Brother Gave His Life in War; Finally Brought Home
Wednesday, December 21, 2016
Posted by: Bill Ryan
By Bill Ryan (Indiana University, '69)
On September 17th, 1965 in North Vietnam, 1st Lieutenant Dean Klenda (Kansas State University, '63) was the pilot of an F-105D Thunderchief that was attacking Vietcong targets. Suddenly, he was struck by anti-aircraft fire, forcing him to eject. He failed to separate from his ejection seat before it hit the ground. That was in Son La Province, about 100 miles due west of Hanoi.
Image (click to enlarge): Map of Vietnam
First Lieutenant Klenda was placed on Missing In Action status on September 17, 1965. He was promoted to Major while missing and eventually declared Killed in Action in May of 1974.
Decades later, his remains were located and turned over to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency after a long and exhausting process. On September 17, 2016, fifty-one years to the day of his death, the remains of Major Dean Klenda were laid to rest with full military honors in his hometown of Pilsen, Kansas.
Image (click to enlarge): ARGunners.com
Back in 1958, the year he graduated from Kapaun Catholic High School in Wichita, Kansas, flying was always on his mind. He attended the University of Detroit for two years, where he majored in aeronautical engineering and joined the Arnold Air Society. He also became a member of Phi Kappa Theta, the Knights of Columbus, and the Newman Club. He was initiated into our Fraternity in 1960.
After two years, Dean transferred to Kansas State because of two unique circumstances: they had the Iota Chapter of Phi Kappa Theta and Air Force ROTC, both had been influential to him. He switched majors to Agricultural Economics, and graduated in June 1963. He continued his activities in the organizations he joined while at the University of Detroit.
Dean was no stranger to leadership. He served two terms as president of Phi Kappa Theta and became the Central States Province Chairman, overseeing four states.
Image (click to enlarge): Dean A. Klenda.
He also served as Kansas regional director of the Newman Club and was awarded the Cardinal Newman Award for his assistance in developing the Newman Club in Pittsburg, Kansas.
Donald Gagnon, (Kansas State University, ‘64), who also served in the Air Force, remembers Dean at the Kansas State Iota House. "I was in Phi Kappa Theta as an associate member while Dean was a senior. Dean was a wonderful guy and served the Fraternity and the Catholic Church while he was there. I know he transferred to K-State from the University of Detroit to get into ROTC so he could fly. He said flying was the only thing he wanted to do.” Another of Dean’s brothers from the Iota Chapter, Dan Whitmore (Kansas State University, '61), said "I studied with Dean for several exams. He was a straight shooter and a really great Fraternity brother.”
Upon graduation from Kansas State University, Dean entered the United States Air Force as a 2nd Lieutenant thanks to Air Force ROTC. He graduated from Upland Pilot Training in Laughlin AFB, Del Rio, Texas, in September 1964.
High School Graduation (click to enlarge)
He met his future wife, Kaye Young, when they both were students at Kansas State. They married in January 1965, at McConnell AFB in Wichita, Kansas. A few weeks later, he was shipped out to Thailand and stationed at Korat Royal Thai AFB (see on the map). Dean was promoted to 1st Lieutenant during his stay in Thailand.
He was assigned to the 67th Tactical Fighter Squadron, which flew F-105 Thunderchiefs, providing fighter jet support for bombing missions. To bomb near Hanoi in North Vietnam meant the F-105 Thunderchief pilots flew 1,250 mile round trips from Thailand, and had to "air refuel” both on the way in and on the way out. This map displays typical flight routes for an F-105 Thunderchief from Korat RTAFB, Thailand.
In what turned out to be a fateful day, 1st Lt. Klenda had been hit by anti-aircraft fire while attacking the Vietcong. The aircraft was seen to be hit in the rear fuselage. Surrounded by flying debris, Klenda ejected from the plane. The parachute failed to deploy, said a pilot of another F-105 Thunderchief, and Klenda disappeared. Speculation is that the canopy became entangled with his parachute, thus causing him to fall to his death. According to his sister, Deanna Klenda, "this happened around noon. They looked for him with helicopters until midnight. They couldn't find signals."
Route of Bombing Runs (click to enlarge): Map of Vietnam detail, (Credit Tom Pilsch).
Deanna became a stewardess for World Airways in the mid-1960’s. The airline was hired by the U.S. government to fly troops into Vietnam, and she flew many of those transport flights. She thought about her brother quite often, and eventually flew into the same operations base from which her brother and his squadron flew missions. Deanna would ask the Department of Defense about her brother, hoping there was some news, but always the same response – there was nothing.
The war ended on April 30th, 1975, and normal relations with Vietnam resumed twenty years later in 1995. In 1999, American and Vietnamese personnel searched what they thought was Klenda’s crash site. They found the place where his ejection seat hit the earth but found no remains.
Image (click to enlarge): Dean with his sister, Deanna.
In 2011, 12 years after they’d given up finding remains at the crash site, another joint U.S.-Vietnamese team re-investigated the site, after finding a local farmer who told an unusual story.
It seems the farmer had found human remains at the crash site but had taken them to a farm field five kilometers away. Three years later, after Congress and the Vietnamese Government sanctioned an excavation, searchers inspected the farm field.
Authorities had the farmer "take them where he found that jaw bone and where he threw it and excavate both areas," Deanna said. "The place where he found it originally doesn't necessarily mean that is where it landed. He had a ground landing so animals could have distributed the remains everywhere," she added.
This time the searchers found the remains, including teeth still intact, enough to provide dental clues to the dead person’s identity. U.S. military researchers then tested the remains using dental records, DNA and isotopic analysis.
Deanna Klenda got a phone call soon after. They’d found her brother. The date was December 30th, 2014. "I’m not one of those jump-up-and-down-and-yippee kind of people,” she said. "I just stood there in disbelief. I’m still in disbelief. And I said ‘Thank God, thank God, thank God.”
The person who certified the remains, Dr. Thomas Holland, also attended the funeral.
"Not only have I known the family, but also being the last identification that I signed just meant enough to me that I had to come,” said Holland, who flew to Kansas to attend the funeral.
Deanna Klenda’s son, Gavin Peters, traveled to Hawaii to assist in bringing Dean’s remains to the states. He said finding his uncle’s remains was like "finding a needle in a haystack.” When the American Airlines jet landed at the Kansas City airport, members of the Klenda family and the Air Force family were there to bring him home.
Fifty-one years to the day that his F-105D Thunderchief was shot down over North Vietnam, the remains of Major Dean Klenda were laid to rest with full military honors in his hometown of Pilsen, Kansas.
"It is a celebration of his life,” said Deanna Klenda, the major’s sister who worked hand and hand for decades with the Defense Department to bring her brother back. Deanna was dressed in blue. "It was a very beautiful, joyous day,” she said. Twenty members of the McConnell Air Force Base honor guard performed military honors that day for the Major, who was only 25 when he died.
Image (click to enlarge): Image of Major Klenda's Funeral, Deanna was dressed in blue.
"I am grateful for his service,” said Lt. Col. Lee Nenortas, 22nd Medical Support Squadron commander and who, along with his wife, made the hour and a half trip from base to the funeral. "Sometimes people make the ultimate sacrifice and those who do should be honored when they are brought home.”
"It was very comforting having the Honor Guard there,” Deanna said. The clouds broke that following Saturday morning to hundreds of flags and veterans lining the path to the St. John Nepomucene Catholic Church.
As the procession ended in the small cemetery, four F-16 Falcons appeared from the east and formed a missing man formation in honor of their fallen fighter pilot. Twenty-one shots echoed along the tree line as the honor guard folded the flag that draped Klenda’s casket, which was then presented to the major’s sister, fifty-one years to the day he made the ultimate sacrifice for his country.
"Never say never,” Deanna said. "And never give up something worth fighting for.”
Special thanks to Roy Wenzl of The Wichita Eagle.