By Staff Sgt. Jake Barreiro, 51st Fighter Wing Public Affairs
/ Published April 17, 2014
OSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea -- Like a lot of boys growing up in the '60s and '70s, Chris Balcom liked to watch TV. He could often be found on the couch, eyes sewn to the screen. While watching, Chris was attentive, fixated even, to what transpired in front of him. A parade of faces graced the edges of the screen, emerging for a moment before departing. He was watching TV like other children, but Chris wasn't watching passively, or for joy or entertainment. There was nothing frivolous about his gaze. As he watched, his heart wrenched. Noting each departing face on the screen, his hope would fade. Renew again with another face. Then fade. Chris was watching the repatriation of American prisoners of war and missing in action, looking for his father.
On May 15, 1966, at 9:50 a.m., Capt. Ralph Balcom's plane was seen ascending into the clouds about 10 miles southwest of Dong Hoi, Vietnam. Afterward, Ralph lost voice contact with his flight, and didn't return to base by the time his F-105 Thud's fuel should have run out. When a search and recovery party found no trace of Ralph or his plane, he was declared missing.
Serving in Vietnam as a pilot for the 421st Tactical Fighter Squadron, Ralph, promoted to colonel while missing, left behind his wife, Marian, their 7-year-old daughter, Tracy, and 4-year-old son, Chris.
More than 47 years have passed. Marian remarried, Tracy is 54, and Chris, 51, has three children of his own, but the Balcoms still await the return of their hero. Suffering with the burden of this sacrifice for four decades, a recent gesture has shown the Balcoms they're not alone, and will always be part of the military family.
It was coincidence that Ralph's old unit, now the 421st Fighter Squadron, stationed at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, and Marine Corps Cpl. Jake Balcom, Chris's son, stationed in Hawaii, would be deployed to Korea at the same time. When Lt. Col. David Shoemaker, 421st FS commander, heard the grandson of a fallen Black Widow (the squadron's moniker) was going to be in the area, he worked fast to get a chance for Jake to get a tour of the squadron's deployed station at Osan Air Base. Jake spent March 25-26, 2014, at Osan AB with his grandfather's unit.
"It was a no brainer to try to get Jake out here," said Shoemaker. "It means everything to us. This is important. Our heritage, our legacy and taking care of families, that's what our unit and the military is about."
As commander of a decorated fighter squadron, Shoemaker stays in contact with multiple families of fallen 421st Airmen from the Vietnam era, but first got ahold of Chris and Tracy about a year ago. Since then, the two stay in contact regularly through phone calls and email. For the Balcoms, this came as a welcome relief, showing them people remember Ralph's sacrifice.
"We thought we were the only ones who remembered him," said Chris. "To find out that Lt. Col. Shoemaker and the 421st remember and honor him made my whole family happy. We are so grateful that they respect the sacrifice of their fallen brother. It's a truly noble thing they're doing by honoring his legacy."
Deployed with his squadron since January, Shoemaker learned about Jake being in Korea from Chris, and quickly got ahold of Jake's leadership to arrange a visit.
Jake, a 21-year-old field artillery cannonier, said he knew nothing about the arrangement until, after completing a six-hour convoy, he was called into his first sergeant's office, only knowing "the first sergeant wants to see you right now."
Like any seasoned Marine, Jake said he assumed an ASAP summons to the first sergeant meant trouble, but was shocked to hear he would be going to see his grandfather's old squadron.
"Words can't describe how excited I was to hear that," he said. "My grandfather's life, and what he did, has been a huge part of our lives. I'm incredibly honored that the 421st reached out and wanted to meet me."
It's an honor not lost on Jake's family either.
"Since the end of the war, we've had no contact with anyone who knew my father," said Chris, a property and insurance claims representative in Madera Ranchos, Calif. "We carried his memory and honored him within our family. We had no idea it was reciprocated by the squadron until now. It's like a gift to us, and we find it comforting to know that we were not alone in this after all. It's my father's last squadron so it will always be a special place for us. That the legacy of my father lives in the squadron today is amazing."
For the visit, Jake was given a comprehensive tour of the 421st's operations and shown several aircraft including the U2, A-10 and F-16. While the airplanes were amazing, and something he'll never forget, Jake said the real highlight of his stay was the people of the 421st, who treated him like family.
"I'm impressed," said Jake. "All of them, from the commander, to the pilots, to the enlisted, when they saw me, they stopped whatever they were doing and showed a genuine interest in me and my family."
Initially, Jake was unsure of what to expect, and felt nervous about spending time with strangers whose only connection to him was his grandfather's Vietnam service, but after his trip, Jake said he feels like a member of the Black Widow family.
"What amazed me was I didn't think people out there cared like I did, like my family did," said Jake. "The fact that other people do and are genuinely interested in my family's history is amazing. It means everything to us."
Having the chance to honor the service of a fallen brother is important to Shoemaker and the 421st because of the unit's tradition and legacy. Their squadron greeting, used on the radio and in formal settings, is "Sawadee," a traditional Thai greeting and farewell, that stems from the squadron's old station at Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand, during the Vietnam War and can be seen on the left arm or pen pocket of their flight suits. When Shoemaker talks to the families of the Vietnam era who have missing or fallen loved ones like the Balcoms, he wants the families to know they have support and family in the 421st.
"There's a list that comes out with the names of POW/MIAs who'll be returned home, and every time this list is released there are families waiting nervously to see the name of their loved one," said Shoemaker. "Every time that doesn't happen it's absolutely heartbreaking. We do our best to make sure we take care of these families any way we can, to help them see the day when their loved ones are returned with full military honors. "
Chris, who was too young to have any clear memories of his father, was close with his uncles growing up. Bruce, his father's older brother, has been deceased for nearly 15 years, but he hopes for the sake of his mother and his father's younger brother, Keith, who was also an Air Force pilot, that his father will soon be buried in American soil.
"I very much hope Keith and my mother get to see my father return home," said Chris. "We would like to have his remains buried in Arlington."
The list of returning POW/MIAs was previously compiled and released by the Joint POW/MIA Account Command, a Department of Defense joint task force established in 1973. However, on March 31, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced changes to the process of identifying and recovering the remains of missing U.S. service members. Changes include combining the two offices in order to improve the search, identification and recovery process, as well as providing families with a single point of contact for information about these activities.
Chris and the rest of the Balcoms have endured 47 years of disappointment and heartbreak, waiting anxiously for the day they hear of Ralph's return. For them, changes like those announced March 31 bring what Chris calls "measured hopefulness" of what will never be a true happy ending, but needed resolution nonetheless.
"The worst part (growing up) was the uncertainty," said Chris. "Was he alive or dead? If he was alive, what hell on earth was he enduring? Would we ever see him again? Nobody can really understand what this is like unless they've lived it. It's a wound that will never heal."
Too young to remember his father before he left for war, Chris remembers watching the repatriation of American POWs on TV, anxiously waiting to see his father's face.
"One of the worst days of my life was Feb. 12, 1973, Operation Homecoming," said Chris. "When the Hanoi POWs came home, watching each man walk down the stairs off the plane, straining to see his face, hoping against hope that my father would be next, but it never came to be. For seven years we lived with not knowing if he was alive or dead. He was lost on May 15, 1966, but to us, he died Feb. 12, 1973."
Ralph's legacy has left an inexorable imprint on the Balcoms, even shaping career choices. Chris, a life-long aviation enthusiast, said he might have considered a career in the military had he not lost his father.
"Sometimes I think back and wonder how my mom managed to cope with the loss and uncertainty of her husband's fate while raising two children on her own, and trying to keep as normal a life as possible," said Chris. "I would have liked to have chosen a military career, but doing so would have crushed her."
The influence of Ralph's sacrifice extends to his unseen grandchildren as well. Jake, who wears a POW/MIA bracelet with his grandfather's name on it, said he learned early in life about Ralph's service.
"My dad used to have two flight suits in his closet, a big one and small one," said Jake. "I used to go in there and put the small one on. The small one was given to my dad from my grandfather. I was 4 years old and that's when I began to understand the history of what he did in Vietnam and what it meant."
Chris remembers the flight suits too, and that his father left for war the day after his third birthday.
"My father made me an exact duplicate of his flight suit, made to fit a 3-year-old," said Chris. "It's blue with all the zippers, a 421st squadron patch, an F-105 patch, even first lieutenant bars on the shoulders. I wore it a few times, and it's a keepsake that will stay with me forever. It's a permanent reminder of him and what he loved to do. It's a tangible link to him when everything else we have of him is intangible."
That link provides a reminder of Ralph's service and sacrifice, not just platitudes to the Balcoms, but words they're intimately acquainted with.
Jake, insisting he's no hero and would never claim anything like "carrying on the legacy" of a hero like Ralph, does feel strongly obligated to serve others, sees nobility in sacrifice and said he knows his grandfather would be happy he joined the Marines.
Chris, who regards his own son's service with pride but trepidation, said it's important for people to remember that POW/MIAs, like Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, currently prisoner of the Afghan Taliban, aren't just statistics.
"When we hear of a casualty lost in the war on terrorism such as in Iraq or Afghanistan, it comes through the media as just another number," said Chris. "But we know, for each one there is a family that is suffering. It's not just the soldier who is affected. Those families will never be the same. Because of our loss, we can empathize with them in a way others can't. I want people to know that the MIAs are not forgotten. We still remember. "
At the end of his visit, the 421st remembered Ralph by taking Jake to their common dining spot off base, Sawadee's Thai Food. At the dinner, Shoemaker toasted to Ralph, something he does regularly with the unit in remembrance of their fallen brother.
"Ralph Balcom is the kind of man I want all my guys to be like, the kind of man I want to be like," said Shoemaker during the toast. "This hits so close to home with us because we know that could have been any of us up there. But this is a family, and if you don't take care of your family, then what is the rest of it for?"
"Sawadee," he said as he raised his glass. "Sawadee," the room replied in unison.
As a young boy, Chris continued watching the repatriation of American POW/MIAs every chance he got. With each passing face, identified as only someone other than his father, other families, other wives, other daughters, sons and grandchildren rejoiced, but Chris' hopes waned. One day, crestfallen, Chris gave up watching. The heart could only endure so much grief and suffering.
"There really is no way of describing to someone how this makes you feel," said Chris. "There is no finality. The uncertainty is a constant source of pain. When I was young, I hoped he was alive and would come home. As I got older, I realized this was not going to happen. I live every day not knowing what really happened to my father. "
Yet, over the years, Chris and his family have found their strength renewed in other ways. While they continue to suffer disappointment, they see hope in the legacy of a man they loved and the sacrifice he made. Even small gestures, like the kindness, respect and appreciation shown by the 421st FS, reminds them that people in the world care, and that, while they may have to suffer, they will not have to suffer alone.