Waterloo Vietnam MIA’s daughter keeps memory alive

Father went missing over Laos in 1970

November 10, 2023 5:30 am

Lynn Wild of Montpelier, Vt., left, daughter of U.S. Air Force Col. Richard Lee Ayers of Waterloo, missing in action from the Vietnam War, is shown here with her great aunt, and Richard’s aunt, Janice Crowe of Cedar Falls. (Photo by Patrick Kinney)

WATERLOO — When Richard Ayers went off to war, he told his 13-year-old daughter, Lynn, “You take care of your mom and your sister until I get back.”

That was in 1969. She obeyed her dad. But she’s also been looking out for him, and his legacy, ever since. Because he never came back.

Iowa Writers 'Collaborative. Linking Iowa readers and writers.Col. Richard Lee Ayers, a 1951 graduate of Waterloo East High School, was a U.S. Air Force reconnaissance pilot who went missing April 16, 1970, flying over Laos and South Vietnam.

That daughter, Lynn Wild, now living in Montpelier, Vt., has compiled letters exchanged among her dad and family and her own personal reflections on missing him.

She wants to weave it in to a literary work. She also wants what she’s compiled preserved for posterity.

That brought her back to her father’s hometown recently. She wants family correspondence about her father preserved at the Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum, part of the Grout Museum District.

“From very early on, I thought my dad would come back, so I kept everything we ever got related to my father,” Wild said. “Because I was going to share it with him and try to bring him up to date when he came home.

“And when he didn’t come home, I realized that these letters were really valuable. So I set them aside and I kept them stored.” Last summer, she hired a friend to help her sort through the material.

“I couldn’t sort through it myself, because it only took about 30 minutes before I was unable to face it any more” emotionally, she said. She and her friend spent a couple of hours a week on the project.

”We were able to find all my father’s letters. I think they’re all here,” she said

”We categorized them and put them in chronological order,” she said, along with her mother’s and other family letters.

It’s a chronology that includes the first letter her mother wrote her father when he left their home in San Antonio on Oct. 5, 1969; his first letter back; their correspondence while he attended pilot survival school in the Philippines, and his time in Vietnam up to April 6, 1970, 10 days before he went missing. Her parents had had a rest and relaxation visit in Hawaii that March.

U.S. Air Force Col. Richard Lee Ayers (Photo courtesy of U.S.Air Force/Grout Museum District)

It includes correspondence between Richard and his pilot brother, Lenard Ayers, who went back to Vietnam after two previous tours to be there when Richard was.

Lenard arrived back in Vietnam and met Richard briefly before the R&R trip to Hawaii a month before his disappearance.

”The day Dad’s plane was shot down, Uncle Lenard, on his own volition, I think, got into a helicopter to go look for Dad, and he was quickly remanded back to the States,” Wild said, presumably as a precaution against another loss in the family. Lenard was killed in an air accident working for a private firm in Texas in 1980.

Wild wants her family’s correspondence preserved beyond her lifetime and publicly accessible.

“Over the years I have written poetry about the situation of not knowing where your father is, about the war or wars that started after this.” She’d like to get her writings and the letters into publication — “actually get into the hands of the public to read — perhaps to change minds about how to resolve conflict; that’s we have to find different ways besides war and violence to resolve conflict.

“I would like these letters, my poetry, the story of what happened to my family to be part of changing people’s minds about war,” Wild said.

“A lot of these things that I saved, I saved for my dad if he came home,” Wild said. “I was going to be his mentor when he returned and bring him up to speed on what happened while he was gone.” But now, she indicated, that project has taken on an even wider purpose.

”I think what I’ve learned most from holding on to all of these things of his, and my thoughts about what to do with it, is, wars never end,” she said. “They go on. The impact of these wars goes on for generations.”

If the material is kept in a safe place, as “documentation of what we lose when we send people to war, “I will feel very comfortable,” she said. “And I will know that I’ve done everything I could do to honor his memory, and perhaps to change some minds.”

This McDonnell-Douglas RF-4C Phantom jet is similar to the one flown by Col. Richard Lee Ayers of Waterloo on reconnaissance flights. This one is flying a photo reconnaissance mission over Vietnam in 1971, about a year after Ayers went missing. (U.S. Air Force photo)

On the morning of April 17, 1970, “I missed the bus to school,” Wild said. “I looked at the clock and said, ‘I never miss the bus! Why am I still here?’

“Then the doorbell rings, and I look through the peephole. And there’s the casualty officer with a chaplain, in Air Force blue. And I immediately know my dad was dead. I opened the door and they said, ‘Is your mother here?’ And the first thing that goes through my mind is, ‘I have to take care of my mother and sister forever! I can’t cry now.” She awakened her mother and sister.

She eventually took on the task of receiving updates from the government — The U.S. Department of Defense POW-MIA Accounting Agency — on the status of her father’s case, and continues to do so. She receives emotional support locally from her great aunt, Janice Crowe of Cedar Falls.

More than 1,500 Americans are still missing from the Vietnam War; 25 are from Iowa. Of those, three from the Cedar Valley area were pilots missing over Laos near the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a supply route network running from North Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia to South Vietnam. Recovering remains from Laos has been logistically and politically difficult over the years.

In addition to Richard Ayers, local residents missing over Laos were U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. L.W. Whitford of Cedar Falls, son of late University of Northern Iowa baseball coach Lawrence “Mon” Whitford, missing Sept. 2, 1969, with his navigator, 1st Lt. Patrick Carroll of Michigan; and U.S. Navy Capt. Paul Lloyd Milius of Denver just north of Waterloo in Bremer County, missing Feb. 27, 1968.

Milius received the Navy Cross posthumously for saving the lives of seven of his nine man crew, staying with the plane while they bailed out, and a U.S. Navy destroyer is named for him.

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. L.W. Whitford of Cedar Falls, left; and U.S. Navy Capt. Paul Milius of Denver, Iowa, right. (Photos courtesy Nancy Whitford Eger and U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command; background via Canva)

Patrick Kinney’s blog, View from the Cedar Valley, is on Substack. This column is republished  through the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.

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Patrick Kinney
Patrick Kinney

Pat Kinney is a former longtime Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier reporter and editor. He still writes freelance and works at the Grout Museum District in Waterloo. His blog, View from the Cedar Valley, is on Substack.