PILSEN, Kan. — Fifty-one years; 18,615 days; 446,760 hours-that is how long his family went without answers, without closure. No longer is he missing in action; now, he is home.
Fifty-one years to the day that his F-105D Thunderchief was shot down over North Vietnam, the remains of Maj. Dean Klenda was 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 with Defense Department to bring her brother back for 50 plus years. “It was a very beautiful, joyous day.”
Twenty members of the McConnell Air Force Base honor guard performed military honors Sept. 17 for the Major, who was only 25 when he died.
“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.”
On Sept. 17, 1965, Klenda was on a mission with the 67th Tactical Fighter Squadron that was attacking enemy targets in Son La Province, Vietnam. During Klenda’s mission, his aircraft was struck by enemy fire causing him to eject. He failed to separate from his ejection seat before it hit the ground.
Klenda’s remains were located and identified by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, after a long and tedious process, said Dr. Thomas Holland, Strategic Partnership director at the agency who certified the remains.
“We conduct almost like a crime scene with overtones in archeology,” he said. “In this particular case, the recovery yielded dental remains [and] were taken to our main laboratory in Hawaii. We conducted a series of test on them including a rather novel technique using different types of isotopes. We were able to map the enamel of the tooth recovered to somebody who spent the first 10 years of their life in either Nebraska or Kansas.”
Combined with other information, such as talking to villagers and historical data, the agency positively identified the remains of Klenda.
“The family waited a long, long time. It takes a long time. The process is long; the process is arduous, but the process is correct,” Holland said. “This country sent young men into harm’s way and made them a promise. It was a promise made one father to another, one brother to another, one son to another. We are all those people. We are going to bring them back.”
Klenda’s nephew traveled to Hawaii to assist in bringing his remains to the states. 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.
“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 marched concluded in the small town 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 and presented it to his sister 51 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.”