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Missing 52 years, Air Force combat pilot vet’s remains will be laid to rest

A family member receiving a folded flag. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Jamarius Fortson)

The Knight family will have a day in August – bittersweet as it will be – not afforded every family of a Vietnam War casualty declared missing in action.

After 52 years, the family will be able to lay to rest some remains of Garner native Col. Roy. A. Knight Jr., a U.S. Air Force combat pilot shot down in 1967 during a strategic strike mission in Laos. Earlier this year, a team of persistent military personnel tasked with excavating sites believed to hold remains of missing service men found some remains that recently were positively identified as those belonging to Knight.

“I didn’t think we would see the day,” said his son, Roy Knight. “It’s an interesting dichotomy of competing emotions. It’s great news, but by the same token, we are going to have to go back through all of that. Honestly, it’s a good thing that we are able to bring him home and lay him to rest while people are still alive to see that.”

If the name Knight and military hero sounds familiar – Roy Knight Jr.’s older brother is Jack Knight, also of Garner, who received the nation’s highest military honor, the Medal of Honor, for his valor in combat during World War II in the China-Burma-India theater as a member of the 124th Calvary. He died in 1945. They were killed in two different wars, two decades apart.

Roy Knight Jr. will join his brother, siblings and other family members in final rest on Aug. 10 at Holder’s Chapel in Cool. The cemetery is named for the family of their mother, Martha Holder Knight, who was married to their father, Roy Abner Knight Sr.

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“My dad went to church in that chapel,” said his now 63-year-old son Roy Knight, who now lives in California. “He hunted and fished and played ball all around that area. He graduated in 1947 from Millsap High School.”

On Feb. 10, 1948, nine days after his 17th birthday, Roy Knight Jr. enlisted in the Air Force in Mineral Wells.

“He had to have his mom sign for him because he was 17,” said Roy Knight. “She wrote a letter to the Air Force saying please don’t put my son in combat because she had already lost a son in World War II (Jack Knight) and had another (Curtis Knight) badly injured.”

The Air Force initially honored that request. Roy Knight Jr. worked as a clerk typist. In 1953 he went to Officer Candidate School. He then had stops in the Philippines (where he met his wife), Korea and Japan. He entered flight school in 1958.

Fast forward to May 19, 1967. Then-Maj. Knight, assigned to the 602nd Fighter Squadron, was flying an A-1 Skyraider with another pilot off to his right. They were assigned to strafe sites along the Ho Chi Minh trail, used by the Viet Cong to move troops and supplies from North Vietnam to South Vietnam. It was a heavily protected area. Enemy aircraft would come under intense fire from the jungle below, especially from 37-mm and 57-mm anti-aircraft guns.

“So many were shot down in that area,” said Roy Knight. “Two aircraft were attacking a target. Dad was lead aircraft. He rolled in first. His plane was hit many times by anti-aircraft fire.”

He said his father’s wingman – trying to avoid being shot out of Southeast Asian skies himself – watched as Major Knight’s plane was hit, sending a vapor trail trailing from the bottom of his A-1 Skyraider plane. Knight dropped his payload onto the target area as his plane plummeted into the ground – striking the trail.

Roy Knight said there were conflicting stories over the years of what happened to his father.

“We now have a pretty good idea,” he said. “There was one witness we could count on. That was his wingman.”

His father was listed as MIA until 1974, when all MIAs were declared KIA. Knight Jr. was promoted to lieutenant colonel and then colonel during his time as MIA.

Knight said the crash site was excavated twice previously by U.S. military personnel. Knight said the site had also been heavily scavenged by locals, continued to be heavily bombed by U.S. planes and the area later cultivated.

The recovery specialists are a Special Survey Team of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA). Recovery personnel had previously found some materials and items they determined belonged to Knight and his aircraft, and were determined to go back and search deeper for any of his remains.

“They went back in, mainly due to one individual who sort of insisted that they go back in for one more excavation,” said Knight. “Had that survey team in 2018 not said we need to go back in and look again, we would have gone back to the bottom of the list.”

A dam broke in the area, flooding it, so returning to the site was delayed until this past February when a 16-member recovery team went in and found some human remains at the crash site, returning them to the U.S. Among them were dental remains that earlier this month resulted in confirmation they belonged to Col. Knight.

“What they went through, the effort that was extended to bring them home such as they are, and it’s not a lot,” Roy Knight said. “I get choked up when I think about the airman and soldiers and others who are doing that.”

Knight called these recovery experts “very dedicated professionals, most of whom are active duty military from all branches of our armed services.” He said the 16-member team that searched in February included an Army captain, a team sergeant, a senior recovery expert (archeologist), two explosive ordinance disposal airmen, a life support investigator, two medics, a photographer, a linguist, four recovery NCOs and two communications personnel.

“They were successful in recovering various material items such as small pieces of torso harness, helmet and visor fragments, survival vest and parachute fragments among other items,” Knight recently wrote on his Facebook page. “Additional items recovered were small pieces of black Dymo label that were embossed with ‘MAJ’ and ‘KNI’ exactly as it appeared on the visor of Dad’s flight helmet. Finally, human remains were also recovered.”

Col. Knight was highly decorated, including receiving the Air Force Cross, given for bravery second to the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Silver Star.

His formal funeral will include a military color guard and jet flyover. Knight said the public will be invited to attend. More details about the funeral will be forthcoming.

Col. Knight’s Air Force Cross citation reads:

Major Roy A. Knight Jr. distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against a hostile force as an A-1E Skyraider pilot in Southeast Asia on 19 May 1967. On that date, Major Knight led his flight in a strike against one of the most important and heavily defended target complexes in Southeast Asia. Against overwhelming odds Major Knight pressed his attack on the target, in spite of being cautioned by other pilots that a devastating barrage of antiaircraft fire was directed at his aircraft. Major Knight acknowledged awareness of the situation, but continued his attack. His aircraft was struck, resulting in loss of control. Major Knight, fully realizing that he could not regain control, jettisoned his ordnance on the target in a valiant attempt to destroy it and his aircraft subsequently impacted in the target area. Major Knight’s unparalleled bravery and courage against virtually insurmountable obstacles were in the highest traditions of the military service. Through his extraordinary heroism, superb airmanship, and aggressiveness, Major Knight reflected the highest credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.

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© 2019 the Mineral Wells Index (Mineral Wells, Texas)

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