BY DUANE A. VACHON, PH.D. In my work at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, I am blessed with working at one of the most beautiful and peaceful places in the world. As well I have the great honor and privilege to assist veterans and their families in their journey to their final earthly resting place.
All of them in some way move and touch me, some more than others. Once in a while one will move me in a very special way. This week one of those special ones was Captain Richard Lebrou Whitesides. Whitesides is listed on the walls of the missing here at the National Memorial Cemetery as missing in action (MIA).
Whitesides and I have several things in common. We both have Hoosier connections, we of course are both Vietnam Veterans, and both of us served near Khe Sahn Vietnam. Whitesides was shot down and died there, I was wounded there.
Whitesides was a Bird Dog Forward Air Controller assigned to the 19th Tactical Air Support Squadron at Bien Hoa. On the 24th of November 1963, he and Captain Floyd James Thompson US Army Special Forces were flying O-1F (S/N 55-4695) in the Khe Sahn region. They were hit by small arms fire and crashed near Lang Kat. Captain Whitesides was killed in the crash and Captain Thompson survived as a Prisoner of War for nine years despite burns and a broken back. Captain Whitesides remains MIA.
This week I had the privilege and honor of conducting a Memorial Service for Whitesides and presenting a flag to his wife Mary that was flown on the main flagpole here at the National Memorial Cemetery.
Whitesides received the first Air Force Cross issued during the Vietnam War.
Richard Whitesides was definitely known to the enemy, according to U.S.Intelligence. His name, however, did not appear on the so-called “Discrepancy List” given the Vietnamese by Henry Kissinger. To this day, the Vietnamese deny any knowledge of Whitesides. Although Thompson was told by the North Vietnamese that Whitesides had been killed, he had learned the hard way that his captors were not to be believed. He is uncertain of Whitesides’ fate.
Over 10,000 reports of Americans missing in Southeast Asia have been received by the U.S. since the war ended. Many authorities who have examined
this information have concluded that hundreds are still alive, and this puts
a new perspective on the loss of Americans in Southeast Asia. Their families
must wait to see if the country he proudly served will ever bring them home.
Thompson spent the next nine years as a prisoner of war, first in the hands
of the Viet Cong. He later was moved to the Hanoi prison system. During
his captivity, he was tortured and starved, and suffered the mental anguish
of being nearly totally alone for years. He was released in mid-March, 1973,
in Operation Homecoming. He is the longest held American POW from the
The Thompson/Whitesides loss reflects the heartache and problems faced by the
men who returned from captivity and by the families of those still missing.
Thompson faced a failed marriage and alcoholism, and later a heart attack
and debilitating stroke. The years of deprivation and mental and physical
torture took their toll. To add insult to injury, few understand that he,
not Ed Alvarez, was the longest-held POW, and his name is virtually unknown to Americans who honor the brave men who were captives in our name. It is my sincere hope that Whitesides’ wife Mary received some closure this week at the Memorial Service to honor her husband.
Air Force Cross
Awarded posthumously for actions during the Vietnam War
The President of the United States of America, authorized by Title 10, Section 8742, United States Code, takes pride in presenting the Air Force Cross (Posthumously) to Captain Richard Lebrou Whitesides, United States Air Force, for extraordinary heroism in military operations against an opposing armed force as an Advisor-Pilot of an L-19 aircraft of the 19th Tactical Air Support Squadron, 34th Tactical Group, Bien Hoa Air Base, Vietnam, in action on 24 November 1963 in the Republic of Vietnam.
On that date, while piloting his unprotected aircraft, Captain Whitesides directed strikes time after time against heavily fortified Viet Cong positions and marked them for destruction. Even after his aircraft was partially disabled, Captain Whitesides remained in the area, and clearly pointed out the Viet Cong large gun emplacements, which led to their destruction by cover aircraft.
Through his extraordinary heroism, superb airmanship, and aggressiveness in the face of hostile forces, Captain Whitesides reflected the highest credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.
Action Date: 24-Nov-63