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.
Hope takes flight
After three years, when they learned that Thornton was alive, they had a glimmer of hope. If Thornton had survived, they reasoned, perhaps Goodman also had. When Thornton was released and repatriated in March 1973, they hoped that he would give them some reason to keep believing, but Thornton was doubtful and could offer no definite proof.
In 1975, America ended its involvement in Vietnam, but politics and continuing enmity kept military personnel from searching for remains. As Vietnamese POW camps were emptied and demolished, no word of Goodman materialized, and the family had to accept that the pilot had probably died in his plane that day in 1967.
Still, they wanted evidence, and they were beginning to tire of false hopes.
In October 1993, a joint U.S.-Vietnamese team, led by the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), investigated the crash site and conducted an excavation, recovering bone fragments, none of which were adequate for the DNA testing they hoped to perform.
Complicating the discovery of adequate forensic evidence was the North Vietnamese practice, during the war, of burying the remains of dead pilots as soon as possible after impact, Stein said. To further forestall detection of the crash sites, the villagers had also been trained to haul away all aircraft pieces.
It was not until March 2008 that another JPAC-led team conducted more excavations at the crash site — an area of open ground near acres of rice paddies. This time, they recovered some pilot equipment, a small piece of the plane, and more human remains, including a 4-inch bone fragment that finally gave JPAC some evidence they could test.
In mid-November 2008, while Stein was visiting her mother, her phone rang and Stein answered it.
“This is Alan from Mortuary Affairs … .”
The officer told Stein that usable bone fragments had been recovered and that positive identification appeared imminent — one year minimum, two years maximum.
Stein told the officer that she was skeptical, but he attempted to reassure her.
“He said, ‘Well, let me tell you. I’m not usually told to inform next-of-kin unless they have a pretty good idea.’ We’d never heard anything that definite,” Stein said.
“I was trying to be real quiet talking on the phone because my mom, over the years, had gotten more and more upset.”
Stein said that her mother, who had moved to Alaska about 15 years earlier, was simply tiring of false hopes, false promises and false leads. Two years earlier, June Goodman had put Stein in charge of all further investigation news and documentation.
“I got off the phone, and I said, ‘Mom, I need to talk to you.’ And she said, ‘That was Mortuary Affairs, wasn’t it?’ She was really calm at the time, and I had thought she’d be more upset, so I was glad she was calm. But I was frantic. I was like, ‘What am I going to do now? I’ve got to call my sister. I’ve got to call my brother.’”
Stein made the calls, and then, as they had done for more than four decades, the siblings waited.
Six days after June Goodman died, the phone rang again and changed everything.
“It’s the one call we knew someday we might get, but never really expected to get,” Stein said.
Afterward, in the midst of her efforts to settle her mother’s estate, Stein and her siblings traveled in January to Honolulu, site of the JPAC forensic lab, to collect their father’s remains and escort them to Nevada’s Nellis AFB for an official repatriation and funeral service Jan. 14, with full military honors.
When their plane landed at the airport in Las Vegas, the siblings were introduced to the other passengers by the pilot and were allowed to leave the plane first, as the other passengers applauded. From the tarmac, they watched their father’s flag-draped coffin move out of the belly of the plane, and they were given a special police escort down the freeway to Nellis.
The service was organized by the family and the Thunderbirds, the main point man for which was ironically named Major Goodman. Although unrelated to Stein’s family, Maj. Richard Goodman offered his services after being contacted by Stein.
At the ceremony, one of the speakers was retired Navy commander Gary Thornton, who said, “That day, a father and a friend was lost. I lost a mentor and my professional big brother. I am honored to be here to see him come home.”
With Major Goodman’s return, according to an Air Force press release, there are now 556 airmen, 550 soldiers, 369 sailors, 213 Marines and 32 civilians still unaccounted for who served in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam era.
In accordance with their mother’s wishes, the ashes of both parents will be scattered by their children this summer on a mountain top on the Kenai Peninsula.
It is the hope of Stein and her siblings that sharing the story of their father’s return can help other families enduring similar long
periods of waiting.
“We want people to understand that, as much as they despise the government sometimes, they are still doing good things,” Stein said. “And for all those Vietnam vets that came home, or that lost friends over there and never had them return, there’s still hope. There’s still a chance that all these guys will come home.”
According to the JPAC’s latest annual report, in fiscal year 2009 the agency identified 98 individuals, including 26 from the Korean War, 19 from the Vietnam War and 53 from World War II.
Meanwhile, Stein and her siblings take great solace in applying their Christian faith to the way things turned out.
“We all believed, from the minute we got the phone call, that Mom knew before us,” Stein said. “For us, that told us that Mom was with Dad. He told her, ‘It was me in the crash. Now let’s tell the kids and get this done.’ It made us feel good about the way things had happened.”