A new monument honoring the U.S. Army soldiers who lost their lives in a mysterious 1962 plane crash in the Pacific Ocean will be unveiled next month at the Wreaths Across America headquarters in Columbia Falls.
Three Mainers were on Flying Tiger Line Flight 739, a charter flight carrying U.S. military personnel, when it disappeared on March 16, 1962, somewhere between Guam and the Philippines, en route from Travis Air Force Base in California to Saigon, Vietnam.
Spc. Leonard R. Wedge from Millinocket, Sgt. Frank E. Pelkey from Farmington and Spc. Donald Sargent of Cornish and Ossipee, New Hampshire, were among the 107 U.S. and South Vietnamese soldiers and crew members killed in the crash, the cause of which remains unknown nearly 60 years later. The crew of a Liberian oil tanker in the area reported seeing a “vapor trail go behind a cloud,” followed by a flash of light in the sky, but otherwise, no one else saw anything like a plane go down.
No trace of wreckage or debris was ever found, even after one of the largest search and rescue missions in U.S military history, with 48 military aircraft and eight ships covering 144,000 square miles of Pacific Ocean territory. To this day, the military says it does not know what caused the crash — a mechanical or pilot error, an explosion in the cargo hold, sabotage or an attack.
“Due to the lack of any substantiating evidence,” the Civil Aeronautics Board concluded in its accident report at the time, “the Board is unable to state with any degree of certainty the exact fate of [the flight].”
Despite the loss of life of U.S. soldiers during the early days of the war in Vietnam, the military has not honored the victims of Flight 739. Families of the deceased have asked to have the names of the soldiers on the flight added to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., but those requests were declined by the U.S. Department of Defense, which only includes the names of soldiers who died in combat zones.
The new monument will be unveiled in a ceremony set for 11 a.m. May 15 at the Wreaths Across America headquarters in Columbia Falls. In-person attendance is reserved only for family members of Flight 739 victims, though the ceremony will be livestreamed on the Wreaths Across America Facebook page.
The land was donated by Wreaths Across America founder Morrill Worcester, and is located on the same balsam tip-land where volunteers each year harvest brush to make veterans’ remembrance wreaths to be placed on the headstones at Arlington National Cemetery and at other sites around the country, at sea and abroad. A groundbreaking ceremony for the new monument was held in July 2020.
For more information, visit the Remembering Flying Tiger Line Flight 739 Facebook page.