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An ending unwritten: Family lives with unknown fate of brother lost in Vietnam War

A headstone at Fort Snelling honors Air Force First Lieutenant William James Crockett of Cottage Grove, who remains MIA after being killed while serving in Vietnam. Submitted photo courtesy of Steve Crockett and Gail Crockett Stanghelle1 / 2
William James Crockett wrote to his family in Cottage Grove while serving with the United States Air Force in Vietnam. His plane was shot down Aug. 22, 1972. Image courtesy of Steve Crockett and Gail Crockett Stanghelle2 / 2

COTTAGE GROVE — In a letter dated Friday, July 7, 1972, Air Force 1st Lt. William James Crockett wrote to his family in Cottage Grove.

While he asked about his green MG sports car and wrote of his eagerness to go fishing at his family’s summer cabin, he also hinted at the perils of flying combat missions in the skies over Vietnam. He served as a navigator on a McDonnell Douglas Phantom II Fighter.

He wrote: "Tomorrow I'll have eight months in country with only four to go. Pray for me I need all the help I can get."

Air Force 1st Lt. William James Crockett. Submitted photo Crockett, 25, was killed Aug. 22, 1972, in a plane crash over Quang Tri Province, along with the pilot, Air Force Lt. Col. Lee Tigner. The aircraft took enemy fire that severed its right wing. After hitting the ground, the aircraft flipped and ditched in the Cue Va River. Neither man was seen ejecting and no electronic distress signal were noted afterward.

Crockett's body was never recovered. He is one of at least 32 Vietnam War casualties from Minnesota who are still listed as Missing in Action.

His sister, Gail Stanghelle, was the first in her family to learn of his death. She was 17.

"He was nine years older than me," she said. "He was a big brother. He was kind, he was handsome, he was smart."

Crockett graduated from Park High School in 1964 when the school was located in St. Paul Park. He studied zoology at the University of Minnesota.

"He knew he had to go in, so he enlisted as an officer when he graduated," his sister said.

On that day 47 years ago, Stanghelle was alone in her family's home on Hadley Avenue, watching the soap opera "Dark Shadows" on television. She recalls that she was wearing striped knee socks. Her father WIlliam was at work. Her mother Dorothy was visiting her mother in St. Paul.

Two uniformed men came to the door.

"They said his plane went down. I said, 'Did he make it?' Nobody saw the parachute go and the plane turned over and exploded on impact and skidded into one of the rivers there," she said.

"They didn't see anybody try to escape."

Stanghelle accompanied the men on the drive to notify each of her parents. She said she wondered at the time why she wasn't crying. She now understands that she was in shock.

The tears would come later — in 1986, at the Metrodome, when the black MIA flag was raised during the National Anthem at a Twins game. Or when she would see a news item about a soldier returning home to their family. Or watching a Hallmark movie called "The Lost Valentine," about a World War II widow who returns every year to the place where she last saw her husband, a fighter pilot who went missing.

"I don't cry a lot," Stanghelle said. "But I was just sobbing. It's surprising how grief pops up unexpectedly."

Heavy fighting

Crockett was killed during the second battle of Quang Tri, which lasted June 28-Sept. 16, 1972.

In some of the heaviest fighting of the Vietnam War, U.S and South Vietnamese forces recaptured Quang Tri City and the surrounding territory from the North Vietnamese People's Army, which had taken it earlier that year.

Crockett was a member of the 421st Tactical Fighter Squadron. In a letter, he describes skirmishes with MiGs, the Soviet-made MiG-21 aircraft flown by the North Vietnamese: "We've had a number of engagements with MiGs so far and I assume we will continue to have them until we come up with a way to thwart them. You can be sure that when I do go up there I take extreme care!"

He had been married less than six months. His name is inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., Panel 1W, Line 68.

'A hole in my heart'

Crockett’s father William served in the Navy in World War II. His family's service dates back to the Revolutionary War, the Alamo and the Civil War.

Crockett’s brother Steve served two tours of duty in Vietnam with the United States Navy. He was 17 when he enlisted and served from 1965 to 1969. At that time, soldiers in the “Brown Water Navy” patrolled Vietnam’s rivers in gunboats.

Steve Crockett still lives in Cottage Grove. Crockett, 70, said Armed forces investigators spoke with a witness who saw the plane crash. He said the area where his brother died is now a reservoir and that it’s unlikely they will recover his brother’s remains.

“He’s sorely missed,” he said. “We never got a chance to be brothers.”

Last year, their sister contributed a remembrance of her brother to The Story Wall, The online project was part of the PBS program “Minnesota Remembers Vietnam.” It was launched by Twin Cities PBS TPT St. Paul in conjunction with the Ken Burns documentary on the war.

“Life goes on,” Gail Stanghelle said. “You move on … I have a wonderful life. There’s always that hole in your heart. There’s always that missing piece that just doesn’t get filled by anything. Even if you don’t lose anybody in the war, those losses, they’re there and you live on.”

She said that she sought a deeper relationship with Jesus following his death.

“My faith gives me hope because I’ll see him again someday.”

William Loeffler

William Loeffler is a playwright and journalist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked 15 years writing features for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has also written travel stories based on his trips to all seven continents. He and his wife, Michelle, ran the Boston Marathon in 2009. 

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