Sometimes God orchestrates the coolest things. This day is a good illustration. Before I tell you about it, I want to throw a few “disclaimers” out there. I realize in sharing this information that I am treading on sensitive and hallowed ground. I am not a historian nor the family spokesperson. What follows are my recollections and understanding of the day’s events; any errors or omissions are unintentional and my own. Whew!
A few weeks before our trip, John’s older brother Bob “happened” to Google their oldest brother’s name. The boys oldest brother (half brother) is Capt. Richard “Dick” LeBrou Whitesides, a West Point grad and Air Force pilot who was shot down in Vietnam in 1964. Dick was initially listed as MIA, then declared dead the following year, though no remains were ever recovered. The man shot down with Dick, Capt. Floyd Thompson, was the longest held POW in the Vietnam War (9 years). The family is active in POW/MIA affairs and follows Dick’s case, hoping for a resolution as to exactly what happened and the return of his remains. Every once in awhile an internet search turns up some new tidbit, and it certainly did this time! Bob saw a news story about an official memorial ceremony for Dick held at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (the Punchbowl) in Honolulu. An accompanying photo showed a misidentified woman receiving a folded flag in Dick’s honor. John’s other brother Tom contacted the reporter to inquire as to who the woman was and who had organized the ceremony (since our family had no knowledge of it). The reporter put the boys in contact with the gentleman who organized the memorial, Jack Bohman, a friend and classmate of Dick’s. Jack and his lovely wife Arlene live on Oahu, and they invited us to spend the day with them, visiting Dick’s memorial at the Punchbowl and touring the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), the government agency responsible for locating and identifying remains of unaccounted-for American service men and women.
Our day began with a brief tour of Hickam AFB (after yet another stop at Leonard’s, of course). Jack told us Hickam is the most beautiful air base in the world, and I believe it. The entire facility is neatly landscaped, and the buildings are all art deco style to preserve the bases’ original 1935 design. As another nod to history, the bullet holes in exterior walls caused by Japanese strafing runs during the attack on Pearl Harbor have been left unrepaired. It’s kind of eerie seeing them. I wish I had some pix to share, but alas, we were forbidden to take pix of facilities on base.
Jack and Arlene took us to the Missing Man Memorial on base which honors fallen aviators, and Jack presented each of the boys with a commemorative coin from the West Point Class of 1959. Very cool.
Next we went to the JPAC HQ for our meeting. It was great to meet some of the dedicated men and women who work all over the world, sometimes in very hostile (politically and environmentally!) conditions to bring home every missing US serviceperson. We were shown the laboratories where actual remains are being worked on to discover their identities, as well as displays of the various methods used to identify remains. Each missing serviceperson has a box containing every bit of relevant information pertaining to their case, and we were given the opportunity to view the contents of Dick’s box. It was fascinating to read through official accounts of Dick’s disappearance and peruse his service record and a stack of photos – both service photos of Dick and his aircraft as well as photos of wreckage discovered in the late 90’s. Everything we know of Dick reveals him to be a kind, thoughtful and serious man, and all of that was reflected in his handsome service portrait. He was also a brave and dedicated pilot, as evidenced by the fact he was the first to be awarded the Air Force Cross in the Vietnam War. As I looked at pictures of Dick, it made me sad to think that my John never knew this brother, and that his family still has no real closure as to what happened to Dick. However, in looking at Dick’s service record I made a discovery that really tickled me. A few of John’s toes meet at some, let’s say, “interesting” angles, and I like to tease him about his “chicken toes”. On the back of Dick’s service record was a set of his foot prints. To my delight, Dick had the very same “chicken toes”! It was a silly and small thing, but it made Dick seem more real to me and like family.
After a wonderful lunch on base, Jack directed us to the lei stands at the Honolulu airport (THE place to get gorgeous leis at ridiculous prices!) where we could pick up some leis to place on Dick’s memorial marker at the Punchbowl. The Punchbowl is a cemetery and memorial garden dedicated to American service men and women, particularly those who served in the Pacific area. Thousands of veterans are interred there, and there are also memorials for those whose remains were never found. The main feature of the Punchbowl is a statue of Lady Columbia which is said to represent all grieving mothers. She is surrounded by intricate murals detailing Pacific area conflicts from WWII, Korea and Vietnam and the Courts of the Missing, a collection of marble walls listing the names of “Americans who gave their lives in the service of their country, and whose earthly resting place is known only to God.” There are almost 29k names listed on those walls, and it should be noted that these are only men and women who went missing in the Pacific – NOT those who went missing in Europe, Africa, etc.! At the base of Lady Columbia is a sobering quote from a letter Abraham Lincoln wrote to a Civil War mother: “the solemn pride that must be yours, to have laid so costly a sacrifice on the altar of freedom.”
On a small hill in the Punchbowl overlooking downtown Honolulu is set a new memorial garden for those who were buried at sea or whose remains have not yet been found. A year or so ago Dick’s widow remarked to his classmates that it was sad that they had not had an official military memorial service for Dick. Jack graciously offered to organize one and last fall Dick received the honors he deserved. The family had not previously asked for a service, because Dick’s father never really gave up hope that his son was somehow still alive. The boys’ father passed away 12 years ago, but our family had no idea such a ceremony was even an option. Dick’s classmates in turn, had no idea of the existence of his half-brothers, so our family was not notified. It was unfortunate that none of us attended Dick’s memorial service, but we were so grateful that Jack arranged this special day for us to remember and honor Dick. The boys each laid their leis at Dick’s marker and Jack added one on behalf of his classmates.
Next Jack took us to the Courts of the Missing and showed us Dick’s name on the wall, as well as the name of another classmate of theirs, Roque (pronounced Rocky) Versace, who received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroic actions while interned as a POW in Vietnam.
The brothers posed for pictures next to Dick’s name, and after I finished snapping my pix, I turned toward Tantalus Mtn and saw the most beautiful rainbow. When I showed my sister Cristal the picture I took, she said it was a sign from God. I’ll buy that!
Next Jack took us up a walkway lined with memorials erected by various veterans groups and individuals. The view of downtown Honolulu from this area was breathtaking. I particularly love this picture because it so captures Honolulu: H1 in the foreground, a gridlock of rush-hour commuters, the sky scrapers of downtown, the hills behind them jam-packed with homes and stately Diamond Head overseeing all of it.
We said goodbye to our new friend Jack and headed back to our hotel. It was such an amazing day – none of us could believe how any of it came to be!
We spent our final nite together strolling down Kalakaua Avenue and enjoying a fabulous dinner at Honolulu landmark, Duke’s Waikiki. Duke’s is a must-do if you are in Honolulu, and definitely plan ahead to make a resi. It is crazy popular. If you can’t get a dinner resi, lunch is also a good option and way less crowded.