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Vietnam War pilot returns home

U.S. Airmen from the Travis Air Force Base Honor Guard carry the casket of U.S. Air Force Col. Ernest De Soto during his dignified arrival at San Francisco International Airport, Calif., June 29, 2023. De Soto was killed in 1969 when his plane crashed into a mountain ridge during the Vietnam War. His remains were discovered in 1995, but it took more than 20 years for the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency to recover, identify and return them to his family in the Bay Area. (U.S. Air Force photo by Nicholas Pilch)

After 54 years, the remains of U.S. Air Force pilot Col. Ernest Leo De Soto, who went missing during the Vietnam War, have finally come home.

De Soto's remains arrived at the San Francisco International Airport June 29 from Pearl Harbor, where his family was escorted by military personnel to the tarmac in a solemn procession. A memorial service was held June 30 at Our Lady of Angels Church in Burlingame, California, followed by full military honors at the Golden Gate National Cemetery.

When asked about how it feels for Ernest to finally be home, his wife Joyce said it was a miracle.

He is one of more than 1,060 service members who have been identified through Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency efforts to recover the remains of service members lost in the Vietnam War.

Joyce De Soto, widow of U.S. Air Force Col. Ernest De Soto, visits the casket of U.S. Air Force Col. Ernest De Soto during his dignified arrival at San Francisco International Airport, Calif., June 29, 2023. De Soto was killed in 1969 when his plane crashed into a mountain ridge during the Vietnam War. His remains were discovered in 1995, but it took more than 20 years for the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency to recover, identify and return them to his family in the Bay Area. (U.S. Air Force photo by Nicholas Pilch)

Airmen from the 60th Air Mobility Wing Honor Guard conduct a funeral for U.S. Air Force Col. Ernest L. De Soto at Golden Gate National Cemetery, San Bruno, Calif., June 30, 2023. De Soto was accounted for by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency on March 23, 2023, and returned to his family for burial with full military honors. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Alexander Merchak)

Airmen from the 60th Air Mobility Wing Honor Guard conduct a funeral for Air Force Col. Ernest L. De Soto at Golden Gate National Cemetery, San Bruno, Calif., June 30, 2023. De Soto was accounted for by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency on March 23, 2023, and returned to his family for burial with full military honors. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Alexander Merchak)

Joyce De Soto, holds her presented flag during the funeral honoring her husband, Air Force Col. Ernest L. De Soto at Golden Gate National Cemetery, San Bruno, Calif., June 30, 2023. De Soto was accounted for by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency on March 23, 2023, and returned to his family for burial with full military honors. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Alexander Merchak)

During his career he became an officer and later, a fighter pilot.

On April 12, 1969, De Soto was piloting an F-4D Phantom II assigned to the 390th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 336th Tactical Fighter Wing, alongside his navigator, Capt. Frederick M. Hall and another aircraft on a combat mission. As they returned from a cancelled strike mission near Quang Nam Province, Vietnam, both aircraft ascended into heavy cloud cover. The lead aircraft noticed De Soto and Hall's plane wasn't in sight and immediately began an aerial search.

A search and rescue airborne mission located De Soto's crash site, with no sign of the crew. Unfortunately, the amount of hostile activity in the area prevented a ground investigation.

In March 2021, remains were recovered at the crash site by Defense POW/MIA-trained Vietnamese Recovery Teams. On March 23, 2023, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency identified the remains as belonging to De Soto and Hall.

De Soto was posthumously promoted to the rank of colonel. His wife Joyce De Soto and family were then notified.

"We're grateful Joyce and the De Soto family are reunited with Ernest after all these years," said U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown, Jr. "Ernest served valiantly defending our country and the American way of life. We honor his and the De Soto family's sacrifice to protect peace at home and abroad. The Air Force thanks all those involved at the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency who made this possible."

De Soto's family said they appreciated all the hard work that went into this reunion 54 years in the making.

"He was a great guy and he believed in what he was doing," said Joyce. "He loved to fly, and he loved being an American, that was his life."

Source: U.S.Air Force