First published in The Record, May 9, 2017
After 48 years, remains of MIA pilot come home
For the first time that he could remember, Michael Ryan saw his father, lying in a coffin draped in an American flag.
The coffin was removed from the belly of a Delta Airlines plane on Tuesday morning, maneuvered down a conveyer belt, grasped by six pallbearers in full Marine dress uniform, and carried across the tarmac at Baltimore-Washington International Airport to a waiting black hearse.
Ryan raised his right hand over his heart as the coffin passed by. He squinted into the sun. He did not cry.
“We've been crying for decades," said Ryan, 48, who was one day shy of his first birthday when his father went missing. "This is a happy moment. My dad is finally home."
The ceremony, which included two airport firetrucks spraying streams of water in a high arch over the departing hearse, took just six minutes. Yet it was an appropriate tribute to Marine 1st Lt. William C. Ryan Jr., who died 48 years ago when his F-4 Phantom fighter jet was shot out of the sky and crashed into the jungle in Laos. He will be buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery on Wednesday.
Ryan, who was known as Billy, grew up in Bogota, and was a standout athlete at St. Cecelia High School in Englewood, playing football, baseball and basketball. He graduated from St. Francis College in Pennsylvania, married Judith Ann Woolsey, his college sweetheart, and volunteered for one of the most dangerous jobs in the Marines, serving as a radio intercept officer in an F-4 Phantom fighter jet.
Despite his accomplishments as an athlete and a Marine, Billy Ryan never took himself too seriously, his brothers said, and he was always cracking jokes. If he could have seen the Marines standing at attention and the water cannon salute and all the sad faces, "he might have been embarrassed," said John Ryan, 64, Billy's youngest brother.
Ryan was 25 years old when his plane was shot down. The search for his remains took 27 years.
"It's definitely a finale," said Ed Ryan, 71, Billy's younger brother, who patted Michael on the shoulder as the coffin was removed from the plane. "I thought maybe we would never find him."
Billy Ryan’s jet was shot down on May 11, 1969. The pilot ejected, but other airmen in the sky nearby reported seeing only one parachute. And so it was assumed that Ryan had died, either from the surface-to-air missile that struck the plane, or on impact.
Ryan's wife, Judith, had no evidence that he had died, however, and she nurtured a secret hope that her husband had survived.
"Part of her held out hope that maybe she'd see his face again," Michael said.
The process of confirming his death and repatriating his remains started in January 1990, when American scientists first visited the crash site and confirmed it as Ryan's F-4. Locating Ryan, however, and proving that he had died in the crash and not as a prisoner of war, took a quarter-century. The process was slowed by the difficulties of searching in a jungle crawling with poisonous snakes and bugs, and by bureaucratic ineptitude that left different agencies of the U.S. government fighting for jurisdiction over soldiers' remains and the use of slow, outdated DNA identification technology, according to reports by the Government Accountability Office and the Defense Department’s inspector general.
Finally, in January 2016, investigators at the crash site found what appeared to be human remains, which were shipped to the military's Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii for testing. A year later, on Jan. 3, Michael Ryan received the official phone call: his father was dead.
It took another three months for Ryan's remains to arrive back on this continent. A few minutes before noon, federal air marshals escorted a dozen of Ryan’s family members through the airport terminal to a security door. When the door opened, Michael Ryan smiled and jerked to his right, then his left, pretending to cut in front of the crowd to be the first in line.
His uncles, Ed and John Ryan, both laughed as they walked outside.
"I want to lighten the mood," Michael said. "Sure, it's sad my dad died. But it's also happy because we're all here together as a family."
More than the saluting Marines and the flag-draped coffin, the laughter of his brothers and son was the highest honor Billy Ryan could have received.
"I think he would have loved it," Ed Ryan said.