Printed on: December 29, 2012

Pilot who died in Vietnam back on U.S. soil

By Meghann M. Cuniff
Idaho Statesman

A plastic credit card provided the first major clue.

Investigators obtained the American Express card from a villager in the Asian country of Laos in 2007. It belonged to Boise resident Kevin Hocevar's father, James "Monty" Johnstone, who disappeared in a plane crash there in 1966.

In 2009, searchers found the final piece of the war-torn puzzle: one of Johnstone's left molars. Found at the site of the crash that killed Johnstone just a month after Hocevar was born, the tooth allowed the Department of Defense to formally identify Johnstone's remains and give him a proper burial.

Hocevar, supervisory agent for the U.S. Probation Office in Boise, traveled to the East Coast earlier this month for the ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. His mother traveled from Hayden Lake, his twin sister from Colorado. His father's old war buddies also attended, including the wingman who witnessed the crash. Some who attended had no connection to Johnstone other than a shared experience with the military.

"It's not about me. It's much bigger than me," Hocevar, 46, said in an interview. "There were a lot of people working on this and thousands of man hours put into it before I went to Arlington."

Finding missing Americans

Identifying and burying Johnstone was part of a broader effort by the U.S. Department of Defense to find and identify the remains of all Americans missing in wars.

About 83,000 military members remain missing in action, including 1,655 during the Vietnam War, according to the Department of Defense.

More than 120 people work full-time to find and identify them. Johnstone is one of more than 600 people who have been identified and brought home to their families.

Hocevar, a married father of two young children, always has known his father died in the crash, so the official identification didn't confirm anything he didn't already know. But for his father's friends, the identification was monumental.

New Yorker John Pfeiffer, the pilot flying alongside Johnstone at the time of the crash, traveled to Laos in 2007 on his own money to make sure the government was at the right spot, Hocevar said.

"He told me he has the last 8 seconds framed of my dad's life. He can see my dad hunched over the stick, just going straight down in a fireball," Hocevar said. "He's carried that for a long time."

Johnstone was a 28-year-old Army Reserve captain when he and co-pilot Army Major James L. Whithed flew an OV-1A Mohawk aircraft over Attapu Province, Laos, on Nov. 19, 1966.

Hocevar and his twin sister were just a month old.

"Enemy activity" prevented anyone from reaching the wreckage, according to the Defense Department, but both men were believed to be dead on impact. The official military report said the plane clipped a tree, but Pfeiffer believes it was shot down.

It was Pfeiffer who called Hocevar's mother in 1966 to break the terrible news. She remarried a couple of years later.

Hocevar took his stepfather's last name. But he said his stepfather always encouraged him to maintain a relationship with his biological father's family. Many of them attended the Dec. 12 burial ceremony in Arlington.

While the ceremony was somber, Hocevar said, the trip was not a time for grief but a time for remembrance and celebration.

Holding out hope

Hocevar and his family always hoped to bring Johnstone home. Hocevar, who served in the Marine Corps and Air Force Reserve, said his grandmother always hoped Johnstone would walk through her door one day. She died about five years ago, before her son's official identification, but knew military officials were working to find him.

A joint search team from the U.S. and Laos traveled to the crash site in January 1993 and retrieved evidence that allowed them to tentatively identify the crash site, according to Department of Defense documents provided by Hocevar.

People living there told searchers in 2005 that the area had been scavenged for metal, though searchers managed to find some evidence.

The big break came Oct. 23 2007, when someone, identified in documents only as a "defense intelligence agency source," obtained Johnstone's American Express credit card from a villager.

Crews excavated the suspected crash site in the Attapu Province. Again, they recovered evidence but no human remains.

Searchers returned to excavate the site in May 2008 and May 2009.

Both times, they found human teeth. Dental records confirmed the teeth belonged to Johnstone and Whited.

Searchers also found a piece of Johnstone's military identification card.

A Defense Department representative traveled to Boise last summer to review the findings with Hocevar. The department paid for Hocevar and his mother and sister to attend the burial at Arlington.

Hocevar returned with the shell casings from the three-gun salute. He keeps photos of the burial ceremony at his office in the federal courthouse in Boise.

"I'm proud," Hocevar said. "It's a good thing to have him back on U.S. soil."