Sixty years ago, as the U.S. was becoming more involved in the opening salvo of the Vietnam War, a Lockheed L-1049 Super Constellation was making its way west.
The Military Air Transport Service (MATS) charter flight was operating under Flying Tiger Line Flight 739, and was headed to Saigon, leapfrogging across the South Pacific by way of Honolulu, Wake Island, and Guam.
March 15, 1962, marked the first day of the Vietnam War Campaign, according to U.S. Army historians. It was a time when the U.S. was quietly increasing its presence in Vietnam, sending advisers and equipment, such as those on Flight 739, to bolster the government of the Republic of Vietnam against the VietCong insurgency.
While Flight 739’s final destination was known, the reason behind the secret mission of those on board still remains a mystery to their families. The airplane—and all 107 people on board it— disappeared over the Pacific Ocean before it reached a planned stopover in the Philippines, becoming the biggest aviation mystery to emerge from what would become a decade of conflict.
“There’s nothing, no trace of anything,” said Jennifer Kirk, niece of an Army Ranger who was on board Flight 739.
Sixty years later, there’s still little trace that the lives of the servicemembers were even lost to the Vietnam War. Their names have been excluded from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., a wrong their families are trying to right.
“They’re being pushed aside to be forgotten,” Kirk said. “That’s incomprehensible. They can’t be forgotten.”
Flying Tigers Line
In the years following World War II, a group of 10 American mercenary pilots who flew in China as part of the American Volunteer Group—better known as the “Flying Tigers”—banded together to start a transcontinental airline.
The airline initially launched with 14 Navy surplus Budd RB Conestoga cargo aircraft. By 1949, the Flying Tiger Line had won approval for the first commercial all-cargo route in the U.S., according to an organization devoted to its history. By the mid-1960s, it was flying scheduled transpacific all-cargo routes and in the late 1980s, it was acquired by Federal Express. It was a move that would make FedEx the world’s largest, full-service cargo airline.
The year 1962, however, would be a particularly bad year for the airline started by former military pilots. That year, Flying Tiger Line lost four aircraft in incidents, the bulk of which while operating charters for the U.S. military.
Two of the incidents occurred within the span of one day.
By all accounts, the predawn hours of March 15, 1962, were dreary at Adak Naval Air Station in Alaska as a Flying Tiger pilot attempted to make a refueling stop. Flight 7816, a cargo flight, was enroute from Travis Air Force Base, California to Japan. As the Constellation approached the runway at about 3 a.m., visibility was about 3 miles, the ceiling was at 1,000 feet and a light drizzle and fog hovered over the runway as the pilot attempted to make the approach. Conditions were, however, well within the weather minimums set for the airline at the landing strip of a 400-ft ceiling and three-quarter-miles visibility, a report later noted.
Despite the approved conditions, the Constellation came down more than 300 feet short of the runway, tearing off the landing gear and sending the aircraft skittering across the runway for about 2,000 feet. The pilot is believed to have misjudged distance and altitude while making the final approach, a report would later conclude.
One of the seven people on board—the flight engineer—was killed in a fire that destroyed the aircraft and all its contents.
Within a matter of hours, the carrier’s losses would get much worse.
Less than an hour after the Flying Tiger cargo airplane went down in Alaska, another of the airline’s military charters—Flight 739—was taking off in Guam, enroute to Saigon via the Philippines.
On board the Constellation were 11 crew members and 96 passengers, 93 of whom were U.S. Army soldiers specialized in electronics, communications, and sharpshooting. Three Vietnam service members were also among the passengers.
In one of the seats was Army Specialist Donald Sargent, who had joined the Army and became a Ranger as a way to escape a life of near certain poverty in his hometown of Cornish, Maine.
“He graduated high school and he could have gone to work in the woods, or he could have joined the military,” Kirk, his niece, told FLYING. “And he said, ‘I gotta get out of Cornish. I gotta go make a life for myself.’ So, he joined the army.”
Sargent had already separated once from the service when he was coaxed back in to join the special unit.
“He was pulled back in on a special mission, handpicked by [President] John F. Kennedy,” Kirk said.
The flight from Guam to the next layover was to take about 6 hours and 20 minutes, but the Constellation had enough fuel for nearly 10 hours of flight, according to an International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) accident report documenting the incident.
Nearly two hours into the flight, the pilot radioed Guam with the aircraft’s position, notifying air traffic control that it was on track to land in the Philippines shortly after 3 a.m.
It would be the last radio transmission received from the aircraft.
“There was no indication in this message or in any other of difficulties,” ICAO said. “All attempts to re-establish contact with the flight were unsuccessful.”
At 8:22 a.m. on March 16—the time when FTL 739’s fuel would have officially run out—the flight was declared lost.
An ‘Intensely Luminous’ Explosion
In the hours after the Constellation’s takeoff from Guam, witnesses on a ship offered potential clues. The captain and crew of the S.S. T. L. Lenzen, a Standard Oil Company tanker, reported that at around 1:30 a.m. (1530 GMT) on the morning of March 16, they saw what looked to be a midair explosion near the position and at the time that had been estimated by the aircraft’s pilot.
“They recalled that a vapor trail, or some phenomenon resembling one, was first observed overhead and slightly to the north of the tanker and moving in an east to west direction,” the ICAO report said. “As the vapor trail passed behind a cloud, there occurred an explosion, described as intensely luminous, with a white nucleus surrounded by a reddish-orange periphery with radial lines of identically coloured light. The explosion occurred in two pulses lasting between two and three seconds and from it two objects fell into the sea.”
The search for Flight 739 sparked one of the largest searches recorded at the time, covering more than 200,000 square miles. The effort involved more than 1,300 people, 48 aircraft, and eight ships. Air sorties searching for clues racked up more than 3,417 flying hours.
“The aircraft was lost and no part was found in spite of one of the most extensive searches ever conducted in the history of aviation,” ICAO said.
In a review of evidence, investigators later determined that access to flight line and ramp areas in Honolulu, Wake Island, and Guam allowed unchallenged access “to anyone desiring entry,” including non-military aircraft.
Investigators noted another detail.
“It was reported that the aircraft was left unattended in a dimly lighted area for a period of time while at Guam where total transit time was 1 hour and 33 minutes,” ICAO said.
Later that day, in a small town pegged to a secondary road in southern Maine near the New Hampshire state line, a cab pulled up in front of the Sargent home. The driver honked his horn but didn’t get out. No one was home, but a neighbor walked up to the car.
“The cabbie just handed out this yellow paper and drove off,” Kirk said.
On the paper were words that Donald Sargent’s mother—Kirk’s grandmother—found too incomprehensible to believe.
“The Secretary of the Army has asked me to express his deep regret that your son Specialist Donald A Sargent was a passenger aboard a chartered aircraft that was reported missing while in flight over the Pacific Ocean on 15 March 1962,” the telegram read. “You have my deepest sympathy during this trying time.” It was signed by Maj. Gen. J.C. Lambert, The Adjutant General of the U.S. Army.
“All reports of debris sighted were investigated, but nothing was found that could be remotely associated with the plane,” Lambert wrote to Sargent’s parents in a letter more than a month later. “The search by sea and air was of such an intensity and thoroughness that it can be conclusively stated that debris and survivors from the plane did not exist… Consequently, after a full review and consideration of all available evidence, it has been concluded that for an unknown reason the plane plunged into the sea with all its passengers.”
Six decades later, and the families of those onboard Flight 739 still don’t know what happened. Some of the now-adult children of those on board speculate that the flight made it, but that passengers were captured, Kirk said. Another theory is that they landed and that they’re still alive. “Some say it was sabotage,” she said.
Compounding the mystery was that there was no physical evidence of what happened, not even an oil slick.
It would be the first of a list of expected things that wouldn’t materialize for the family, according to Kirk. There was no military service at the funeral. No folded flag was presented to the family. The Army did pay out life insurance for Donald, but it was only $264. Veterans Affairs also bought a headstone marker, but even in that, the sense of military courtesy for the family seemed to evaporate, too.
“My grandfather had to go pick it up. It wasn’t delivered,” Kirk said.
Remembering The Lost
On Wednesday, families of those lost on Flight 739 gathered in Columbia Falls, Maine, for a ceremony marking the 60th anniversary of the loss of Tiger Flight 739. Last year, Wreaths Across America founder Morrill Worcester erected a monument at the site bearing the names of those lost on the flight, creating the only memorial to the incident in existence.
“Here we are, 60 years later,” Kevin Woodward, remembrance coordinator at Wreaths Across America, said Wednesday during the ceremony. “While it may not hold the same weight to some as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, it will forever be a special place to remember their loved ones’ service and sacrifice.”
The inscription on the monument reads: “Missing in action; Presumed dead. Flying Tiger Line Flight 739 went missing on March 16, 1962, with 93 U.S. Army soldiers on board. These men and their flight crew perished in what would become one of the biggest aviation mysteries out of the Vietnam War era. The names of those who gave their lives and who remain missing are inscribed here so that they will be said aloud and their memory will live on.”
Family members, like Kirk, continue to lobby for adding the soldiers’ names to the Vietnam Memorial, and this past summer, a bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate that would pave the way for their inclusion.
“Adding their names to the Vietnam wall alongside their 58,318 brothers and sisters who made the ultimate sacrifice during the Vietnam War is a fitting tribute to these men and a reminder to all of us that our freedom is oftentimes secured by men and women who serve in silence,” said Joe Reagan, director of military and veteran outreach for Wreaths Across America.
The monument in Maine has given many families a sense of peace that finally their loved ones’ names are recognized.
The soldiers on Flight 739 were on a mission to do whatever the government told them to do, Kirk said.
“For the government not to recognize them is heartbreaking,” she said. “But my goal in life is that they will not be forgotten.”