Freight Train 053After nearly four decades, the anguish of the Vietnam War will finally end for Makaha Valley resident Brian Main today and Memorial Day will take on another meaning.
crew comes home
The 5 soldiers were on a resupply
mission in Vietnam in 1968 when
their helicopter crashed
By Gregg K. Kakesako
On Oct. 28, 1968, Main's childhood friend -- Spec. 5 Chuck Meldahl -- had a bad feeling about the resupply mission that they were about to fly; so he asked Main to switch helicopters.
"He just had this bad feeling that something would happen if he flew with this crew chief," said Main, who also was a flight engineer on a Chinook like Meldahl.
Both were members of the 243rd Assault Support Helicopter Company, whose nickname was Freight Train. Meldahl and four other members of Freight Train 053 -- the helicopter Main was supposed to be in -- never came back from that mission.
"It is as though he took a bullet for me," said Main, 54. "It's been something that has been with me all these years."
Today, the five soldiers of Freight Train 053 were finally brought home and buried in a single grave at Arlington National Memorial Cemetery.
Also a member of that crew was Warrant Officer Henry "Hank" Knight, who attended Waipahu High School in 1960 in his junior year, but had to spend his senior year in Bakersfield, Calif., when his father was transferred.
Pam Main said that Knight loved the islands so much he chose to return to Hawaii after graduating from North High School, spending two years at the University of Hawaii at Manoa studying marine biology until he was caught in the draft and Vietnam.
It was Knight's first Vietnam mission.
Listed as missing in action since 1968, the crew of Freight Train 053 will be given full military honors today, complete with a missing man formation flown by five Army Chinooks. A lone bagpipe player, a horse-drawn caisson and a Cherokee medicine man presenting "fallen warrior" honors will be part of the Arlington ceremony.
At a memorial banquet tonight for Knight and the other crewmen of Freight Train 053, Pam Main plans to show a video of her Makaha halau -- Ku'upua'ilimanoheaike' ala O'Laua'e O' Makana Kumu Na Tenorio -- performing near the shores of Pokai Bay last Sunday morning. The halau is led by Kumu Donavan Collier, Na Tenorio and Puo Kanealoha.
As many as 60 friends and family members of the crew of Freight Train 053 will be in attendance at the banquet when the 30-minute video is shown.
"It is to share this aloha with the families of the deceased and to honor the crewmen," Pam Main said.
She said Kumu Tenorio and Collier chose to include in the video a chant in Hawaiian of the 23rd Psalm and "I didn't realize until I got here that this same psalm was inscribed on the inside of Freight Train 053."
"I never did think this day would come after the first 20 years passed," Brian Main said. "I was glad to finally find out what had happened ... At times I had been hoping that he may have survived the crash and was all right as a prisoner."
Brian Main said he always wanted to go back to the jungles of South Vietnam to try to find out what happened, "but I didn't know what to do or where to go."
Pam Main, who helped with her husband's search for answers, said things changed a couple of years ago. "It was in November 1999 that the announcement was made that remains were being brought back from Vietnam to Hawaii."
Working with Joint Task Force-Full Accounting and the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory, she and her husband learned a few months later that remains of the five soldiers had been identified.
"I became involved after hearing my husband and his friends sitting around the kitchen table at night discussing and wondering about the fate of Freight Train 053."
What happened was that on Oct. 20, 1968, Knight's Chinook helicopter was lost on a resupply mission to Buan Me Thout in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam.
The aircraft had been carrying medical supplies, ammunition and other equipment. The airship's commander had planned to follow a valley road to the Vietnamese city where Americans were under siege.
However, the weather turned bad. At 7 a.m. Knight's crew radioed that it was over Ninh Hoa Valley and was proceeding to Ban Me Thout. It was their last radio transmission.
A search was started, but halted eight days later.
In March 1994 the tail of the helicopter with an identifying aircraft number had been recovered, but through the years most of the aircraft, which had burned on landing, had been scavenged or washed down the hillside. Excavation of the site did not start until a year later.
Anthropologists and other experts worked for two weeks at the mountainous site shifting through the dirt.
Seventy possible bone fragments and five teeth were recovered, but it took six years and DNA technology for forensic experts at the Army Central Identification Laboratory at Hickam Air Force Base to come up with a final answer.
Brain Main plans to visit the Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C. for the first time today to search for the names of his friends. His unit will lay a wreath at the black marble memorial. Then he and his wife will return to his hometown of Monroe, Wash., for a special Memorial Day tribute to his childhood friend.
"I was a year older than Chuck. But we were always together -- through school and sports. We enlisted together under the buddy program to try to beat the draft and get into an Army school of our choice. We chose aviation because we knew it was better than being in the infantry."
"I know it's going to be sad," Main added. "But I'm glad to know what happened ... what finally happened."