John Dunham is coming home 40 years after death in Pacific


In her heart, Suzanne Dunham Fong says, she kept a window open and a light burning for the father she never knew -- a young Air Force officer who died and vanished with seven crewmates when their plane was shot down in the Pacific by a Russian fighter on Oct. 7, 1952.

She was 6 weeks old then.

Monday night, the remains of Capt. John R. Dunham come home to Christ Episcopal Church in his native Easton, and Mrs. Fong will be there along with Jonathan, 12, and Colin, 5 -- his grandsons.

"The first time I'm ever going to be physically with my dad is when I see his coffin," she says.

The Easton service and Tuesday's burial with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery will bring a physical closure for Mrs. Fong and her mother, Mary Dunham Nichols, 69, of Rodgers Forge -- even though their emotional wounds will never heal.

The ceremonies also will bring together people who were closest to Captain Dunham in life and the Russian sailor who held the key to the decades-long mystery of his death -- his Naval Academy ring.

For 40 years, the Soviets concealed knowledge of the whereabouts of the downed aircraft and its eight-man crew, which included the young Maryland flier. He was 24 when he died, a lieutenant flying as photo-navigator on an RB-29 reconnaissance plane on a photo-mapping mission over Hokkaido, in the Kuril Islands, occupied by the Soviet Union since World War II.

His plane was shot down by a Soviet fighter. When the United States protested, Moscow said the plane had violated Soviet airspace.

The mystery began to unravel in 1992, with a telegram found in Soviet archives reporting to dictator Josef V. Stalin that the flier's body had been recovered and buried on the islet of Yuri, off Hokkaido.

In 1993, Vasili Saiko, a retired Russian Border Patrol sailor from Ust'donetsk, saw a television advertisement seeking information about American servicemen who might have fallen into Soviet hands.

He told the United States-Russia Joint Commission on POW-MIA Affairs that his patrol boat searched the area after the plane was downed and that he pulled Captain Dunham's body from the Pacific. There was no sign of other crew members.

He kept the ring of Captain Dunham -- who had been promoted posthumously -- as a keepsake, perhaps to return it one day to the dead man's family, he said.

But it wasn't until Sept. 2, 1994, that searchers on Yuri found the sturdy coffin, says Army Col. Michael Semenec, who led the American contingent in the search.

The grave, he recalls, was atop a plateau on the small island, which has dark sandy beaches climbing quickly to steep cliffs. A shred of the sleeve from a flight suit bearing an embroidered patch with a winged star and the words U.S. Air Force was the only personal item found in the coffin, he adds.

"I always knew he was dead," says Mrs. Fong, a lawyer who lives in Clinton, N.Y., where her husband, Bobby, is dean of faculty at Hamilton College, "but philosophically I always kept a window in my heart with a light in it . . .

"There is a great deal of satisfaction in bringing him home and honoring him this way. The people who have waited for this will be there."

The family had placed a memorial to the dead flier at Arlington in 1991, before word confirming his death came from inside Russia.

"That was practice for this one," Mrs. Nichols says. "I have pretty much worked through my grief, but I'm going to take a hankie with me. I'm keeping my feelings pretty much in check. I have a lot of work to do, and I want to honor him."

Mrs. Nichols remarried in 1965. She says her husband, Donald Nichols, a World War II Navy veteran who is retired from Waverly Press, has offered unwavering support since word came in 1992 that the mystery of Captain Dunham's death might finally be solved.

Family members of the captain as well as of the other crewmen lost on the flight, former Air Force colleagues and classmates from the Naval Academy Class of 1950 are expected to attend the funeral.

And the family is bringing Mr. Saiko, who returned Captain Dunham's Naval Academy class ring, to the United States to join them.

"That ring is a symbol," Mrs. Nichols says. "He got the ring in his junior year and made the decision to go in the Air Force afterward." She keeps the ring, with a large silver "D" in place of a stone, on a double gold chain of heavy links.

Mrs. Nichols -- the former Mary Gordon Crapster of Howard County -- wed the newly minted 2d Lt. Dunham at the Naval Academy chapel within hours of his graduation in 1950. The Korean War erupted three weeks later.

Best man at the wedding was Roy M. Dunham, now 70, from Ashland, Ky., who also was the last relative to see his brother alive.

That final meeting was in September 1952, a few weeks before the fatal flight. Roy Dunham was a naval officer, hospitalized in Yokosuka, Japan, with injuries he suffered when a typhoon struck his ship, the destroyer USS John R. Craig.

"I was right across the fence from John's 91st SAC [Strategic Air Command] Reconnaissance Squadron and I called him from the airport," Mr. Dunham recalls. "I was in a body cast, but he spent three days R&R; with me, then I left on the hospital ship Haven, before his last flight.

"He told me he had completed all of his Korean missions and the crew would only be doing photo-mapping of Japan for the rest of the tour."

But when the Haven reached San Francisco, Mr. Dunham says, "Someone gave me a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle, and there it was on the front page, that his plane was missing."

Unconfirmed reports at the time said parachutes were seen descending from the stricken plane and the family worried for years that crew members might be in prison.

"If Russia had not collapsed we would never have known what happened," he says. But once the wall was breached, "the openness between the two sides was tremendous."

Among those who knew Captain Dunham best was Capt. Clyde King, 75, of Panama City, Fla. He was the aircraft commander who had worked and trained with the doomed crew. He was forced off the final mission because of a broken foot.

"I trained with him for 18 months, and he was the best navigator I ever had," recalled Captain King, a World War II veteran. "He was cheerful, an easygoing guy."

Captain King has a haunting memory of that last mission. As he waited out the flight in the operations shack, he recalls, he heard a "Mayday" radio distress call from his plane several times about 2 p.m. Twenty minutes later came the last transmission: "Mayday, let's get the hell out of here."

Two months later, he left the Air Force. "I had lost my crew. I didn't want to fly any more," he said.

"The Russians denied everything, and we didn't know if there were any survivors," Captain King continued. "The first I knew of this was when I opened my paper one day and there was my navigator's picture on the front page, 40 years to the day after they disappeared."

Another crewmate, former Staff Sgt. Mel Renshaw, 64, of Millersville, who was chief gunner, did not make the flight because of illness.

"All these years I wondered what happened to those guys," he said, adding that he flew on fruitless search missions after the plane crashed. "I thought the Russians had gotten them and kept them."

Thanks to a gift from Mr. Renshaw, Mrs. Fong recently learned that her father knew what she looked like before he died. Mr. Renshaw had taken a photo of Captain Dunham looking at slides baby Suzanne shortly after her birth.

He says, "I'm glad Mary and Suzanne are at ease now, but I feel so sorry for the families of the other guys."

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