433rd WPS welcomes home, honors fallen wingmen

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Michael Charles
  • 99th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
Airmen from the 433rd Weapons Squadron held a heritage hallway dedication May, 23 at the U.S. Air Force Weapons School for two recently repatriated Airmen who were missing in action following their service in the Vietnam War.

Citing the need to honor their fallen comrades, the 433rd WPS invited past wingmen and family members of Col. Wendell R. Keller and Capt. Virgil K. Meroney to the dedication.

"It is important to take time to reflect and honor our fallen comrades that have made the ultimate sacrifice in service to their country," said Lt. Col. John Kent, 433rd WPS commander.

The F-4D Phantom pilot Maj. Wendell R. Keller and weapons systems officer 1st Lt. Virgil K. Meroney, assigned to 433rd Tactical Fighter Squadron at Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand, were tasked with a night interdiction mission against a heavily defended supply route and storage area complex near the Ban Karai Pass, Thailand, March 1, 1969.

During this mission Keller, Meroney and their wingman from the 433rd TFS came under fire. Keller and Meroney attacked and destroyed the threatening enemy gun positions. Their aircraft was hit by hostile fire and crashed during the attack. There were no parachutes seen or emergency beacons sent. Keller and Meroney were declared missing in action.

"It [March 1, 1969] was not a good day," said retired Air Force Col. Gail Peck, former Tonopah commander and 433rd Tactical Fighter Squadron member. "These weren't just my wingmen, they were my brothers."

The Department of Defense announced that it had found the remains of Keller and Meroney and would be returning them home in October 2012. However due to the time and the effects of the elements, their remains had fused to each other requiring the remains to be transferred to Dover Air Force Base, Del., in one coffin and covered by a single American flag. Once the remains were separated, a flag was presented to each family to honor their loss.

The single flag that covered the coffin of Keller and Meroney during transfer was donated to the 433rd WPS for its newly dedicated heritage hall and a shadow box was constructed by the 99th Force Support Squadron Arts and Craft Center filled with pictures and personal items from the men.

"When asked by Dover Mortuary Affairs if our squadron would like to display the flag that covered our two comrades on their trip home, I responded with four words, 'We would be honored,'" Kent said. "With their help, and that of the arts and craft center, we were able to create a memorial which depicts the importance of honoring those who have lost their lives in the line of duty."

The families also took an opportunity to meet squadron members and share a few words.

"For years I wished my father would come home; now he has," said Michael Keller, son of Col. Keller. "Now he will never be forgotten."

"My brother was proud to serve in the military," said Doug Meroney, who was noticeably fighting back tears. "A veteran is somebody who writes a check to the nation for the amount of up to that individual's life. Both Col. Keller and my brother are heroes, and I couldn't be more proud of both of them."

The two were interned into Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., in October 2011 in a group burial. According to Doug Meroney, the families came to the conclusion that it was only fitting that the two enter Arlington the same way they have spent the last 50 plus years; together.

As of May 29, 2013, following the repatriation of Keller and Meroney, there are still five 433rd TFS listed under the Department of Defense classification of missing in action from the Vietnam War.