Remembering those lost in the Tiger Flight Line 739 crash, 61 years later

The only monument that bears the names of those lost in the Tiger Flight 739 crash was erected by a private citizen, Wreaths Across America founder Morrill Worcester, on his balsam tip land in Columbia Falls, Maine. Photo credit Wreaths Across America

Sixty-one years ago on March 16, 1962, Flying Tiger Line Flight 739 and its crew departed on a secret mission sanctioned by President John Kennedy, to fly to Vietnam.

However, the reconnaissance mission went missing with no trace of the plane or its passengers ever found. Onboard were 93 United States Army soldiers and 11 civilian crewmembers.

“The flight went down five months before I was born,” said Jan Stephens, whose father, SFC Lindsay Hester, was onboard the flight.

The names of those lost have not yet been added to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. Presently, the only monument that bears their names was erected by a private citizen, Wreaths Across America founder Morrill Worcester, on his balsam tip land in Columbia Falls, Maine.

“When I first heard the story about this mission, I was shocked to learn that nothing has been done for these families,” he said. “I said that day, that we would do something to make sure these people are honored and remembered, and to hopefully give some closure to these families.”

At 12 p.m. ET on Thursday, Wreaths Across America will hold a special live ceremony to remember all those lost that day and honor their families.

With help from the Internet in the 1990s, Stephens began searching for more information on the flight.

“Everything I found was redacted,” she explained. “There was a second flight on the mission. Both flights crashed. The plane my father was on only carried personnel and they were all lost between Guam and the Philippines.”

The aircraft departed from Travis Air Force in California. Those aboard were handpicked by Kennedy from military battalions across the country and sent over to do “who knows what,” said Stephens.

“The personnel flight went towards Hawaii and the other flight went towards the Aleutian Islands, where it crashed, ” she said.

Flight 739 experienced so much mechanical trouble on its trip from California to Hawaii that it was on the ground for six hours instead of the quick refueling stop it had been scheduled for. Nothing mechanical could be found, so it took off and headed for Guam. Stephens said eyewitnesses later recounted seeing the soldiers kiss the ground upon landing.

“When it left there after refueling it was about two hours out and they lost contact,” she continued. “There was an explosion in the sky and an oil freighter saw it, immediately changed course and headed towards where they thought it was.”

No debris or oil slick was found where the plane went down over the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific Ocean, Stephens said.

“Tiger Flight 739 was one of the4 largest search and rescue missions in FAA history,” she explained. “It was one of the longest also. They never found anything.”

Stephens said her mom was the quintessential Arny wife and was a member of many spouses' clubs.

“They were mid-30s when they got pregnant and that was me,” she said. “They were married for a long time and she finally got pregnant with me.”

Stephens’ mother never spoke of her father, finding the loss too painful.

“I had aunts and uncles that knew him that told me things, all good things,” she said.

The inscription on the FTLF 739 monument in Maine reads:

“Missing in action; Presumed dead. Flying Tiger Line Flight 739 went missing on March 16, 1962, with 93 U.S. Army soldiers on board. These men and their flight crew perished in what would become one of the biggest aviation mysteries out of the Vietnam War era. The names of those who gave their lives and who remain missing are inscribed here so that they will be said aloud and their memory will live on.” 

To watch the commemoration live on Facebook, click here.

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Featured Image Photo Credit: Wreaths Across America