Remains of Tacoma airman killed in 1969 will finally return

For The News TribuneMarch 9, 2014 

Former News Tribune reporter Richard Sypher of Gig Harbor wears a bracelet in memory of Douglas Ferguson, who died when his fighter-bomber was hit in Laos during the Vietnam War.

PETER HALEY — Staff photographer

More than 44 years after his plane was lost in combat during the Vietnam War, U.S. Air Force Capt. Douglas David Ferguson is coming home.

Remains of the Tacoma native, found in Laos several months ago, have been positively identified by the U.S. military Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii.

Ferguson graduated from Wilson High School in 1963 and from the Air Force Academy in 1967. He flew with the 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron, known as the Triple Nickel, based at Udorn Air Force Base in Thailand.

Ferguson was 24 years old at the time of his disappearance and death. His F-4D Phantom fighter-bomber took a direct hit from ground fire and exploded while the plane was attacking fuel storage tanks in northern Laos.

His sister, Sue Scott, said a public memorial service for Ferguson is being planned at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. His remains will be buried at Mountain View Memorial Park in Lakewood near the graves of his parents, David and Geraldine Ferguson.

Scott has been a board member and chairman of the National League of Families of Prisoners of War and Missing-in-Action service personnel since shortly after her brother went missing.

Although she’d been aware of the findings since last summer, government protocol required that Scott be notified in person. That happened Wednesday when a Pentagon spokeswoman presented her with a packet officially confirming her brother’s death.

“I had a real sense of peace,” Scott said in a telephone interview Thursday from her Michigan home. The official findings, she said, “resulted from so many people who worked so hard and for so long. They’re the best of who we are as Americans.”

“I really was surprised at how I felt,” Scott said, noting that her years of working with the league of families helped. “When you’re part of something bigger than yourself, you rise (and) become more than you ever thought you would be.”

Family and friends believe the Lewis-McChord memorial will bring closure to a saga that had a beginning but seemingly no end. On Dec. 30, 1969, Ferguson was a first lieutenant and weapons systems officer aboard the F-4, code-named Laredo Zero Three, and piloted by Lt. Fielding W. Featherston III, 26, of Wickliffe, Ohio.

As the plane swept low over the target for the third time, the crew of another attacking aircraft saw its wings rock once before it struck the ground in a fireball. A reconnaissance aircraft that flew over the site a day later spotted what could have been two parachutes on the ground.

Ferguson and Featherston were declared missing-in-action. Both men were promoted to captain in absentia. Ferguson eventually was identified using dental records and other physical evidence recovered at the crash site and returned to Hawaii last year.

Military forensic specialists examine and evaluate physical evidence using chemical, microscopic and other methods in their attempts to identify remains found at locations where U.S. servicemen were known or believed to have gone missing. Remains of more than 900 men have been returned to the U.S. since hostilities ended in the mid-1970s, according to the Department of Defense.

Ferguson’s record in just five months overseas was that of a man headed for better things in the Air Force. One commander praised him for achieving the best bombing record in the squadron after just a month in combat. Another called Ferguson “the most outstanding young officer I’ve known.” His job-performance records consistently described him as “exceptional,” “industrious,” “imaginative” and “energetic” and recommended promotion “far ahead of his peers.”

But it was not to be.

Ferguson was best man in the wedding of Dennis Hill, a fellow Wilson High and Air Force Academy classmate who flew AC-130 gunships during the Vietnam War.

“I heard about (Ferguson’s disappearance) within a day,” said Hill, who retired as a lieutenant colonel after 20 years of service and joined The Boeing Co. to train new 737 pilots. “I felt in my heart that there was no way he was a prisoner. I thought all along Doug had been killed.”

Col. Steve Rogers, who flew missions with Ferguson in the months before the Tacoman was shot down, called him “a very mission-oriented and highly motivated person” who had his lighter moments as well.

“We were up there taking some 37-millimeter anti-aircraft fire one day, and Doug mentioned how pretty the tracers looked coming at us,” Rogers said with a laugh. “At his age, I think he thought he was bulletproof. I was 29, and I knew I wasn’t bullet-proof.”

Rogers and Ferguson had served together in the United States and became close friends before being deployed together to Southeast Asia.

“I still think about him,” Rogers said in an interview Friday. “I feel like I lost the younger brother I never had.”

Ferguson’s wife, Linda Leith, was active in the league of families for more than six years before asking the Air Force to consider a presumptive finding of death for her husband. In 1976, Ferguson’s status was changed to killed-in-action.

Leith, a former Tacoma school teacher and also a member of the Wilson Class of 1963, now lives in the Seattle area. She has since been widowed a second time and asked not to be quoted in this story.

A status-change to killed-in-action was made for Featherston in 1974. His remains have not been found.

While Ferguson remained in “missing” status, his name, rank and date of disappearance appeared on thousands of stainless steel bracelets distributed nationwide by the league as a means of keeping the POW-MIA issue alive. He was one of more than 2,500 men who went missing during the lengthy conflict and for whom such bracelets also were distributed.

In its most recent official report issued last week, the Defense Department listed 1,275 servicemen still missing in Vietnam (496 in North Vietnam and 806 in South Vietnam). The department lists approximately 600 of those men as known to be dead but “unrecoverable.” Some are pilots whose planes were lost at sea.

With the identification of Ferguson, 307 men still are missing in Laos, 53 in Cambodia and seven in China. At least three military pilots from the Tacoma area are among them. Searches continue for them all.

Sue Scott will remain at work with the National League of Families.

“My mission isn’t over,” she said.

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