Donation to museum helps bring noteworthy rescue mission to life
Retired Col. Joseph Panza, Air University Foundation executive director, contributed items to the Southeast Asia War Gallery at the National Museum of the United States Air Force near Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. (Courtesy photo)
by Kimberly L. Wright
Air University Public Affairs
9/16/2011 - MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- Relics from a famous rescue mission in 1968 have found their place in a display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force near Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, and retired Col. Joseph Panza, Air University Foundation executive director, contributed a piece of his past to it.
Panza donated the flight suit he wore and the checklist he used for Jolly Green 67 to "LS 85: In the Jaws of the Enemy," an exhibit unveiled last month as part of the Southeast Asia War Gallery.
Panza served as a co-pilot for the rescue mission at the top-secret radar installation in Laos, Lima Site 85. While the site was under heavy attack by enemy forces, Chief Master Sgt. Richard Etchberger helped evacuate personnel when he was killed in action on March 11, 1968. The site saw the "largest loss of ground personnel during the Vietnam War," Panza said.
Etchberger initially earned the Air Force Cross confidentially due to the top-secret nature of the mission in December 1968. After the mission was declassified, it received fanfare through Timothy Castle's 1999 book, "One Day Too Long: Top Secret Site 85 and the Bombing of North Vietnam."
"Tim Castle wrote the book that highlighted the mission and kept the memory of the mission alive," said Panza. This surge of awareness contributed to the campaign to have Etchberger's Air Force Cross upgraded to the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military honor. Etchberger's family was presented with the medal in October 2010 during a White House ceremony attended by Panza and other crewmembers, an experience Panza deemed "surreal."
Panza described the mission as "a fairly routine rescue effort," which more than 40 years later would lead to a White House visit. He said he found it "kind of mind-boggling that this would come about so many years after the mission has transpired."
The donation to the museum came about two years ago through Panza's visit to the National Museum of the United States Air Force as part of a civic leader tour. During the tour, he was introduced to one of the museum's curators, Roberta Caruthers, by Chief Master Sgt. Ramon Colon-Lopez, himself one of the very first recipients of the Combat Action Medal. Panza received a private tour of the Southeast Asia exhibit, and "she mentioned they would be putting up an exhibit commemorating Lima Site 85," he said. A couple of months ago, she contacted him about contributing some items for the display.
In addition to Panza's items, Russell Cayler, the aircraft commander of the rescue, contributed a good luck charm used on the mission, according to the museum website.
The exhibit also includes an interactive touch-screen describing the attack, which allows visitors to view a moving map of the site, scans of declassified LS 85 documents, videos and photographs.
Panza said he was "extremely honored" they used his donated materials in the exhibit, and though he hasn't yet seen the finished product, "(it's) something hopefully I can take my grandkids to see someday."
In addition, the personnel of Combat Skyspot, also known as the 1st Combat Evaluation Group, dedicated a granite monument and beautiful bench to commemorate the radar technicians who manned the site, which was unveiled at the same time as the museum exhibit.
The ebb and flow of history leaves Panza in awe. "It's amazing to me that mission was flown nearly 44 years ago and is still in the forefront of people's minds," he said.
Museum staff began renovating the Southeast Asia War Gallery in fall 2010 in preparation for the 50th anniversary this year of the first U.S. Air Force campaign during the Southeast Asia conflict, according to the museum website.
The National Museum of the United States Air Force is located six miles northeast of downtown Dayton and open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week. The museum will be closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. Admission and parking are free. For more information about the museum, visit www.nationalmuseum.af.mil.