After 45 years, Red Wing flier is coming home

  • Article by: MARK BRUNSWICK , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 2, 2011 - 10:25 AM

Fighter pilot Thomas Reitmann died over Vietnam in 1965. His remains were identified this year.

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Thomas Reitmann’s remains were identified through DNA in a blood sample given by his brother.

Kim Lorigan has a few photos and a few memories of her being with her father. Her little sister, Karen, has neither.

Their father, Red Wing native Thomas Reitmann, an Air Force fighter pilot, was shot down over North Vietnam on Dec. 1, 1965. Kim was 6 years old and Karen was 5 months old. Until this year, his remains were never identified. Next week, though, the family will gather at Arlington National Cemetery to end nearly 46 years of speculation. As Kim Lorigan, now 52 and herself retired from the military, says: "My dad will be coming home."

The Department of Defense announced Thursday that DNA testing positively identified Reitmann's remains, matching a blood sample that his brother provided. With greater frequency, advances in technology have brought quiet solace to families like the Reitmanns, long left wondering about loved ones listed as missing in action (MIA). A Defense Department unit charged with the identification and return of unaccounted-for American service members has identified more than 1,800 Americans since it began operations in the 1970s, with 560 identified since 2003. An American MIA is now identified about every four days.

"Everybody is using the word closure -- that word isn't right," said Reitmann's widow, Carol Sumner, who has remarried and lives in Hawaii. "We've known that he was dead from about a month after, when I talked to his wingman. But for his children, who are now in their late 40s and 50s, it means so much to them. I'll cry anyway, because I always do, but it's going to be a celebration of his life."

Besides the family members, pilots who flew with Reitmann are planning on attending the ceremony, making the trip despite the fact that many are in their 70s and early 80s.

On Dec. 1, 1965, Reitmann, then a captain in the Air Force stationed in Thailand, was flying a strike mission with three other aircraft. Their target was a railroad bridge about 45 miles northeast of Hanoi. Reitmann's plane was hit by an anti-aircraft missile and crashed in Lang Son Province.

Kim Lorigan remembers watching on television as American POWs were being returned in 1973. She said she knew then that her father would never be coming home. "When you are 5 or 6 you think he might knock on the door, but when we watched that on TV, that was it," she said.

In 1988, the Vietnamese government returned remains that they believed to be those of Reitmann. But they were later identified as those of another American pilot reported missing the same day. The family has been told that the North Vietnamese commander on the ground was later debriefed on the attack and said Reitmann's body was buried beneath a tree. A farmer witnessed the burial, waited for the troops to leave, and dug up the remains, hoping to make some money for his family. He later turned the remains over to his son, who turned them over to the government. A metal button found in a cornfield also helped in the identification.

Brother's DNA sample

As the years went on, Reitmann's brother, Ed, frequently received data and follow-up correspondence about recovery efforts. The correspondence included a reminder for family members about the importance of providing a DNA sample. Now living in Excelsior, he was sent a kit and gave blood at the Minneapolis VA in 2002. On May 13 this year, the announcement was made. Tom Reitmann, who had been promoted to major after his disappearance, had been positively identified through Ed's sample and the work of the Joint Prisoners of War, Missing in Action Command (JPAC), the unit that worked to identify his remains.

"I couldn't be more elated and proud of what I did," he said. "I can't emphasize enough to anybody, if somebody says 'I'm thinking about donating or giving a DNA sample' I say don't think about it, do it. Without that, the remains of my brother would never have been identified. Without JPAC, my DNA wouldn't have meant a thing."

Tom Reitmann left Red Wing after high school and he is believed to be the last remaining missing Vietnam service member from Goodhue County. The Department of Defense still lists 34 unaccounted-for Minnesotans from the Vietnam War.

In 1973, Carol Sumner met and married another Air Force man. But she told him he would have to leave the military for the marriage to work. "I didn't want to go through that again," she said. After almost 46 years, she said her experience has left her with a pressing thought.

"I just wish we wouldn't have any more wars," she said.

"I think that every time I see someone coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq."

Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434

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