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51 Years After Air Force Pilot Went Missing, Bellefonte Family Still Searching for Answers

by and on May 27, 2019 5:00 AM

On May 30, it will be 51 years since Major Lewis P. Smith II’s plane was shot down in Laos while he was serving in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War. Smith was a Bellefonte native and Penn State graduate.

For his family, it has been 51 years of trying to find out what happened. His sister Debra Burger was only 11 when he went missing and she remembers him being bigger than life. And this year marks another Memorial Day without a gravestone on which to place flags. It marks another year without closure for a family looking to put a hero’s memory to final rest.

“I was just in fifth grade in 1968 when he went missing. He was shot down during a reconnaissance mission flying what was called an ‘02.’ My mother believed he was going to come home,” said Burger. “And in fact, there were Christmas stockings that hung on the fireplace mantel of Lewis’ year round. My mother never took them down. She went on filling one sock, to another, to a third sock. She said they will hang until he comes home and can open them.”

But the family is still waiting for Lewis to come home, and before her mother passed, Burger promised her that she would not give up hope to one day find him.

There is a memorial at their church to honor Lewis and the sacrifice he made, and for Memorial Day, they decorate it with flags and remember him. But tears come to Burger’s eyes when she thinks about the day that may never come, when she learns that his remains have been found and he will be coming home for a proper burial.

She has thought about it many times.

Lewis, who was 25 at the time he went MIA, was a trumpeter in the Blue Band and she would like to have the Penn State Fight song played at the ceremony at the church. She plans to have him buried at Arlington National Ceremony so that he will have the proper memorial that he deserves.

Missing in action since 1968, Lewis Smith’s family — from left, Phil and Georgia Chambers; Denny and Sue Smith; Debra and Tom Burger; and Patti and Tom Long — have been fighting to bring his remains home. Here they stand a memorial for Smith. Not picture are Georgette and Don Nuss. Photo by Darren Andrew Weimert/Town&Gown file photo

Burger works to honor veterans and their sacrifices by volunteering with the Hometown Hero Banner program in Bellefonte and advocating for MIA and POW soldiers from all wars.

“It isn’t just for my brother. It’s for all people that are still missing — all veterans from all wars. I’m doing this for all the young men and women who are signing on to fight for our country, to let them now we are not going to leave you over there. If you go missing, we are going to look for you,” said Burger. “You are not forgotten. That is our duty as U.S. citizens to show that.”

Every year Burger goes to Washington D.C. to meet with a team who are charged with finding service members who are missing-in-action.

The location where his plane is thought to have crashed has since been covered by a reservoir, complicating the search.

Over the years, a class ring of Lewis’ was returned to her and the government feels they have the crash site located, but in Burger’s mind there are still questions that need to be answered. For Burger it is the pain of not knowing.

“There is still this thought in my head, that yes, we have his class ring and this is how they say that is was found,” said Burger. “But we don’t know what really happened. I won’t know until we can find his remains … if he died during the impact of the crash or if something else happened to him.”

The government has told Burger that its aim is to dig for his remains at the presumed crash site sometime this year. But she said it is frustrating dealing with bureaucracy and people who are working across the globe searching for numerous people. Her hope is what drives her action, but her spirits are constantly tested. The leads she uncovers are often met with bureaucratic hurdles to jump or unfortunately run cold and the disappointment she feels is still terribly painful.

Recently she was told that they have found six human remains from Laos and Burger hopes she will find out in June when she meets in Washington D.C. if they are his remains.

“Every time you hear that they have found remains from that area, your stomach gets tied up in knots. Maybe this could be it,” said Burger.

She continues to hope Lewis will be found and they can bring him home, with the honor he deserves. It will mean a lot to this family that has been searching for answers for all these years.

This story was produced by the staff at the Centre County Gazette. It was re-published with permission. The Centre County Gazette is a weekly publication, available at many locations around Centre County every Thursday morning.

Vincent Corso is writer for Town&Gown and the Centre County Gazette.
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