Pilot bodies returned home after going missing in Vietnam 54 years ago

Decades after they went missing in Vietnam, Col. Ernest Leo De Soto and Capt. Frederick Mervyn Hall were finally accounted for.
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To date, over 1,060 service members lost in the Vietnam War have been identified through the tireless efforts of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. Nearly 52 years after they went missing near Quang Nam Province, Vietnam, Col. Ernest Leo De Soto and Capt. Frederick Mervyn Hall were finally accounted for. Another two years later, De Soto finally returned home.

F-4Cs of the 390th Tactical Fighter Squadron fly over Vietnam (U.S. Air Force)

Born on December 30, 1931, De Soto was raised in San Francisco, California. During the Korean War, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. Turning service into a career, De Soto earned a commission as an officer and became a fighter pilot. On April 12, 1969, De Soto flew an F-4D Phantom II with the 390th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 336th Tactical Fighter Wing. With Hall in the back seat and another aircraft on his wing, De Soto took off from Da Nang Air Force Base, Vietnam on a strike mission.

ernest leo de soto
De Soto’s wife said that, “He loved to fly, and he loved being an American, that was his life.” (DPAA)

When the mission was canceled, both aircraft ascended through heavy cloud cover. That’s when the other aircrew noticed that De Soto and Hall were nowhere to be seen. Although an aerial search and rescue effort located the crash site, there was no sign that either airman survived. Moreover, heavy enemy activity in the area prevented a ground search. A subsequent investigation revealed that De Soto and Hall’s Phantom crashed into a mountain ridge.

missing pilot from vietnam war
De Soto returned home to San Francisco 54 years after he went missing in Vietnam (U.S. Air Force)

In May 1995, De Soto and Hall’s crash site was located again. However, its remote location and unexploded ordinance in the area prevented a recovery. It was not until March 2021 that the site was excavated. Through June 2021, recovery teams from the Vietnam Office for Seeking Missing Persons recovered human remains and other material evidence from the crash site. This evidence, along with laboratory analysis, confirmed the identities of De Soto and Hall, finally accounted for decades after they went missing in action.

missing pilot de soto burial
De Soto was buried with full military honors at Golden Gate National Cemetery (U.S. Air Force)

On June 29, 2023, De Soto’s remains arrived at San Francisco International Airport from Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Air Force personnel carried his flag-draped casket on the tarmac as American flags waved and other service members saluted. De Soto’s memorial service was held the next day at Our Lady of Angels Church in Burlingame, California. Afterward, he was buried with full military honors at the Golden Gate National Cemetery.

de soto missing pilot ceremony
Joyce De Soto holds her husband’s flag at his funeral (U.S. Air Force)

De Soto’s wife, Joyce, called her husband’s return a miracle. “We’re grateful Joyce and the De Soto family are reunited with Ernest after all these years,” said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown, Jr. in an Air Force Public Affairs release. “Ernest served valiantly defending our country and the American way of life. We honor his and the De Soto family’s sacrifice to protect peace at home and abroad. The Air Force thanks all those involved at the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency who made this possible.”