War dead honored at Veterans Memorial Park

Former Marine laying a wreath honoring veterans who lost their lives serving the armed forces. Special To The Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh

DOVER — Several hundred well-wishers at the Kent County Veterans Memorial Park Memorial Day Service on Monday were treated to the emotional tale of how the remains of U.S. Air Force Maj. Dean Klenda, a fighter pilot shot down during the Vietnam War, were returned to his hometown of Pilsen, Kansas.

Keynote speaker Allen Cronin, the chief for the past conflicts and mortuary branches at Dover Air Force Base, had been an intimate part of the process that culminated in a full military funeral for Maj. Klenda in 2016.

“He had died in an airplane crash,” said Mr. Cronin during the memorial service. “He had been flying an F-105D Thunderchief, known as ‘the Thud’, over a province in Vietnam when he was shot down by hostile fire.”

From 1994 to 2004, several investigation teams were sent over to interview witnesses and conduct searches of some of the country’s lost war dead, explained Mr. Cronin. Maj. Klenda’s case had been particularly difficult because his remains and related artifacts had been spread out over a sugar cane field. After an exhaustive search and exhumation of farmland the investigators were able to collect what remained of Maj. Klenda and ship him home.

This is where Mr. Cronin came in. Dover’s Air Force Base is well known as being the home of the largest military mortuary in the U.S. Department of Defense. It has traditionally been used for processing military personnel killed in both war and peacetime and arranging for the dignified transfers of remains to family members.

“When an identification is finally made, we are contacted,” said Mr. Cronin. “Then we can reach out to the family and go over the history with them and make arrangements.”

In this case, Mr. Cronin worked with Maj. Klenda’s sister to orchestrate a military funeral near Pilsen, complete with a 21-gun salute and a jet flyby in the “missing man formation.” Although the small town Maj. Klenda was from only had about 50 residents, Mr. Cronin warned the family that they might be surprised by how many people turned out to show their support.

Allen Cronin, of the Mortuary Affairs at Dover AFB, speaking at the Memorial Day service at the Kent County Veterans Memorial Park. (Special To The Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

“I told her the people she knew were going to be completely outnumbered by the people she didn’t know,” he said.

The prediction proved true. From the moment Maj. Klenda’s remains landed at the nearest airport to the end of his funeral, an army of supporters turned out to grieve with the family and celebrate the return of a soldier.

“When the family and the remains were escorted to the perimeter of the airport, there were 250-plus motorcycles waiting for us,” said Mr. Cronin. “They escorted us, in procession, 110 miles to Pilsen. The family just hadn’t been ready for that. We passed through several small towns and Topeka on our way, as well. I just don’t know how people find out what route we’re going to take but whenever we pass through these towns they always have people lined up holding American flags and paying homage. This, for someone they didn’t know — but they know what he did.”

Mr. Cronin said the country’s commitment to these types of projects evokes a well-known quote from William Gladstone, a British prime minister:

“Show me the manner in which a nation or a community cares for its dead and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender sympathies of its people, their respect for the laws of the land and their loyalty to high ideals,” he said.

“We are that nation, we do that,” said Mr. Cronin during his speech.

Overcast and in the mid-60s, dignitaries, politicians, religious leaders and community members were pleased that the rain didn’t drench the memorial service at the park. At the top of the ceremony the Civil Air Patrol’s Eagle Cadet Squadron performed the presentation of the colors. An invocation was provided by Chaplain Terry Sammons.

Time was taken to allow various organizations to place wreaths on the memorial stones in the park after the reading of the names of local soldiers killed in the war. According to Chapter 850 of the Vietnam Veterans of America, 41 Kent Countians have died in Vietnam, Korea and the Middle East.

An ornate memorial bell, belonging originally to the Dover Fire Department, was sounded after each name was read. The bell has been used specifically to mark the names at all events at the Kent County Veterans Memorial Park since 2009.

“From the battlegrounds of history, these brave Americans have consecrated our manifest destiny by laying down their lives for us and our nation,” said Dover Mayor Robin Christiansen during the ceremony. “They gave their last true measure of devotion so America may be, to the world, a shining city on a hill — a beacon of light in a dangerous dark world.”

The solemn event closed to the sounds of a bugler’s Taps and “Amazing Grace” played by the Dover Fire Department pipes and drums.

Staff writer Ian Gronau can be reached at 741-8272 or igronau@newszap.com.

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