Over thirty five years after the end of the Vietnam War, 1,597 Americans remain lost in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and China. Recovery efforts can be difficult in often remote and jungled sites. But in 2017, the remains of one of the war’s unaccounted-for Americans was identified and recovered.
1st Lt David T. Dinan, III, an F-105 pilot, was shot down over Laos on March 17, 1969. F-105s flew 70 percent of attack missions during the first five years of the war, with 40 percent of the Air Force’s 833 F-105s lost in combat. The threat of ambush prevented an initial recovery attempt in 1969, although Dinan was confirmed killed in action.
Forty years later, in 2009, Dinan’s former roommate decided to do something about the situation.
“I’d gone over to the [Vietnam Veterans Memorial] wall, and I’d found Dave’s name on the wall and it still had the little cross there that indicates that the body has not been recovered and that’s when I decided to get involved and try to find his remains,” said fellow pilot and retired Air Force Col. Edward Sykes. “It was forty years since Dave had died and I said, ‘That’s not right.’ He’d laid on the ground for forty years, they knew exactly where he was when he died and they never went to get his body.”
Sykes went on four trips to Laos over the next five years to track down the crash site and recover Dinan’s remains. During his trips, Sykes experienced Lao communist bureaucracy firsthand.
“I was sitting in front of a couple of communist bureaucrats in 2012, and they were just being the most obnoxious bastards you ever saw,” recalled Sykes. He was trying to travel to the Khun district to search the area for possible signs of Dinan. “I just told them what I wanted to do and they just shook their heads. ‘No, you can’t do that. You can’t do that.’” After being stonewalled for several minutes, Sykes responded to one of the bureaucrats’ questions with a blunt “What’s the right answer?” “They didn’t like that,” he recalls. Finally, he convinced the bureaucrats to allow him to travel to the crash site, although he was required to hire a security guard to accompany him.
The experience left a bad taste. “That’s when I got my fill of it. I said, ‘Okay, I get it.’ These guys are brainwashed… They’re bureaucrats and all they care about is sustaining themselves and their movement.”
Transparency International ranks Laos, formally the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, 135 out of 180 in the 2017 Corruption Perception Index. The country is ruled by a single-party communist regime that suppresses free speech, dissent, and civil society and has generally failed to fulfill its promises of economic and political development.
As Sykes began his efforts, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) was also searching for Dinan. Investigations provided some leads, but hadn’t located Dinan’s remains. The search effort got a break in 2013 when they located Leland Sorensen, the pararescue jumper who made the initial recovery attempt in 1969.
“With the help of a guy in [the Department of Defense (DoD)] we found him and we got him included on a DoD exercise in March of 2014,” said Sykes. “He was the guy that found Dave’s body and we sent him back over there.”
Sorenson accompanied the DPAA team during a three day search in Xinghkhouang Province. After two days, the teams had not found remains, despite trekking through the jungle and climbing karst formations. Since Sorenson’s recovery attempt, tracts of jungle had been burned for agricultural production, altering the landscape. He worried that he would not recognize the crash site after 45 years. But on the third day, Sorenson’s efforts paid off.
“On the very last day, in the last thirty minutes that they had available, they found the site,” Sykes said.
A team member picked up a faded, rectangular plastic ID card. Sorenson read the name: David T. Dinan, III.
DPAA returned to the site in 2016 and recovered remains that were positively identified in 2017. Dinan was buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors on April 25, 2018. Nearly fifty years after being shot down in a war against communist expansion, he lies with thousands of fellow service members who gave their lives in defense of liberty and democracy.
“As long as this country can produce warriors like Dave Dinan our great American experiment will be sustained,” eulogized Sykes. “Like everyone involved in this war he questioned the way it was being fought, but he always did his duty. He did what his country asked him to do.”
Requiescat in pacem.
Soleil Sykes, this article’s author, is Ed Sykes’s granddaughter.