On July 27, 1945, Marine Capt. Fred Ochoa, 26, set out from Patuxent River Naval Air Station on what was a test flight for a new twin-engine aircraft. He never returned. The weather was treacherous, and the plane crashed in the Blue Ridge Mountains, near Bluemont. Among the items found with Ochoa’s body were a parachute and a rosary.
The prayer beads were a key link in a chain of events that culminated in a memorial ceremony and celebration of Ochoa’s life March 18, when 20 members of the Ochoa family gathered with a group of neighbors who live near the crash site. The reunion helped provide answers to questions that members of both groups had for decades.
Ochoa was a decorated World War II pilot, one of eight brothers in a close-knit family from Laredo, Tex. Richard Ochoa, 85, his last surviving brother, said the military didn’t provide the family with many details about the crash. They were told that the weather was bad and that Ochoa lost radio contact and crashed into the mountain, he said, adding that the family seldom spoke about the crash.
Some of his nieces and nephews, however, who knew about their uncle only through family stories, wondered what caused the skilled war pilot to crash.
The crash site was wooded land in 1945. Some of those who have moved into the area over the years have also had questions. Kevin Embrey, 41, remembers finding pieces of airplane wreckage while exploring the woods behind his home when he and his brother were growing up in the 1980s.
“As a kid, my imagination just went crazy,” he said.
Although some neighbors assumed that the wreckage came from a TWA jet that crashed a few miles away in 1974, the Embrey family was skeptical.
Some of the metal fragments were olive green, suggesting that it was a military plane, Embrey said. His research revealed that one of the parts was manufactured by a company that went out of business in the 1950s — a clue that the crash occurred long before 1974.
Claire Ochoa Weaver said her father gave her the rosary found with her uncle’s body. “Holding the rosary and praying about it, and realizing that I wanted to better know Uncle Fred” inspired the quest for information that brought her family to western Loudoun County, she said.
Weaver, 53, of Glen Allen, Va., began researching the plane crash. From newspaper clippings, she learned that eyewitnesses reported the plane was on fire when it passed the small community of Bloomfield, about three miles south of Bluemont.
“Those clippings were key, because they mentioned Bluemont,” she said. Until then, the family hadn’t known the location of the crash.
Weaver and her brother Phil Ochoa traveled to Loudoun last year to try to find people with knowledge of the incident. They met an eyewitness, J.J. Kelley, who was a young boy at the time of the crash. Kelley showed them where the plane had clipped some locust trees on its way down.
They also spoke with Ron Embrey, Kevin’s father, who saved about 50 pieces of wreckage that his sons collected.
“Being a [Vietnam War] veteran, this is very close to my heart,” Embrey said. “We’ve collected these parts for years, and never knew why. Now we know why.”
Ron Embrey and his wife, Sheila, hosted the March 18 gathering. After lunch, the group assembled a short distance up the side of the mountain for a memorial service in Ochoa’s honor. The ceremony included honor guards from the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office and VFW Post 2123, the playing of taps and the presentation of a folded American flag to Richard Ochoa.
Weaver said the journey has given her family insight into the meaning of her uncle’s life and death.
“To have been a decorated war pilot, to make it back to the States alive, to have been chosen to be an experimental test pilot, to know that Uncle Fred’s spirituality was such that he wouldn’t have been cavalier about his life or taken risks — this does come full circle to honor and respect his pilot story,” she said.