It’s been a year since John Crosby found out his father’s remains had finally been found. On Friday, May 26, when his father’s flag-draped coffin arrives at Naval Air Station North Island, it will be nearly 52 years since Naval Lieutenant Commander Frederick Peter Crosby was shot down in North Vietnam — on June 1, 1965.
John has one sister (Deborah) and two brothers (Douglas and Steven). John is the youngest and was only one when it happened. His eldest sibling was eight at the time.
“When someone is gone that you never met – I never really felt the loss. I did feel my mother’s pain. I don’t think she ever moved past it. She never spoke about it. The family never spoke about it. In high school, I didn’t even know how my father died. I did some research and I think it was a year out of high school, we did a service up at Miramar.”
“My father was a reconnaissance pilot — he had cameras installed where the guns would be. There is a jet on the Midway deck now that is the same plane he flew.”
“My father was flying 600 miles per hour, 300 feet from the ground because of a cloud cover. He crashed into the levee. There was a wingman there. It happened so quick, painless, he went so damn quick – that’s what he was telling us.”
Lieutenant Commander Crosby was two weeks shy of his 32nd birthday when his RF-8A fighter jet was struck down by heavy gunfire a few miles northeast from the city of Thanh Hóa.
“The owner of that levee, he was standing right there when my dad crashed. He was splashed with water and mud when he crashed. He was the exact same age as my father. It might have been one of the bigger events that happened in his life. He used that jet windshield to repair the clock on his mantle.” John said investigators saw that clock, still on the mantle, with his dad’s windshield in 2015.
“Usually when a plane got gunned down, the North Vietnamese came down immediately and dismantled the plane. The jet flipped over into the mud and went down low. That’s why Navy investigators had something to find. Upside down in the mud preserved everything. If he had crashed upward, who knows what they would have done with the body.”
The fourth on-site investigation in late-2015 led investigators to the local villager that witnessed the crash in 1965. He was able to pinpoint the location. Three other attempts at the crash site came up empty (1993, 1998, and 2011).
“The investigators fully drained that levee. It was half-a-football field long. They used metal detectors and found twenty buckets of airplane parts – all matching my dad’s plane. Ten to twelve feet down they found his hip bone. Once they find one bone they stop.”
John explained that they need to use those resources to find others that are still missing. “What the DOD does is some research and if they don’t have enough, they go to the next credible case. They have maybe a budget of $20 million a year to find lost servicemen.”
“We are the only country in the world that actively searches out lost servicemen. It’s amazing when you think about it. When you go to Britain, if someone comes up with something, they will look into it, but they don’t actively go out and continually search for service members.
“Our government went through that and didn’t stop whether we wanted it or not. My sister was adamant that he might still be alive. The DOD has family update meetings. About 15 years ago in Mission Valley, I went to one to appease my sister. I made the mistake of saying that I wish they wouldn’t do this. I didn’t want them disturbing anybody’s life. They said to me: 'This is not about you — this is about the Navy and your father.'
“It’s amazing when you think about it — the rest of the family had no interest in them pursuing anything. I’m glad they did. I didn’t believe they would ever find anything.
“I don’t know how much they spent, but it had to have been $1 million over the past 50 years. They drained the length of half a football field, three feet deep — that doesn’t come cheap.”
The Navy was able to positively identify Lieutenant Commander Crosby’s remains because his sister Sharon submitted a DNA sample in 2005. It took some time, but in May 2016, the family was notified that they had found their man.
This is not the first story about the family. John said that his mother Mary was a sculptor toward the end of her life. “She was very religious. My father’s friend was the senior Catholic chaplain in the Navy. He later became the archbishop and cardinal of New York. My mom was at those ceremonies and ate with the Pope.” Mary made a life-sized sculpture of the Virgin Mary and donated it to a Catholic retreat in Julian. John said a few years after his mother died in 2002, fires came through Julian and burned everything to the ground except for an eight-foot circle around his mother’s sculpture. It was on the front page of the Union Tribune, he said.
John described his mom, Mary, as soft-spoken but also tough. “She had to be to work in the man’s world of television in the 1960s.” She was also formerly a Rockette.
One “it’s a small world” moment over the years came when John used to do fire restoration. The rock icon Jim Morrison's father’s house in Chula Vista burned down. John discovered that Jim Morrison’s dad was his dad’s commander on the USS Bonhomme Richard or the “Bonnie Dick,” as it was called.
“It’s going to be a really cool funeral. They are doing a full casket burial at Fort Rosecrans. They stopped doing that about 30 years ago. They still have them if you already have a plot, but it’s mostly urns now.
“You should see this spot. You can see North Island, the lighthouse, and see the ocean. We didn’t have to fight for it. You are supposed to get Congressional approval.
“On Friday, they are flying in from Hawaii from the DNA lab where he has been for the last year. He’ll have a full military escort. It’s only a bone in a coffin, kind of weird, but that’s what you do. They found his wedding ring and Zippo lighter and we will be presented with those things on Friday.”
The family will be presented with his Medal of Valor — the Distinguished Flying Cross he was awarded posthumously by President Lyndon Johnson in 1966.
“On Saturday [May 27], there will be a funeral mass at St. Charles Church by the old Loma Theatre. And that night there is a concert at the Midway Museum. On Sunday [May 28], there will be a military burial with full honors and a U.S. Navy flyover. And then I’m having the reception at my house — 150 people.”
I asked John if it has all sunk in yet since he’s had a year to get used to everything. “The thing that’s weird, I thought I was devoid of all the emotion and all that because I didn’t know him, but I was totally emotional, I was bawling my eyeballs out.”
One regret John has is that the guy that saw his dad crash and helped his dad be found after all these years won’t be at the funeral. “He’s the exact age my father would have been if he had lived.”