By Clark Fair
When the telephone rang in the early morning of Nov. 16, Sue Stein was in her Soldotna home alone, grieving for her mother, June Goodman, who had died only a few days earlier. When Stein answered the phone, the voice and the words she heard were an echo from the previous November, and the start of a spiral of history going back more than 40 years.
The voice said, “This is Alan from Mortuary Affairs … .”
In her home, Stein began to cry.
“I started bawling, is what I did,” Stein said. “I knew what it was. I knew it was either going to be very good news or very bad news. And as I’m sobbing, I could hear him saying, ‘Do you want me to call you back?’ I said, ‘No, you don’t understand. My mom just passed away six days ago.’
“He’s like, ‘Oh my God. If I had known, I would not have called you. I am so sorry.’ He’s just apologizing and apologizing. And through my tears I finally get out, ‘No, I need to know. I need to hear what you have to say.’
“And that’s when he said, ‘It’s 99.9 percent sure it was your dad.’”
In less than one week, Stein said, she had officially become an “orphan.”
It was less than one week, but the actual journey through time stretched back to Feb. 20, 1967, when her father, Major Russell Clemensen Goodman, along with his weapons/systems officer, Navy Lt. Gary L. Thornton, was shot down by a surface-to-air missile while flying a bombing mission against a railroad yard in Thanh Hóa Province, North Vietnam.
Goodman was an Air Force fighter pilot flying for the Navy on an exchange program. A narrator/pilot for the elite Thunderbirds flight demonstration team in 1964-65, he was still attached to the Thunderbirds when he was sent to fly naval bombing missions in Southeast Asia.
Just days after he had earned the Silver Star for saving a downed aircrew, Goodman, along with Thornton, took off in a F-4B Phantom jet from the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, and they were about eight miles south of Thanh Hóa city when the left front section of the plane was struck by a missile. Thornton tried but failed to establish contact with Goodman, and he was uncertain, based upon what he could see from his position, whether Goodman was unconscious, wounded or dead.
At approximately 250 feet altitude, Thornton ejected. He could not cause Goodman to eject because Phantoms in those days were not equipped with dual-ejector controls. Although he believed that Goodman had not ejected on his own, Thornton was never able to confirm his suspicions because, within minutes after parachuting to the ground, he was captured by North Vietnamese soldiers.
As he was marched away, he saw a plume of black smoke from the wreckage of the downed jet.
Thornton became a prisoner of war, including time in the brutal prison known as the Hanoi Hilton. For the next three years, he was believed dead, and his parents were told that he had been killed in action. He was not released by the Vietnamese for another three years.
Back in San Diego, where Goodman’s family was living, they were informed that Goodman had been shot down. Like Thornton, Goodman was declared “K.I.A., no body recovered.” Search-and-rescue attempts were curtailed because the area was rife with anti-aircraft and automatic weapons fire.
Within a couple of weeks, a memorial service was held for Goodman, attended by his wife, who had been his high school sweetheart while growing up in Utah, and their three young children: Christine, age 10; Sue, 9, and Russ, 6.
Thus began an odyssey for this family — the quest to discover the true fate of Maj. Russell Goodman. Continue reading