First published in The Record, May 12, 2017
Missing for 48 years, Bogota Marine is buried at Arlington
ARLINGTON, Va. — Billy Ryan’s funeral was composed of tangible things.
There was a silver casket with chrome fittings. There was a Marine brass band and a black wooden hearse pulled by six white horses. Four Boeing V-22 Osprey aircraft flew in formation overhead, and 500 people stood on the grass, the biggest such crowd Arlington National Cemetery had seen in 15 years, military officials said.
These tangible things were important to Michael Ryan, Billy’s son, who grew up knowing his father as a decorated Marine from Bogota who went missing in action after his fighter jet crashed in Laos on May 11, 1969, one day shy of Michael’s first birthday.
But other things, intangible ones, were more important.
The fact that Michael’s parents, Billy and Judy Ryan, fell so deeply in love as undergraduates at St. Francis College in Pennsylvania that fellow students believed they were destined for one another.
“I dated Billy, but Billy never dated me,” said Connie Geier, 72, Billy’s onetime girlfriend. “He always had eyes for Judy. They belonged together.”
The fact that after 48 years hoping in secret that she might see Billy’s face again, Judy received final confirmation of his death on Jan. 3 of this year, just hours before she learned she had stage-four cancer.
“I mean, look at the timing of it,” said Lynn Quaid, 72, who introduced Judy and Billy when they were all at St. Francis. “I do believe God had his hand in all of this. Maybe Judy was waiting for him to come home all this time.”
The fact that after 48 years of waiting for Billy to return home, his remains arrived at Baltimore-Washington International Airport on Tuesday, four hours before Judy’s funeral.
“To have their funerals within hours of each other, it’s sad. But it’s also perfect,” said Pat Ryan, who lives in Ocean County with her husband, John — Billy Ryan's younger brother. “It’s almost like it was meant to be.”
It was a struggle for Michael Ryan, attending his mother’s funeral on Tuesday and his father’s funeral on Wednesday. And yet all these strange coincidences made it easier.
Maybe Judy and Billy really were meant to be together. Maybe God isn’t finished with them yet.
“It makes me feel good. It’s the only thing that makes sense,” Michael said Wednesday after his father was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. “Billy came back to bring Judy home.”
A romance, a death and mysteries
William C. Ryan grew up in Bogota and attended St. Cecelia High School in Englewood, where he led the baseball, basketball and football teams. Later he played baseball at St. Francis.
But when he met Judith Ann Woolsey, he quit the team. He was shy, she was gregarious, and they were both good-looking. They fit.
“He quit baseball so he could spend more time with Judy,” Quaid said. “They met every morning at Mass, and they would spend the entire day together. She livened him up, and he calmed her down.”
They graduated in May 1966, and Billy joined the Marines in August. He volunteered for one of the most dangerous jobs in the military, as the radio intercept officer on the F-4 Phantom.
Judy gave birth to Michael on May 12, 1968, while Billy was in training in California. Three months later, Billy deployed to Vietnam, where he flew 300 missions in nine months, sometimes as many as three in a day.
The first time Ryan’s plane was struck by enemy fire, on Jan. 12, 1969, he ejected safely. He splashed into the South China Sea, and was rescued by a military helicopter within hours.
The second time his plane was hit, on May 11, 1969, Ryan never ejected. He was 25.
At his funeral on Wednesday, Ryan’s family talked about the mysterious ― but seemingly romantic ― coincidences surrounding Judy and Billy.
Lt. Gary Bain was the pilot on Ryan’s final mission. Standing on the warm grass Wednesday a few moments after Ryan’s funeral, Bain’s mind turned to darker questions. After the jet was struck by a surface-to-air missile, Bain called twice for Ryan to eject, he said.
Bain ejected. Ryan didn’t.
“I’ve lived with this mystery every day for 48 years. Every day of my life I’ve relived it,” said Bain, of Wellston, Okla. “Why didn’t he eject?”
Judy Ryan was haunted by another dark mystery: Did her husband survive the crash, and was he held hostage in a prison camp? She held on to this secret mystery for decades, even after she remarried, revealing it to Michael only recently, he said.
Such questions never bedeviled Bain. The jet was travelling nearly twice the speed of sound when it was hit. Ryan went down with the plane, which meant he was dead.
“I called Judy three days [after the crash] and told her positively that he’s not with us,” Bain said. “I wanted her to know that he wasn’t out there in the woods, trying to survive.”
Home, or close to it
American scientists first visited the site in 1990 and confirmed it as the location where Ryan’s plane crashed. But the effort to find human remains, ship them to a government laboratory in Hawaii and positively identify them as Ryan’s took 27 years.
During that time, the Government Accountability Office and the Defense Department’s inspector general found that the military’s process for identifying the remains of soldiers missing in action was slowed by infighting among as many as 10 agencies and resistance to modern DNA techniques. The warring agencies were consolidated in March 2014 into the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, which has gradually sped up the process of identifying the remains of missing servicemen, according to data it has made public.
The bureaucratic red tape meant that for 48 years, nearly twice as long as Billy Ryan’s short life, his remains lay in the jungle in Laos, about 8,300 miles from Bogota and nearly as far from the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., where Judy lived. On Wednesday he was buried at Arlington, 21 miles from St. John Neumann Church in Reston, Va., where Judy’s funeral service was held a day earlier.
For the members of their families, that’s close enough.
“I believe God has a hand in everything,” said Linda Frasco, Billy and Judy Ryan’s niece. “She was waiting for this for such a long time. And they’re together now.”