Fallen Vietnam War pilot coming homeThey arrived in the middle of the night and began knocking loudly on her door. Karen Beyer didn’t know who the men were. So, she stayed put. But the strangers were persistent.
By: By Dave Olson, Forum Communications Co., The Jamestown Sun
They arrived in the middle of the night and began knocking loudly on her door.
Karen Beyer didn’t know who the men were.
So, she stayed put.
But the strangers were persistent.
They enlisted help from the local parish priest as well as Beyer’s parents to help convince her to open the door.
When she did, Meyer learned that her husband, Tom, an Air Force pilot, was missing in action in Vietnam.
That was in 1968.
In the decades since, Tom Beyer’s disappearance remained largely a mystery.
The government changed his status from missing in action to killed in action about a decade after his spotter plane was shot down over the jungles of Southeast Asia.
Karen Beyer never remarried, raising the couple’s two children, Steve and Sandra, by herself.
“They don’t remember him. They were 1 and 3 when he left,” she said of her children, who are now grown with kids of their own.
Photos of Beyer’s family line a shelf in the living room of her south Fargo home.
Among them are pictures of her husband, including one from his training days in the military showing him standing beside an airplane.
Four decades later
For 42 years, the photos and her children were Beyer’s main connection to her husband.
Last spring came the promise of something more.
First, there was the phone call informing her that a wedding ring had been found at a site in Vietnam and could she, perhaps, identify it?
She could not, at least not from the photos sent to her.
Then came another phone call letting her know that several items belonging to her husband — identification and credit cards — had been turned over to U.S. authorities by someone in Vietnam.
She was also told that bone fragments had been found with the items and DNA testing was being done.
Positive identification came just a few weeks ago, when the DNA was matched to Tom Beyer’s sister, Elizabeth Schoemehl.
Beyer said that, in a way, she found the news comforting.
“I always worried he could have been a prisoner of war, that was my biggest fear,” she said. “It’s a relief to know he hasn’t been alive over there and suffering all these years.”
What exactly happened to Tom Beyer on July 30, 1968, the day he disappeared, remains an unanswered question.
Beyer said she recently learned that American soldiers reported seeing his plane fly overhead, followed by the sound of an explosion, but no wreckage was recovered.
The area he was flying over was near Chu Lai in South Vietnam, according to past stories printed in The Forum.
“His fellow pilots told me it was the worst terrain there. The jungle just swallows up these small planes,” Beyer said, adding she believes her husband’s plane was probably brought down by ground fire.
She said she recently learned that items belonging to her husband were apparently found in the 1980s by a Vietnamese man who buried them in a box.
No one is sure why he hid the objects.
But Beyer said she’s been told that when the man died someone he had shared his secret with dug up the box and gave it to U.S. authorities.
Beyer and her children will travel to Hawaii later this month to accept the items contained in the box, including what has been determined to be some of her husband’s remains.
A funeral service is planned for 1:30 p.m. Dec. 18, at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Fargo.
Another air tragedy
Her husband’s death isn’t the only loss Beyer has suffered.
In 1966, her sister was killed while on vacation in Japan when the plane she was returning home on crashed on Mount Fuji.
Beyer said her family received a postcard after the crash that her sister penned and dropped in the mail before the doomed plane took off from Tokyo.
In the postcard, her sister wrote that she had not had a chance to see Mount Fuji and was hoping to get a glimpse of it on the flight home.
Despite the pain of such tragedies, Beyer said she has tried to keep a positive approach to life, a philosophy instilled in her by her mother, Ester Sexhus, who is 105.
But Beyer said her husband’s disappearance took its toll.
“In the beginning, it just consumed me,” she said.
“As the years went by, holidays have always been hard and still are,” she added.
“The hardest thing for me has been the fact that I didn’t have Tom to share the joys of the kids and the grandkids,” Beyer said. “I can continue on, even with the loss. But he was just so cheated.”
Beyer said she is grateful for the support she received over the years, including cards and letters from strangers who let her know they wore bracelets bearing her husband’s name as a reminder of the sacrifice made by America’s servicemen.
Beyer said she met her husband to be while both were students at North Dakota State University.
They were wed in 1963.
Tom Beyer was a 1959 graduate of Fargo Shanley High School. Karen Beyer said members of that class have always treated her as one of their own, even though she graduated from high school in Leeds, N.D.
“They’ve invited me to every reunion, as if Tom was here,” Beyer said.
Dave Olson is a reporter
at The Forum of Fargo-
Moorhead, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.