First published in The Record, February 24, 2017
Missing in action for nearly 50 years, a Marine comes home
The first time Billy Ryan’s fighter jet was shot out of the sky, he ejected into the black night. He floated in the South China Sea until a military helicopter rescued him a few hours later.
The second time his plane was shot down, Ryan, of Bogota, went missing for 47 years.
The crash happened on May 11, 1969. On that day Ryan’s wife, Judy, had placed two packed suitcases by the front door of her apartment, ready for her first vacation with her husband since he deployed to Vietnam.
On that day Ryan’s only son, Michael, was a few hours shy of his first birthday.
To Ryan’s family, these coincidences and near-misses always felt significant. They helped Judy nurture a secret prayer: With so much to live for, and so much time passed with no proof of his death, maybe Billy Ryan was still alive.
“I always knew my dad died in the crash, and that’s what my mom told me,” said Michael, 48. “What she didn’t tell me is that part of her held out hope that maybe she’d see his face again.”
Last month, sad comfort finally arrived. It came in a phone call on Jan. 3 from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, informing the family that the remains of Marine 1st Lt. William C. Ryan Jr. had been positively identified using DNA recovered from the crash site in Laos.
One day after she received the news, Judy was told she had an advanced form of cancer. Again the timing seemed important and strange, like maybe God and Judy had waited together all those 47 years.
“It’s uncanny to me that this love story ― and that’s exactly what it is, a love story ― ended the night before” the diagnosis, Michael said. “She got that feeling of hope and closure right before she starts the fight of her life.”
Twice a hero
Billy Ryan was born in Hoboken in 1944 and grew up in Bogota, where his friends called him Rhino. Even at 5 feet 9 inches tall and a wiry 160 pounds, the nickname suited him.
Ryan was tough. He played quarterback and running back on the football team at St. Cecilia High School in Englewood, pitcher and shortstop on the baseball team, and point guard in basketball.
“Everything we did, he was just better. Faster, stronger, more coordinated,” said Ed Ryan, 71, Billy’s younger brother. “Absolutely, I looked up to Billy.”
Billy attended St. Francis College in Pennsylvania, where he studied French and nursed a crush on a beautiful woman named Judith Ann Woolsey.
She ignored him for years. Then, one night, she didn’t.
“My mom’s super outgoing, and she thought he was too quiet and shy,” Michael said. “Then they just went out to a local coffee shop, and she thought he was the nicest man she ever met.”
Judy and Billy graduated in May 1966, and married that summer. In August, Ryan joined the Marines. He signed up for one of the most dangerous jobs in the military, serving as the radio intercept officer on an F-4 Phantom. After two years of training, Ryan deployed to Vietnam in August 1968.
“He said goodbye to me when I was 3 months old,” Michael said.
Ryan’s unit was nicknamed the Death Rattlers, and once he arrived in Da Nang his work never stopped. He often flew multiple missions a day, racking up 300 in nine months.
On Jan. 12, 1969, Ryan’s plane was hit by enemy fire. Ryan and the pilot ejected over the South China Sea. Later, Ryan recorded a description of the crash on a cassette.
“It was such a miracle to get picked up” by a rescue helicopter, said Michael, who listened to the recording years later. “He talked about how scary it was, how it was pitch black in the middle of the water.”
Ryan returned to the air almost immediately. On his last mission before he was due to leave for Hawaii and a vacation with his wife, his F-4 was hit by an antiaircraft missile. Pilots in nearby planes later said they saw just one parachute open; the pilot ejected, but Ryan did not.
The plane crashed near the village of Ban Alang Noi, in southern Laos. The fuselage was traveling so fast it seemed to get swallowed up by the ground, leaving just a crater at the surface. Pieces of wing and tail shattered across a hundred yards of jungle floor.
“Logic tells you that he did not survive the crash,” Ed Ryan said. “But until you get an actual report, you don’t have that closure.”
The long road back
The journey to bring Ryan home started in January 1990, when a team of investigators visited the crash site and interviewed eyewitnesses. The effort would drag on for more than a quarter-century. The delay had many causes, starting with the crash itself.
“Typically when an F-4 hit the ground it was going quite fast, so there’s not much to recover,” said Mark Leney, a forensic anthropologist who led several F-4 crash investigations when he worked for the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, a predecessor to the current agency. “The fact that it took this long suggests that it was a large site.”
Early on it was clear that investigators had found the right place; workers found his seat from the plane in 1990, according to military investigators. Even so, the work was slow. Between May 2012 and January 2016, teams conducted six different excavations at the site.
“It does speak to the level of commitment,” Leney said of the long process.
It also hints at the logistical problems and bureaucratic bungling that have plagued recovery work for decades. Vietnam and Laos impose tight restrictions on forensic teams, Leney said, granting access for about 45 days at a time. Researchers must organize massive expeditions with up to a dozen scientists and 300 local residents to trek into the mountains and set up camp.
Even at a big F-4 crash site, excavation moves at a glacial pace. Working in 2-foot-square blocks, laborers remove soil centimeter by centimeter, and then blast it with water from a nearby river or lake. Anything too big to pass through a wire mesh is reviewed by experts in forensics and military hardware.
“That’s a lot of hard work,” Leney said. “You’re spending a lot of time in a sweaty, disgusting, overheated jungle, exposed to venomous snakes, getting devoured by mosquitoes.”
After about 30 days the army of workers retreats, leaving the site to be ravaged by farmers, animals and monsoons.
“It’s kind of inefficient, honestly,” Leney said.
Bureaucracy made everything worse. Up to 10 different agencies competed for jurisdiction over the process of identifying and repatriating remains, according to reports prepared in 2013 and 2014 by the Government Accountability Office and the Defense Department’s inspector general. That combined with the slow adoption of modern DNA technology meant that the Pentagon managed to identify only about 72 soldiers per year in the decade before 2012, the GAO found.
At that rate, accounting for the 83,000 Americans missing from World War II, Korea and Vietnam would take 1,152 years.
The widows and children of Vietnam-era servicemen were getting older, and they found the military’s slow progress unacceptable.
“It was really these families who ... pushed the government to work harder and do more,” Leney said.
In March 2014, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel responded to the controversy by placing all responsibility for finding missing military personnel in one place, now called the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. It’s too soon to know whether the restructuring fixed all the problems. Last year the agency identified 164 missing Americans, said Army Staff Sgt. Kristen Duus, a spokeswoman. That’s better than its previous record, but still short of the mandate set by Congress in 2010 to identify at least 200 a year.
Time speeds up, again
After the war, Billy Ryan’s family and friends tried to move on. Judy stayed near her family in Falls Church, Va., and eventually remarried. Ed became a lawyer for AT&T, and settled in Summit. Another brother, Johnny, who stayed close to the family home on Palisade Avenue in Bogota, never really recovered from losing his hero, Michael said.
Michael became the family historian. Growing up in Falls Church, he kept his father’s medals in a shrine beside his childhood bed, and wore his father’s green flight jacket to high school. As an adult he pressed the military for more information about the crash, and sought out people who knew his father.
Everyone who knew Billy Ryan, from girls in his sixth-grade class to his fellow pilots in Vietnam, said he was one of the nicest people they ever met.
“There’s so many things I missed out on,” Michael said. “But now I feel like I know my dad very well. He was a true-blue Irish kid from Bogota, New Jersey.”
Meanwhile, in Laos, the recovery effort dragged on. Ed Ryan mostly gave up hope.
“They looked for him for a long time,” he said. “After so long, 15 or 20 years, I didn’t really think they’d find anything.”
For Judy, the wait had the opposite effect. Armies of workers had carved a huge hole in the jungle without finding a single shred of Ryan’s DNA. She wondered: Could that mean her first husband was still alive?
“For mom, I think she held out a little bit of hope that he would come back someday,” Michael said. “And the excavations finding nothing rekindled it.”
Finally, in January 2016, investigators at the scene discovered what appeared to be human remains. It took a year of analysis in a government laboratory in Hawaii to confirm that the remains were Billy Ryan’s.
Then, last month, came two phone calls. The first confirmed that Ryan died in Laos in 1969. The second, a day later, confirmed that his widow’s stomach pains were caused by stage-4 cancer.
This is how love seems to work in the Ryan family: For years it lies fallow. Then it jumps to life, striking like multiple thunderbolts from a single storm. Every time it happens, Judy and Michael are left to puzzle it out.
“I don’t know, it’s strange to me,” Michael said of the timing. “We’ve waited 48 years for this. And now I’m looking up at God and saying, ‘Can you give this woman a week to celebrate?’ ”
Billy Ryan will be laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery on May 10. But if the funeral happens in the afternoon, the date already will be May 11 in Da Nang, because Vietnam runs 12 time zones ahead of the East Coast.
That means Ryan, home at last, will be buried 48 years after his plane crashed, nearly to the hour.