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59 years later, a new monument remembers a plane that vanished and 107 lives lost including a newlywed from Richmond
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59 years later, a new monument remembers a plane that vanished and 107 lives lost including a newlywed from Richmond

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The headline on the front page of The Times-Dispatch on March 17, 1962, brought an unfolding, faraway tragedy close to home:

GI on Missing Plane Met Wife at USO Here

The smiling couple, holding hands in the accompanying photo, had been married only a month before, the story said. What was not in the story is that the picture of Douglas A. Haaf, 21, and June Burks, 23, sitting on his locker outside her sister’s home on Midlothian Turnpike, had been made the very day the soldier left for Washington, two weeks after the wedding, to catch a flight to Travis Air Force Base in California.

Haaf was aboard Flying Tiger Line Flight 739, a propliner chartered by the military that disappeared on March 16, 1962, over the western Pacific Ocean. The aircraft, which was transporting 93 U.S. soldiers and three South Vietnamese soldiers to Vietnam, along with a crew of 11, was en route to a fueling stop in the Philippines when it vanished. All 107 aboard were declared missing and presumed dead.

No trace of the plane or its passengers was ever found.

“It was a beautiful love story,” recalled June Haaf, now June Marler, who lives in Titusville, Fla., where I found her by phone. She met Haaf in the fall of 1961 at the USO in downtown Richmond where she was a volunteer hostess along with others from Richmond’s First Baptist Church. Haaf, an Army specialist from Syracuse, N.Y., was stationed at Fort Lee.

“I don’t know about love at first sight, but I fell for Doug pretty fast. He was just so kind and sweet. I never felt like I was very special, but Doug made me feel I was special because God had made me. And Doug was the best-looking man.”

Haaf planned to attend divinity school after he returned from Vietnam and become a minister. He worried his career ambition might scare her off.

“I said, no, that doesn’t frighten me,” said Marler, now 82, who shared his spirituality and had been baptized at First Baptist only the summer before. “He was just such a wonderful Christian man.”

They decided to marry after he received orders in January that he would be sent to Vietnam. She had taken him to meet her family in Southwest Virginia, and she visited his family in New York. They were married on Feb. 17, 1962, in a small ceremony in the chapel at First Baptist.

A month later, their future ended.

******

Flying Tiger Line Flight 739 is in the news again as a new monument to those lost on the flight was unveiled in a ceremony on May 15 in Columbia Falls, Maine, a place that had nothing to do with the flight or those aboard — until now.

The monument is on land donated by Morrill Worcester, founder of Wreaths Across America, the nonprofit organization that in 2020 placed more than 1.7 million wreaths on veterans’ graves around America.

Worcester learned about Flying Tiger Line Flight 739 a few years ago from Jennifer Kirk, who had come to the Wreaths Across America Museum, which features military memorabilia, to donate the uniform of her uncle, Army Spc. Donald Sargent, who had been aboard the plane. She was telling the story of the plane and the mystery surrounding its disappearance and how families have tried and failed to have the soldiers included on the wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington because they did not die in a combat zone.

Worcester overheard the conversation and spoke up.

“He said, ‘Well, if they’re not on the wall, we’re going to build a monument here. These boys need to be recognized. All of the people on the plane need to be recognized,’” Kirk recalled Worcester saying.

The monument was erected on land where balsam is harvested each year for wreaths. It bears the names of all 107 aboard the flight. More than 250 family members attended the ceremony, according to a Wreaths Across America spokesman.

Kirk, who lives in South Portland, Maine, said she is particularly grateful her father and aunt lived long enough to see their brother honored. She said the families are gratified that “the thousands and thousands of people who pass through there every year will see [the monument], will know it, will say their names, and they won’t be forgotten.”

“Forgotten” is largely what has happened to this point, at least among the public. In fact, at the groundbreaking for the memorial last summer, Worcester said he was moved to do something because the story of the flight “was kind of kept under wraps and nobody really knew about it.”

In 1962, the United States was slowly ramping up its involvement in Vietnam by sending “military advisors,” but the mission of those aboard Flying Tiger Line Flight 739 remains unclear. Stars and Stripes, a military newspaper, reported the soldiers were “trained jungle troops,” though that also is uncertain (and Marler said Doug Haaf was not an Army Ranger as others aboard the flight were believed to be).

A 2013 story in Stars and Stripes reported that no government agency could provide any information on the soldiers or their mission, but it quoted a source who had researched the flight for a decade and said the men appeared to have been hand-picked for the mission from across the country, including at least seven with Virginia connections, but only one other from the Richmond area, Spc. Richard Bayse, who also was stationed at Fort Lee.

Flight 739 left Travis Air Force Base on March 14, 1962, with a destination of Saigon, according to a 1962 Civil Aeronautics Board crash report that was obtained by Stars and Stripes. The flight made stops in Honolulu, Wake Island and Guam. It was headed toward Clark Air Base in the Philippines when radio transmissions stopped, just after midnight on March 16.

An oil tanker and its crew reported seeing a midair explosion in the area where Flight 739 should have been. Search-and-rescue were called off March 23, according to Stars and Stripes. Nothing was ever found.

Speculation has included theories about friendly fire, sabotage and mechanical failure. In its report, the Civil Aeronautics Board concluded that “due to the lack of any substantiating evidence, the Board is unable to state with any degree of certainty the exact fate of [the flight].”

******

The loss was overwhelming; the uncertainty might have been worse.

“People can handle what they know, but what you don’t know can drive you to distraction,” said Marler, who wrote letters to Haaf for a year or two and stored them for safekeeping “because I felt like when he’d come home, I wanted him to know what was going on at the time.”

For the first few years after the plane’s disappearance, Marler said that whenever she was in a public place, say a church or a theater, she always believed someone was about to approach her and tell her Haaf had been found.

Almost a decade later, when she was engaged to be remarried, she hesitated.

“I can’t do this,” she told her fiancé, Larry Marler. “What if Doug is still alive? What if I would marry you and he came home?”

Eventually, she did remarry, but not knowing what became of Haaf lingered. As she watched news coverage of American prisoners of war returning from Vietnam in the 1970s she searched the images for a familiar face.

“I’ll never forget,” she said. “You’re on pins and needles, thinking ‘Doug might be among them.’ You look and you look, but nothing.”

A coal miner’s daughter, Marler grew up in Southwest Virginia in the community of Hurley in Buchanan County. After high school, she came to Richmond to find a job. She lived for a time with a sister, Madalene, and her husband, who was in dental school.

She worked at Southern States (and later at Sears Roebuck on Broad Street), where she made friends who attended First Baptist Church, which is how she got involved with the church and got to know longtime pastor the Rev. Theodore F. Adams, who counseled her and Haaf before they were married.

He would have performed the ceremony, Marler said, but he was away on a trip and bad weather grounded his return flight to Richmond. Associate pastor the Rev. Preston J. Taylor officiated in his place. (Marler still has the letter Adams wrote her, apologizing for missing the ceremony and wishing her and Doug “a long and happy life together.”)

After the disappearance of Flight 739, Marler went to New York to live with Haaf’s family, which had been the plan during his time in Vietnam. She stayed there and worked for a year before returning to Virginia.

She eventually earned her undergraduate degree in elementary education — when she graduated from Hurley High School, she had been presented with the “Most Promising Teacher Award,” and she paid her tuition with money she received from a settlement with Flying Tiger Airline — and took a job teaching in Titusville, which is where she met Larry Marler, who was divorced with three daughters.

She returned to Virginia to earn a master’s in education at the University of Virginia before going back to Florida, where she and Marler were married. They have a daughter, Rebekah, and will celebrate their 50th anniversary in August.

She fought to have Haaf’s name added to the wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, writing letters and making her case, but without success. She finally arranged for Haaf’s name to be included on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund’s “In Memory Honor Roll,” which honors deceased Vietnam veterans whose names are not on the wall. In 2000, she and her husband flew to the ceremony at which she read Haaf’s name.

“I really did it for Doug’s mother because she was just never the same after [the plane was lost],” Marler said. “I was happy for that, at least. It was a type of closure. Not much, but some.”

Marler remained close with Haaf’s family, who treated her husband, Larry, like a son, she said. He spoke at Haaf’s mother’s funeral in 2008. Haaf’s father died in 1984, and his only sibling, a sister, died last fall.

Marler had not been in touch with any other families of those aboard Flight 739 in years, and she was not aware of the memorial in Maine until I reached her in Florida.

“I’m just happy they’re doing it in memory of all the guys,” she said.

Marler has Haaf’s Bible that he left for her — “It’s still a treasured thing for me,” she says — a few pictures from their wedding and their brief time together, and newspaper clippings of coverage of the plane’s disappearance.

She built a full, happy life, but she can’t help but think about what happened to Haaf and what if it hadn’t?

“But God is good,” she said. “I’ll see him one day.”

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