen Airman and fighter pilot. 

It was an awe-inspiring sight, a powerful visual, and an absolutely fitting way for the Air Force to offer a final salute,” he said. “After 54 years of not knowing the status of Col De Soto, we could finally say goodbye to this warrior and hero.”

Additional links

Vietnam war pilot returns home

Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency: Col. Ernest De Soto

Air Force Historical Support Division: USAF in the Vietnamese Conflict