A downed pilot, his daughter and the ring that brought peace of mind.
Robin Smith’s father disappeared in Vietnam during the summer of 1969, and his daughter went to look for him—26 years after Lt. Col. Robert N. Smith, a Marine pilot, dropped from the sky north of the Demilitarized Zone. Robin Smith did not find his remains, but a few months later she learned that an official dig at the crash site found something that would give her more than just memories to hold on to: his Naval Academy ring.
Smith told her story at the National POW/MIA Recognition Day, Sept. 20, 2013 (coincidentally the birthday of her father, born in 1926). At that event, she was presented with another memento from the colonel’s life: a “Naval Aviator Certificate” issued in 1952 to Robert N. Smith. The certificate, which the family had lost years earlier, was found at a hotel in Livonia, Mich., by a truck driver from the Chicago area.
The trucker contacted the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Elgin, Ill., to see if the VFW could return the certificate to the pilot’s family. The Elgin post then contacted Marine officials at the Pentagon and in Quantico, Va. The Marines got in touch with Robin Smith.
She spoke briefly about the search for her father at the POW/MIA ceremony and earlier had provided a more detailed account on the website of photographer Dick Swanson, who covered the war for Life magazine.
Robert Smith, in an F-4B Phantom with Radar Intercept Officer Captain John Flanigan, was last seen escorting a photo reconnaissance plane on Aug. 19, 1969, at about noon. Marines told his family in Athens, Ohio, that he had been reported missing in action. They didn’t offer many specifics, recalled Robin Smith, who was a freshman at Ohio University then. The family assumed he was shot down but prayed he was still alive, perhaps as a POW—a hope dashed when Smith did not walk out with the prisoners released at the war’s end in 1973.
It seemed likely that Colonel Smith was dead, but no one could be sure. A family in limbo longed for proof that would provide closure.
About 20 years later, the Vietnamese gave American officials in Hanoi a skull and part of an arm bone tagged as the remains of Captain Flanigan. Based on that information, teams of American and Vietnamese investigators traveled several times to a remote village in the central part of the country. People in the village, Phu Thuy, said they saw the Phantom shot down and one man eject from the plane.
The parachuter was Flanigan, who landed in a tree and died from his wounds a few hours later. He was buried along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
The day after the Phantom went down, villagers found the destroyed plane in the jungle. They noticed an odor that smelled like burning flesh and figured the pilot died in the crash.
The investigators’ findings reached the Smith family in 1992. Robin Smith decided to go to Phu Thuy and talk with the villagers herself—and to document the journey on film. Smith’s husband, CBS News correspondent Bill Plante, and a CBS crew went with her.
The group arrived in Hanoi on April 2, 1995. During their two weeks in Vietnam, they toured the infamous Hanoi Hilton, the prison Robin Smith once saw not as a torture chamber but as a place where her father might be found alive.
In Phu Thuy, Smith and the CBS crew searched for villagers who would know exactly what occurred in 1969. One day they went to the site where Flanigan had been buried, and the next day a former North Vietnamese soldier took them on a nearly three-hour walk through the jungle to the crash site, where he and other militiamen had looked for the second crewman decades ago. When Smith arrived at the site, she saw that chunks of the plane had been carried off, but pieces of flight-suit fabric, leather and life vest material were still visible. She could now go home knowing where her father died.
About three months later, back in the United States, Smith got a call from an American in Hanoi. A team of Americans and Vietnamese had been doing an official dig of the Phantom’s crash site, looking for any evidence that could conclusively prove Robert Smith had died there.
The diggers had found a ring. Engraved on it was “Annapolis, class of ’48” and a name: Robert Norman Smith.
Robin Smith told the crowd at the POW/MIA Recognition Day that the ring is “a sacrament to my family” and added: “This is why all those efforts to dig those crash sites, to find that information, to give families closure means so much.”
Originally published in the June 2014 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.