Memorial to honor U.S. troops whose Vietnam-bound plane vanished in 1962

Jan Stephens holds a letter written to her mother from her father, Sgt. 1st Class Lindsay Hester, who was one of nearly 100 U.S. troops aboard a charter plane that disappeared during a mission to Vietnam in 1962. (BRANDEN CAMP FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)
Caption
Jan Stephens holds a letter written to her mother from her father, Sgt. 1st Class Lindsay Hester, who was one of nearly 100 U.S. troops aboard a charter plane that disappeared during a mission to Vietnam in 1962. (BRANDEN CAMP FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: Branden Camp

Credit: Branden Camp

Eight Georgians were aboard Flying Tiger Line Flight 739

In the handwritten letter Sgt. 1st Class Lindsay Hester sent his wife on March 12, 1962, he sweetly addressed her as “Tweety Doll,” told her he felt lonesome and mentioned she must be about four and a half months pregnant with their first child.

“I still haven’t thought of a girl’s name yet, so just in case don’t do anything till you hear from me,” Hester wrote from his military post in California to his wife, Janice, in Shawmut, Alabama. She wrote him the same day, saying she missed him and that she recently felt their baby moving. She closed with, “I will always love you.”

But her letter came back, stamped “Return to Writer.” She got the news from the U.S. Army in a telegram four days after she sent her letter. Her husband was among 93 U.S. troops, including eight from Georgia, who disappeared during a mission to Saigon, Vietnam. Their chartered plane — Flying Tiger Line Flight 739 — was reported missing between Guam and the Philippines.

Jan Stephens holds a Western Union telegram sent to her mother in 1962 about the disappearance of Sgt. 1st Class Lindsay Hester. (BRANDEN CAMP FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)
Caption
Jan Stephens holds a Western Union telegram sent to her mother in 1962 about the disappearance of Sgt. 1st Class Lindsay Hester. (BRANDEN CAMP FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: Branden Camp

Credit: Branden Camp

This week, Hester’s daughter will travel from her home in Canton, Georgia, to Columbia Falls, Maine, for the unveiling of a new monument to the missing U.S. servicemembers, three South Vietnamese troops and 11 crewmembers who were on board the flight. Wreaths Across America, a nonprofit created to expand the annual wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, is organizing the Saturday event.

A supertanker manned by an Italian crew reported witnessing a midair explosion about where Flight 739 should have been at the time. About 1,300 people on 48 aircraft and eight vessels searched 144,000 square miles. No wreckage was found.

The federal Civil Aeronautics Board issued a 16-page report a year later, saying it could not determine the cause of the disappearance, including whether mechanical failure or sabotage were factors. The incident remains one of the most puzzling aviation disasters in history.

The front page for the March 16, 1962, edition of The Atlanta Journal, highlighting the day's story on the missing "Flying Tiger" airplane.
Caption
The front page for the March 16, 1962, edition of The Atlanta Journal, highlighting the day's story on the missing "Flying Tiger" airplane.

Hester’s daughter, Jan Stephens, was born five months after her father was reported missing.

The troops headed to Saigon included highly trained communication and electronic specialists. They were headed to Vietnam at a time when the United States was building up its presence there. Stephens wants to see all their names added to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

“Every year, it never stops,” Stephens, 59, said about the anniversary of her father’s disappearance. “March 16 — that whole week — it is always bad for me.”

Seeking to build momentum for this cause, supporters have sent letters to federal lawmakers and signed an online petition. In 2019, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, a Michigan Democrat, introduced legislation to make it happen, but the bill died in committee. He released a statement this week, saying he would continue working on ways to honor the troops.

“Our brave men and women were deployed thousands of miles away from home during the Vietnam War,” he said. “Many made the ultimate sacrifice in their service to our nation — including those aboard Flying Tiger Line Flight 739. It is past time that we properly honor those lost.”

A Pentagon spokesman told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Thursday that he was looking into the issue.

Stephens knows about her father from what her late mother told her and the photos, voluminous military records and handwritten letters she collected. On her living room floor sits a dusty footlocker stenciled with his name and destination, “Saigon, Vietnam.” Inside are stacked his military dress shirts, still pressed and neatly folded.

Stephens has kept the original Western Union telegram the Army sent her mother, informing her the search failed to find any survivors and that her husband was considered “as having perished on March 16, 1962, together with all other passengers aboard the ill-fated aircraft.”

“The Secretary of the Army has asked me to express his regret at the sorrow this message brings to you,” Maj. Gen. J.C. Lambert, then the Army’s adjutant general, wrote.

Jan Stephens is reflected in a photo of her late father, Sgt. 1st Class Lindsay Hester, who was one of nearly 100 U.S. troops who disappeared during a mission to Vietnam in 1962. (BRANDEN CAMP FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)
Caption
Jan Stephens is reflected in a photo of her late father, Sgt. 1st Class Lindsay Hester, who was one of nearly 100 U.S. troops who disappeared during a mission to Vietnam in 1962. (BRANDEN CAMP FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: Branden Camp

Credit: Branden Camp

Hester worked as a weaver in an Alabama cotton mill before serving with the U.S. Army in occupied Germany after the end of World War II and as a military policeman in Korea before war broke out there in 1950. He proposed to Janice in West Point, Georgia. She called him “Kirb,” a reference to his middle name, Kirby. An avid fisherman and photographer, he was analytical and had a playful sense of humor. Hester was 35 when his plane disappeared.

Asked about her reasons for visiting the new monument in Maine this week, his daughter grasped for answers.

“I just don’t know. I might know when I come back. Maybe it is to find people like me because nobody ever talked about it,” Stephens said, her voice threaded with emotion. “They gave my mother a flag and did the gun salute, but there is no gravesite. There is no memorial marker. The thing in Maine — I am going to be able to touch it. I have some sketch pads and some charcoal and I am going to do some rubbings when I get up there.”

Jan Stephens sorts through photos of her mother, Janice, and father, Sgt. 1st Class Lindsay Hester, who was one of nearly 100 U.S. troops who disappeared during a mission to Vietnam in 1962. (BRANDEN CAMP FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)
Caption
Jan Stephens sorts through photos of her mother, Janice, and father, Sgt. 1st Class Lindsay Hester, who was one of nearly 100 U.S. troops who disappeared during a mission to Vietnam in 1962. (BRANDEN CAMP FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: Branden Camp

Credit: Branden Camp

— AJC audience specialists Mandi Albright and Pete Corson, and news information specialist Sandi West contributed to this article.