COLUMBIA FALLS, Maine — Sometimes, a secret can live on, well past the lifetimes of those who kept them.
“For 57 years, we heard absolutely nothing,” said Clifton Sargent. “It was a well-kept secret.”
To bring a secret to life, sometimes you have to go back: in this case, six decades back in time.
Meet Jen Kirk.
“I am the niece of Special Fourth Donald A. Sargent, who was aboard the Flying Tiger Line Flight 739,” she said.
Her uncle, SP4 Donald Sargent, was a U.S. Army Ranger. Sixty years ago -- on March 16, 1962 – he and 92 other U.S. soldiers, along with 11 crew members and three soldiers from South Vietnam, were aboard Flying Tiger Line Flight 739.
For their loved ones, the details of the mission remain a mystery.
“I think he knew everything that was coming down, but he wouldn’t tell a soul because it was a top military secret,” said his brother, Clifton Sargent.
According to federal documents, Flying Tiger Line Flight 739 had originally taken off from a base in California, with maintenance checks and refueling stops in Honolulu and Guam, before a planned stop in the Philippines and then on to its final destination of Vietnam.
It never arrived.
After departing Guam, the plane vanished.
What happened next -- at the time – became the largest air and sea search ever conducted since Amelia Earhart’s disappearance decades prior. More than 1,300 people and 48 aircraft searched 144,000 square miles.
Investigators eventually heard from an oil tanker crew that had been at sea in a remote area of the Pacific Ocean, where the plane likely would have been when it disappeared. They reported seeing an “intensely luminous” explosion in the sky.
However, not a single trace of wreckage, nor any remains, were ever found anywhere.
Investigators concluded it was “impossible to determine whether a mechanical/structural failure, or sabotage, occurred in flight.”
For Donald’s brother, Clifton Sargent, the past six decades have brought little closure about what happened.
“He was just a go-getting kid from the country,” he said, remembering his brother, later adding. “Sometimes, the rock moves slowly to get it going downhill.”
Sometimes, carving into granite becomes the goal.
Sargent – along with family members of those lost on Flight 739 - have been in a years-long push to have those soldiers’ names added onto the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.
“Why? Because he went over there, or headed over there, with the same means as the other boys on that wall fought and died,” Sargent said.
There’s specific criteria for that, though. The families say officials told the names can’t be added because even though the plane was en route to Vietnam, it went down outside the official war zone. The U.S. Department of Defense did not return our request for comment.
Over the years, family members have gone to Capitol Hill, advocating on behalf of the lost soldiers.
“That means that they won't be forgotten, because the minute you stop saying their name and remembering them and honoring them - they're gone,” said Jen Kirk.
Currently, there is Senate Bill 2571, which would move to add the names of those on Flight 739 to the Vietnam Memorial. Senator Gary Peters, D-Michigan, introduced the bill and said to us in a statement, “It is past time that we properly honor those lost.”
Army Veteran Don Sargent, who is named after his uncle, visited the Vietnam Wall in Washington and brought a letter he wrote to his uncle.
“I just wanted him to know that I thought that he deserved to be there - and that's what I put in a letter,” he said, “And, you know, kind of indicating that I hope I was carrying his name the way that he would have pride in me.”
More than 700 miles away from Washington, amid the rushing waters and forests of Maine, Morrill Worcester hatched a plan.
“I said, you know, ‘give me a little time and we'll make that happen,’” Worcester recalled. “We'll actually have a monument with your loved ones' names on it.”
Worcester founded Wreaths Across America. Each year, the organization places wreaths on tombstones at military cemeteries across the country.
When Worcester heard about Flight 739, he decided they did deserve a place on a wall.
So, he built one.
The memorial to those lost on Flight 739 is nestled amid the very trees that are used to make the wreaths for military tombstones.
“The Vietnam Wall is tremendous, obviously, and much, much larger. It's for all the people that gave their lives in Vietnam – and, frankly, I really believe these people deserve to be on that Wall,” Worcester said. “And someday they might, you know. But, right now, this is the only place that they're memorialized.”
On a cold winter’s day near Columbia Falls, Maine, that’s where they gathered.
Exactly 60 years to the day after their loss, families of those on Flight 739 honored their loved ones at the only memorial in the world that remembers their lives and deaths.
Among the crowd were Clifton Sargent and his daughter, Jen. She helped him walk up to the Flight 739 Memorial, where he placed his hand on his brother’s engraved name.
Yet, there is still one more journey they hope to make: to see all of those names, one day, engraved in the nation’s capital.
“For them to be on the [Vietnam] Wall means that somebody in the government finally will recognize them -- that they did live, they were human,” Jen Kirk said. “They did sacrifice and it's their time.”