Thursday November 20, 2014
As young boys, Bob and Ray LeBlanc spent their time flying model planes together. Bob had a deep love for aviation and had aspirations of becoming a pilot. Raymond, seven years Bob’s junior, relished the time bonding with his brother. They’d go out, hold the strings of the tethered plane, and let the planes fly, fly away.
One day, the brothers flew an electronic plane that Bob had made. They launched the model airplane successfully, but then suddenly it was gone.
Years later, On Dec. 1, 1958, 1st Lt. Robert “Bob” LeBlanc was reported missing on a classified Air Force mission. He was 26 years old.
“It was almost like a sign,” South Burlington resident Ray LeBlanc, 74, explained. 56 years later, he remembers the disappearances of both the model plane and his brother’s plane as if they were yesterday.
As time went on, Ray dug deeper for answers, tapping into resources like Air Force magazines and inquiring about his brother in the “Looking For” section. Much to his surprise, he received direct contact from military officials with some basic information. Bob’s was one of three planes that flew out of Kadena Air Force base in Okinawa, Japan before he went missing. His was the first in line of the three planes and was the only one unaccounted for at the time of the mission. However, because the mission was classified, not much else could be found about how Bob went missing.
At the time of Bob’s disappearance, American advisors were sent to Vietnam, then known as French Indochina. Recounting the details, Ray, his wife Joyce, and their daughter Cathy Michaels noted that MIA designation is reserved for those missing during a war period; therefore, Bob could not be listed as MIA. The United States did not become involved in the war until the 60s.
“I’ve learned to accept that we’ll never know the full story,” Ray said. Although he is left with only speculation, Ray cherishes his early memories with his brother. “We developed a good relationship.”
While Ray retold the story, Joyce pulled out old photos of Bob as a child and his brief-yet-honorable days as a dedicated pilot.
“We were good-looking men!” Ray joked as Joyce pointed out a distinguished headshot of Bob.
“Yes, but he was modest! Very humble,” Joyce added.
Growing up, the LeBlanc family lived in Winooski, just a stone’s throw from Saint Michael’s College where Bob attended school. Bob was in the Air Force ROTC and he started the rifle team. He was later selected to be an F-100 supersonic jet fighter pilot.
“It was an honor,” Ray explained. “He was maybe the only one of his friends in the area who made it to that level.”
In the mid 80s, a stone was erected in 1st Lt. Robert LeBlanc’s name at the Arlington National Cemetery for a posthumous interment. The family has passes to visit throughout the year when they travel to and from Florida.
“It gave us a sense of closure,” said Joyce.
Bob isn’t the only LeBlanc family member with a military background. Ray served eight years in the Air Force, and their brother Roger spent 35 years serving in the National Guard. Roger’s two sons are also helicopter pilots with the Army National Guard. They are a dedicated military family.
Although Bob’s grave resides in Arlington, Ray and his family have another symbol of remembrance right in South Burlington: a new POW/MIA flag that Ray helped raise at the November 11, 2014 Veterans Day ceremony at Veterans Memorial Park. The flag was raised in Bob’s name. Temporarily, there is a small POW/MIA flag just below the American flag, but next Memorial Day, a new pole will be installed and a larger POW/MIA flag will stand on its own next to the American flag and the Vermont state flag.
The addition came shortly after Ray approached the chair of the Veterans Committee about the need for a POW/MIA flag. Ray expressed his deep gratitude for the flag, for all who were involved in making the South Burlington Veterans Memorial a reality, and to all of the men and women who have served or currently serve this country.
Bob is also memorialized with a personalized paver in Veterans Memorial Pathway of Honor, engraved with his name and date of disappearance.
According to the Defense Prisoner of War and Personnel Office, over 83,000 Americans are missing from World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, and the Gulf War of 1991. Hundreds of Department of Defense organizations around the world are dedicated to finding these missing persons.
The POW/MIA flag was created by the National League of Families after Mary Hoff, a wife of a service member missing in action during the Vietnam War and member of the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia, sought a flag to honor those missing in action and prisoners of war; the year was 1971. The flag flew over the White House for the first time in September 1982, and it was awarded higher recognition when Congress passed U.S. Public Law 101-355 on August 10, 1990, making it a symbol of national concern and commitment to finding resolution.
The flag shows the emblem of the league--a silhouette of a service member with a tower, barbed wire, and patrol in the background with the words: “You Are Not Forgotten.”
The POW/MIA flag at Veterans Memorial Park is meaningful to many. For the LeBlanc family, it honors the memory of two young boys with model planes, the history of a man who followed his passion and desire to serve, and the continued efforts of a younger brother to honor his older brother and keep his name alive: Bob LeBlanc, you will never be forgotten.
SOURCE: Miranda Jonswold, Correspondent