WITH VIDEO: During military flyover, Alpena woman recalls her brother’s sacrifice
ALPENA — For days, Alpena resident Bev Olsen looked forward to witnessing the planned flyover of military jets — including KC-135 Stratotankers and A-10 Thunderbolt IIs — during the U.S. Air Force’s commemoration of 100 years of aerial refueling.
Tuesday’s flyover, complicated by a hazy sky and smoke from the wildfires in Canada, provided an opportunity for Olsen to salute her brother, Rodney Chapman, who was lost at sea in 1969 during the Vietnam War after the tanker jet he was piloting crashed.
Chapman’s body was never recovered, but a telegram the family received shortly after the crash states the military determined he had been killed in the wreck.
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Today, the U.S. Department of Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency shows Chapman’s status as unaccounted for.
The crash occurred eight days before his 34th birthday.
To this day, Olsen still holds out hope that her brother survived the crash or that his remains will somehow be found.
“To be honest, I’m still hoping he will be found,” she said. “You never give up hope.”
On Feb. 18, 1969, Chapman, who spent part of his youth in Alpena and graduated from Alpena High School, was returning from a refueling mission while piloting a Douglas A-3 Skywarrior when the aircraft disappeared from radar after being told to abort its landing approach.
The military says the plane crashed in the Gulf of Tonkin during its approach to the aircraft carrier the U.S.S Coral Sea.
After communication with the plane was lost, the military put on an extensive search, but the Navy never retrieved Chapman’s body and declared him deceased.
Olsen said the last time she saw her brother was when he visited home in 1968, just before he was sent to the aircraft carrier to run missions refueling fighter jets that run low on fuel during combat.
“He flew into Oscoda and came home for Mother’s Day, and that was the last time I saw my brother,” Olsen said.
In those days, communication with loved ones was not as simple as it is today. Servicemembers relied on letters and an occasional phone call to update their family on their well-being.
Olsen said that, one day in February 1969, she received a call from her mother, asking her to come over because the family had received a telegram from Vice Admiral CK Duncan, chief of naval personnel.
A copy of the telegram Olsen provided to The News broke the bad news.
“It is with regret that I can confirm that information just received states that your son, Rodney Max Chapman, previously reported missing, now has been reported to have died,” the telegram reads. “It is with further regret I must advise you that searches failed to recover your son’s remains. My sincerest sympathy is extended to you in your great loss.”
Olsen said the news was unexpected and heartbreaking.
“We were devastated,” she said.
According to Olsen, her brother loved to fly and pilot planes. She said serving his country was also considered an honor to him.
“Flying was his world,” she said.
In all, Chapman flew 90 missions in the Vietnam theater of operations.
Chapman is often on Olsen’s mind and she visits the white cross with his name on it that pays tribute to his sacrifice at Little Flanders Field. Each time she visits, she leaves a coin to let her brother know she was there.
Tuesday’s flyover didn’t pan out as everyone had hoped, as the visibility was poor and the planes unseeable. However, you could hear the rumble of the jet-powered engines, which Olsen said was enough, because she would never want the pilots of those aircrafts to put themselves in harm’s way.
“Of course I’m disappointed, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who is,” she said. “But I knew they were there and it was better they did not come any lower because of the danger factor from the smoke. We certainly wouldn’t want anything to happen. I’m sure the pilots today were disappointed also.”
According to a report in the Feb. 26, 1969 edition of The Alpena News, Chapman was born in 1933 in Monroe and moved to Alpena with his family in 1949. He graduated from Alpena High in 1953 and from Alpena Community College in 1955.
He enlisted in the Navy in April 1956 and married his wife, Dorothy, in 1959 and the couple had a daughter, Audrey, who was 5 when Chapman was killed.
Olsen still has a relationship with her niece and Audrey has traveled to Alpena to visit and learn more about her father and his hometown.
Olsen said that bond helps keep her brother’s memory alive and well.
“It really helps me cope with his loss,” she said. “She came to Alpena and got to see where her father grew up, went to school, and see and learn more details about her father.”