By Patrick J. Walsh
Peekskill, New York, July 31, 2014 -- Today, in the quiet warmth of summer in this picaresque city alongside the Hudson River, there is in the stir of memories and the milestones of history a moment to remember the journey of a native son.
|Peekskill Bay - historic photo by William Henry Jackson, Detroit Publishing Co. (Library of Congress)|
...in the quiet warmth of summer, some measure of peace...
On this date a quarter century ago, two nations that were once bitter enemies during a long and violent conflict oversaw the culmination of that journey, when the remains of Lieutenant Colonel Robert Harry Irwin, United States Air Force, were formally returned to the United States by the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
A 1956 graduate of Peekskill High School, Robert Irwin enlisted in the U.S. Air Force after college. He served his country throughout the entire course of the Vietnam War, until his death.
He was 33 years old when his plane was shot down on February 17, 1972, about 15 miles west of the city of Vinh, in North Vietnam. By that point in his long and distinguished career, he had risen to the rank of Major.
Flying with him that day was Captain Edwin A. Hawley Jr. Hawley was badly injured in the crash, but survived the shoot down and a subsequent year in captivity as a prisoner of the North Vietnamese. He returned to the United States in 1973.
Two days after Major Irwin's plane was shot down, a North Vietnamese radio broadcast described the incident and claimed that both occupants of the plane had been captured. Captain Hawley was referred to by name during the broadcast.
Major Irwin was initially listed as Missing in Action. In the period following his loss, he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
In 1978, five years after the end of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam conflict, Lieutenant Colonel Irwin was declared deceased. His status in official records was listed as Killed in Action, Body Not Recovered.
The last official American wartime presence in Vietnam came to a close with the fall of Saigon in April, 1975. In the decade that followed, it was a difficult task for U.S. officials to get information about American service personnel who had disappeared during the war.
For many Americans, uncertainty about the fate of those who had been considered Missing in Action was an intolerable consequence of the end of the Vietnam conflict. During the administration of President Ronald Reagan, support grew for negotiations that might lead to more information about those who had been lost.
In February, 1986 -- 14 years after his plane was shot down -- U.S. officials were able to make a formal request for information about the fate of Lieutenant Colonel Irwin, during meetings with Vietnamese officials in Hanoi. Nearly two years later, in December, 1987, after a period of further negotiations, a report detailing the facts of the case was forwarded to the Vietnamese for their response.
On July 31, 1989, 17 years after he was last seen alive, the earthly remains of Lieutenant Colonel Robert Irwin were returned to U.S. soil. Befitting his long service to his country and his heroic sacrifice, his remains were interred at Arlington National Cemetery later that year.
And in the grateful memories of those who knew him, and with gratitude for the blessings of Providence on the part of those who know only the stark details of his service, there is some measure of peace, in the quiet warmth of summer in this city by the Hudson, where his journey began.
© Patrick J. Walsh
Source: Library of Congress Vietnam-Era Prisoner-of-War / Missing-in-Action Database (http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/pow/)