May 23, 2016
Pilot lost in Vietnam War honored
CORTLANDVILLE — Well over 100 people gathered atop a large hill at St. Mary’s Cemetery Saturday afternoon to attend a long overdue service in honor of a local airman lost in Vietnam.
Cortland resident Capt. William Phelps was a pilot in the Air Force’s 366th Tactical Fighter Wing during the Vietnam War. His F-4 Phantom fighter-bomber was believed to have been shot down over the forests of Laos during a mission in 1971.
Neither his plane nor his remains were ever recovered and until last weekend, no funeral service was ever held.
The ceremony was officiated and organized by Norm Stitzel, a veteran and chaplain with the local Warriors of the Cross organization, at the request of Veronica Martin and Toni Rydzyc, Phelps’ cousins and last living relatives.
Rydzyc said after the ceremony, family and friends had been wanting to honor Phelps for years and, after reaching out to Stitzel for help, she managed to raise $2,000 through GoFundMe to pay for a memorial plaque to be placed on Phelps’ parents’ graves.
Also on display at the ceremony were the medals Phelps would have received in life. Next to them was one of the only pictures of Phelps, one that his mother kept by her bed until she died. There was also a picture of an F-4 Phantom like the one he flew and a replica Captain America shield.
Fighter pilots are given handles, or nicknames, and Phelps was given the moniker Captain America. This was because, like the superhero, Phelps was known for his good looks and physical strength as well as his compassion and commitment to his country, Stitzel said at the ceremony.
Air Force Chaplain Lt. Col. Douglas Cunningham read from a letter sent to Phelps’ parents by his then-commanding officer, Col. Julian D. Sawyer, describing the events leading up to his disappearance.
According to the letter, Phelps set out from the Da Nang Airfield as an escort for an AC-119 gunship at 3:17 a.m. on Nov. 23, 1971.
Phelps’ job was to destroy any anti-aircraft guns that would have targeted the planes. At around4:50 a.m., he was cleared to strike a target in southern Laos. The firstpass on the target was successful,and after a second pass, the crewof the gun ship was told the attack was finished and they were topull back.
But shortly afterward, the crew said they saw two explosions five seconds apart from each other, one much larger than the other.
“Repeated attempts were made to contact the F-4 on the radio,” Cunningham said, reading from the letter. “All results were negative.”
It was too dark to see if Phelps had deployed a parachute and the radio signal that would have been sent to indicate he had ejected from the plane was not heard. Aircraft in the area immediately began a search and rescue mission, but to no avail.
“It is with great regret that I must inform you that there are no indications of survival,” the letter read. The search ended on Nov. 25. Phelps would later be declared killed inaction.
In lieu of a casket to inter, seven airmen stood at attention holding an American flag in a rectangular formation during the ceremony. Following a six-gun salute after which a bugler played “Taps” in Phelps’ memory, the flag was folded and presented to Martin.
She addressed those in attendance during the ceremony, thanking them for honoring her cousin’s memory.
“As many of you have heard, so many people knew Bill and wrote wonderful things about him and how he has in some way touched their lives,” she said. “Needless to say, he was special. At long last, we give honor where honor is due and salute Capt. Bill Phelps.”
All of the items on display save for the plaque, will be going to the Veterans of Foreign WarsPost 2354 on Main Street as part of amemorial.
After the ceremony, both Rydzyc and Martin said they were touched to see so many people come out to honor the memory of Phelps. They said now, even after all this time, it felt good to recognize his service.
“Many of my friends and family always wanted to do something but never really knew how to quite put it together,” Rydzyc said. “After45 years, finally there’s someclosure.”
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