Veterans Day: Family's anguish in 45-year search for MIA pilot

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    An airman left behind for 45 years, but not forgotten

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An airman left behind for 45 years, but not forgotten 05:04

Story highlights

  • Eric Huberth's plane was shot down over Cambodia in 1970
  • A search and rescue team was sent to the crash site but was forced to abort the mission
  • The only thing his three surviving sisters are certain of is how much he meant to them

Los Angeles (CNN)The motto "leave no man behind" is a pillar of the United States military. U.S. forces have risked their lives trying to stay true to that creed.

But the realities of war mean that for some families, the motto is more sentiment than fact. And so it is for the family of Air Force Capt. Eric James Huberth.
On May 13, 1970, while flying on a classified mission over Cambodia, he and fellow pilot Capt. Allen R. Trent were shot down in their F-4D Phantom.
    There were no funerals. No 21-gun salutes. No folded flags. No official rationale for why they never came home. Both men just disappeared.

    An Army family

    The Huberths were an Army family, accustomed to moving from post to post. But when parents George and Jeanne Huberth divorced, Eric took responsibility for helping his now-single mother raise "his girls" -- sisters Nancy, Lorraine, Diane and Suzanne.
    They settled in Southern California, where the sisters live to this day.
    "He never moved out of the house when he could have," said Suzanne Huberth. "He stayed to help us and to help Mom."
    Whether it was buying a car for his mother or helping the girls with homework, he was an engaged son and brother.
    "He was a great son to my mom," said Lorraine Larsen. "Just a really smart, motivated, very loving son."
    Eric Huberth was a reluctant warrior, according to his sisters. He loved animals and wanted to be a veterinarian. He applied for admission to veterinary school but didn't get in. After graduating from Cal State Northridge and facing the draft, Huberth -- whose second love was fast cars -- decided to join the Air Force as a pilot trainee.
    "I remember being very upset about it. I didn't like it," Lorraine said. "I was afraid of him going to Vietnam."
    His sisters said he was never convinced the war in Southeast Asia was worth all the sacrifice.
    "He wrote us and he said, 'I'm not sure what the real reason for us being here is. But it's kind of irrelevant because I'm here and I'm doing what I'm supposed to do,'" Lorraine related.
    And he loved flying. Especially the high performance F-4D Phantom fighter jet. He was so proficient as a combat aviator that during his short time in Vietnam, he was awarded the Flying Cross.

    A final mission

    On his last mission, Huberth's Phantom was sent on a classified low-altitude bombing run over Cambodia. According to his sisters, his aircraft took ground fire and crashed into a hillside. There was no indication that the crew ejected.
    A search and rescue team was dispatched to the crash site, but enemy activity in the area was fierce and the team was forced to abort the mission before reaching the fuselage.
    Back in Thousand Oaks, California, the older Huberth girls were out and their mother, Jeanne, was at work when two men from the military knocked on their door. Suzanne, 9 at the time, was home alone.
    "I knew there was something wrong," she recalled. "I didn't quite understand, but I knew it couldn't be good. And I called Mom at work and I told her there were two men in uniforms standing at the door."
    The news was grim, but it wasn't a death notice. "Basically, they just said that he was shot down and he's missing and you will get updates via daily telegram," Lorraine said.
    The family did get daily updates. Many of them. But the telegrams provided little new information and were mostly repetitive, the sisters said. The Air Force, though, told the family it was doing everything it could to find him.
    Eventually the telegrams slowed to a trickle, and one day they stopped. And that's pretty much all the information the family has received in 45 years.
    The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency told CNN that a recovery team searched the crash site in 1995 but was unable to find anything, so the site was closed.
    But DPAA spokeswoman Lt. Col. Holly Slaughter said Eric Huberth's case is still active. In fact, she said, a research analyst was in Cambodia following up on leads for five cases, including his, at the time of this writing.

    A search for answers

    The sisters remain skeptical. And after all these years, they're tired of waiting. The investigation has outlived their parents and sister Nancy, who died of ovarian cancer in 2007. The sisters worry that eventually their search for answers will die with them.
    "I don't want to leave this legacy to my children and my grandchildren," Lorraine declared. "I want closure. I deserve it. My brother's entitled to it, the rest of my family is entitled to it."
    There are 733 Americans who served in Vietnam who share Eric's status. They are listed by the U.S. government as "Presumptive Finding Of Death." During the war, they were officially missing in action and now, after all these years, it's assumed they died. But without remains or witnesses, nobody knows for sure.
    According to the DPAA, remains of more than 1,000 Americans missing in the Vietnam War have later been identified and returned to their families for burial.
    The field work the DPAA does is arduous: digging in remote and treacherous terrain, sometimes in fields riddled with old land mines or unexploded ordnance. The forces of nature and time make the work of forensics on a crash site harder every day. Witnesses die. Records are lost.
    Without the key details about Huberth's fate, the only thing his three surviving sisters are certain of is how much he meant to them. So for 45 years, they have never given up on finding him.

    'We want closure'

    "We want him buried. We want a place where the family can go and see who he was and what he did for our country," Suzanne said. "We want accountability. We want someone to be accountable for him and not forget him. We want closure."
    In the years after Eric went missing, his mother would attend meetings in Washington of the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia. Air Force officials would attend and try to provide answers, but according to Lorraine, her mother never came home with new information.
    In more recent years, Lorraine and Suzanne have attended the annual meeting. They have come armed with new information and questions about their case. They have pressed the Air Force hard. But Lorraine feels she was never taken seriously. She said any new nugget of information she would bring to the meetings was always dismissed by Air Force officials.
    "The motivation isn't there, because it's been 45 years. Time has passed. Our parents have passed," Suzanne said.
    For the Huberths, what they perceive as a lack of communication from the Air Force has exacerbated a very real pain. Yet the realities of the battlefield and the desire to recover the remains of the fallen don't always align.
    After all this time, reality has set in.
    "I would love to think at some point we'll get my brother's remains back. I would love that," Lorraine said. But she added, "I think that window of opportunity is probably gone after 45 years."
    Still, she noted that she would go to her deathbed knowing they never gave up on their brother.
    "This not just about my brother," she said. "This about the little girl who's now 10 years old who's going to be flying the next airplane in a war."