More than 44 years after their A-26 was shot down over Laos, Air Force Maj. James E. Sizemore and Maj. Howard V. Andre were buried side by side on Monday.
The interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, complete with twin caskets and colors teams, an escort and a firing party, formally ended the decades that the officers’ families had spent in limbo, awaiting the return of remains from a country where the United States never officially fought, from a mission that never officially occurred. Sizemore and Andre were on “a night armed reconnaissance mission,” as the Pentagon described it in a release last week announcing that the airmen had been identified.
Vietnam veterans who made it back alive were more often blamed than thanked. The families of the missing in action bore an additional burden and counted heavily on one another, mourning but never fully moving on. The Sizemores and Andres lived with a particular emptiness: Their men gave their lives in a secret war, without any official acknowledgment. Military and CIA operations to cut off North Vietnamese supply routes and rescue pilots who were shot down were covert in Laos, a neutral country enmeshed in its own civil war.
A-26 wreckage first was spotted in 1993, and the families waited an additional 17 years for the site to be excavated. Just five months ago, the remains were identified. Even that news was not what you’d call unalloyed, of course. And as the families planned Monday’s send-off, the Air Force informed them that budget cuts caused by the sequester had left it too cash-strapped to provide the traditional fly-over with its “missing man” aerial salute at their joint grave site.
Eight volunteer airmen in borrowed planes filled in — one in an A-26 just like the attack bomber Sizemore and his navigator, Andre, flew.
At the Arlington funeral home where survivors gathered Sunday night, James Sizemore’s daughter, Rebecca Sizemore, remembered seeing her father for the last time the week before she turned 13. Later that year, on July 8, 1969, he and Andre crashed after taking hostile fire.
“My memory is stuck in that time,” she said, “and I still ask myself today would he be proud of me. It’s weird to be this age and all your memories [of your father] are of childhood.”
Her father did have a chance to show her his alma mater, Georgia Tech, where he first met Andre, his co-pilot during night missions dropping bombs on truck convoys on the Ho Chi Minh trail.
Georgia Tech “was the only place I applied” to college, she said. Like her father, she studied engineering. She wonders now what her late mother must have thought of the teenager who comforted herself by wearing her father’s khaki pants and plaid shirt. Her brother, James Jeff Sizemore, used to go by his middle name but prefers James now, in tribute.
For them, the conflict of a lifetime ago isn’t over, even now: “Our hopes have been answered,” in the form of Sizemore’s DNA found at a crash site 12 miles south of Ban Na Mai in Xiangkhoang province, Rebecca Sizemore said. “But I’ll never have closure on losing my father.”
Those who came to pay their respects at the service Monday included a man who had joined the squadron soon after the two were killed and the childhood friend of the Sizemores, who sang “Because” at their wedding. The recent widow of another member of the 609th Special Operations Squadron, who had packed up the fallen men’s belongings after they died, was there, too, wearing a hydraulic connector from an A-26 on a chain around her neck.
James Elmo Sizemore grew up in Lawrenceville, Ill., where his parents ran a small grocery store, and he joined the Air Force in 1950. He served in Korea, lived in Germany with his family for several years, and was due to come home in two weeks when he volunteered for his final mission on the trail. He was 38.
Memphis-born Howard Andre, who was 34, was quieter than his fun-loving friend Jim, said Andre’s widow, Judith Herron, of Bend, Ore. “But when he had something to say, it was worth listening to, and I liked that very much about him,” from the time she first met him in a Methodist church in 1959. He was supposed to be on his way home from war soon, too. “We were preparing to meet in Hawaii when I got the knock on the door.”
The Andres also had two children, Nancy and Brad, who describes losing his dad at the age of 9 as “never getting to wake up from a bad dream.”
There have been compensations, like the deep connection between the two grieving families. And the knowledge that “he loved his profession,” said Herron, smiling and crying at the same time, “so I know he died doing what he wanted to do, which is a comfort to me.”
And the long-awaited service? “It’s opening a window that had been closed for a long, long time,” she said, “but my son is so much like his dad, I think of Howard every day.” Like the children, she thinks there’s no such thing as closure.
The two men’s caskets were opened for visitation at the funeral home. Inside were their dress uniforms and medals, along with Andre’s ID bracelets and a photo of Sizemore’s wife, Becky, in a one-piece, 1950s-style bathing suit.
It did feel right to lay the fighters to rest side by side, James Jeff Sizemore said, given that they’d already “been in the ground together for 44 years.”
“The only honor they could give them,” he said, was to allow them that. “You can’t keep the Andres away from the Sizemores.”
At the end of the burial service at Arlington, Air Force Brig. Gen. Brian Killough knelt before the two families to hand them the flags that had covered the caskets. Then the honor guard marched away in unison, and as the drumbeats from the band grew fainter, the two families were left alone to say goodbye.