Col. Charles W. Burkart Jr. – Air Force – June 13, 1966
Vietnam Veteran’s War Memorial.
This is where the name and memory of Colonel Charles W. Burkhart Jr. lives. His cenotaph stands in Arlington National Cemetery, guarded by the elite who were chosen to guard the Tomb of the Unknown. His headstone was placed on the hallowed grounds of Arlington during a formal ceremony in his honor but his body has yet to be found and properly laid to rest.
Keeping hope and memory alive means that progress is being made. After 50 years of searching, and his family’s grievance, the crash site of Burkart’s B-57 bomber plane has been found. His plane identified by serial numbers on the fan blades of his jet engine. The crash site is yet to be excavated but it is on the list, his family is told. They hope this will uncover information about their missing Airman so they can finally bring his body home.
Burkart’s son was nine-years-old when he hugged his father goodbye and would spend the nights watching the night sky, knowing his father was up there traveling over its expanse as a pilot. It was Captain Burkart’s second deployment to Vietnam, his mission in Laos was to stop goods and supplies from reaching the Ho Chi Minh Trail –the primary route used for transporting weapons, supplies, and troops to South Vietnam.
On June 13, 1966, he and his navigator, 1st Lieutenant Everett O. Kerr, assembled their aircraft in a flight of three to conduct a night strike mission against Route 911 – the primary route running through the Mu Gia Pass. This sliver of a road twisted through a long, narrow valley with steep, rugged mountains rising on both sides – the mountains were heavily cloaked with dense forest and jungle foliage. Many American pilots were shot down in this area but rescue efforts were often successful.
Bad weather caused the cluster of planes to separate just before reaching their target area but all knew the mission and knew it must go on. They assembled again in their tight grouping at the target area according to the Airborne Battlefield Command and Control Center (ABCCC) – the crew on the ground responsible for all air in the region. The confirmation crackled through the radio.
At 0154 hours, precisely 54 minutes into the mission, radio contact with Burkart’s plane was lost. Visibility was cloaked in darkness so the only communication and situational awareness was gleaned by radio communication and aircraft panel instruments. The remaining two aircraft stated they did not experience difficulty with their aircraft or the mission during their radio report in.
While the three planes operated just west of Route 911, Burkart’s last known location was pinpointed .25 miles east of Route 911, near a way station used by communist forces as they moved along the Ho Chi Minh Trail – they were 20 miles southwest of the Lao/North Vietnamese border and 24 miles south of the Mu Gia Pass.
Aircrews within range attempted contact with the silent B57 but none were able to successfully communicate with his aircraft. Lack of contact triggered an aerial search and rescue mission (SAR) but the search teams saw no parachutes and no emergency radio beepers glowing from the thick jungle below. Because of intense enemy presence throughout the entire region, ground searches were not possible – it was to be conducted only by air.
In the cover of darkness, operations were becoming futile and suspended until the first light of dawn hours later. No trace of the missing aircraft or its crew was found along Route 911 or in the surrounding mountainous jungle landscape from their vantage point. When the formal SAR mission was terminated, both Charles Burkart and Everett Kerr were listed as Missing in Action.
Search and rescue missions were often successful in this area but there were still more than 600 who were not rescued. Many were on ground and alive and in radio contact with SAR teams, having passed through the border-mountains between Laos and Vietnam, some were known to have been captured.
At the end of the American involvement in the war, five hundred ninety-one Americans were released from prisoner of war camps – Kerr and Burkart were not among them. When peace agreements were negotiated, Laos was not part of the conversation – not one American held in Laos had been released.
Thirteen years after their disappearance, both men were administratively declared dead based on no specific information that they were alive. Burkart’s son was then 22 years old. Charles W. Burkart was promoted to the rank of Colonel and Everett O. Kerr was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. With the new discovery of Burkart’s plane, after fifty years of waiting, answers may be found and their bodies may finally be laid to rest on American soil – where they belong.
We thank you for helping us to honor the sacrifice made by those who raised their right hands and swore to defend our country against enemies foreign and domestic. When you run for a fallen servicemember you are helping to keep their memory and their stories alive. Each Wednesday we will share the story of those we honor – because we are grateful for your commitment to them and we are grateful for their sacrifice.
U.S. Army Veteran, Photo Journalist
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