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Tri-Cities Air Force pilot missing in Vietnam is not forgotten. But will he ever be found?

In honor of missing Air Force 1st Lt. San D. Francisco

Terri Francisco-Farrell tells about her brother, Air Force 1st Lt. San D. Francisco, who was shot down Nov. 25, 1968, while co-piloting an F-4 Phantom fighter-bomber on a reconnaissance mission over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Vietnam.
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Terri Francisco-Farrell tells about her brother, Air Force 1st Lt. San D. Francisco, who was shot down Nov. 25, 1968, while co-piloting an F-4 Phantom fighter-bomber on a reconnaissance mission over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Vietnam.

What may be the final effort to find and bring home a Kennewick High graduate and Air Force pilot missing since the Vietnam War could wrap up in a matter of weeks.

The sixth excavation session in the search for Air Force Maj. San D. Francisco, who grew up in Burbank, started at the first of May and is expected to continue into June, said his sister Terri Francisco-Farrell.

She has worked tirelessly to make sure her older brother is not forgotten.

He died saving the lives of those on a search and rescue mission who came to find the pilot and Francisco, the co-pilot, of an F-4 Phantom jet fighter that was shot down, she said.

They had been on a reconnaissance mission over the Ho Chi Minh Trail on Nov. 25, 1968.

“That is why I do what I do,” Francisco-Farrell said. “He is a hero.”

Terri Francisco-Farrell talks with the Herald in 2017 about her brother.

But if her brother is not found now, there may not be any other known area to search.

Multiple witnesses told the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency about two areas where they said they remembered Francisco being buried.

His body was placed in a bomb crater, then dug up within days so photographs could be taken for Vietnamese Army propaganda because of the claim that his was the 2,000th plane shot down during the war. He was reburied in the same area.

Evidence of bombing

But it’s difficult to be sure of the exact location, as landmarks have changed in Vietnam’s thick vegetation after 50 years.

His body wasn’t found in the first area after U.S. military members and local Vietnamese excavated 575 square yards of ground to as deep as 4.5 feet.

The second area being searched in the Quang Binh province in the former North Vietnam has been disturbed because a house was built there and soil moved.

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Preparations are made for the excavation of a site where Air Force Major San D. Francisco may have been buried in the Quang Binh province of the former North Vietnam. Courtesy Terri Francisco-Ferrell

Digging has turned up shrapnel consistent with bombing during the war, but so far no conclusive tie to Francisco has been found as excavation continues toward the house.

Francisco-Farrell of Kennewick says her brother volunteered to fly the mission when another crew member fell ill.

Both Francisco and the pilot survived the crash, but Francisco suffered two broken legs, she said. The pilot was killed resisting capture.

Francisco was dragged into an open area by his captors, his sister believes in an attempt to ambush the Americans who would arrive on a search and rescue operation.

She believes that’s when a rescue helicopter arrived and he was spotted, he made eye contact with the pilot. But he would not lift his hands to the ladder and put the rescue crew in danger.

Questions about San Francisco’s death

As soon as he didn’t reach up for the ladder, an ambush started.

American aircraft came in low and strafed the area, and her brother’s captors ran, Francisco-Farrell said.

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Air Force 1st Lt. San D. Francisco, the co-pilot of an F-4 Phantom fighter bomber, was shot down Nov. 25, 1968, on a reconnaissance mission over the Ho Chi Minh Trail. He was posthumously promoted to major.

Witnesses say he died of friendly fire, but Francisco-Farrell is skeptical. Finding his body could reveal how he died.

With the outcome of the search growing increasingly uncertain, Francisco-Farrell is working with Central Washington University to memorialize her brother with the San D. Francisco Legacy Project.

Francisco graduated from the Air Force Officer Training Corps there in 1966 when it was called Central Washington State College. The same Air Force ROTC Detachment 895 Cadet Wing continues to train cadets there.

“I just want the kids to know about San,” Francisco-Farrell said.

For years his POW/MIA bracelet was on display at the entrance to the commander’s office. Over the past year it was worn by Cadet Chance Flanigan, the first cadet to be picked in the Francisco Legacy Project based on the Air Force values of integrity first, excellence in all airmen do and service above self.

Video made to tell Francisco’s story

Flanigan visited the Tri-Cities to tour Burbank, where Francisco grew up, and see Kennewick High School where he played football before going on to play varsity football as a freshman at Central.

It was part of research into a short documentary video made about Francisco’s life by fellow student Eliza Anderson.

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Terri Francisco-Ferrell poses for a photo holding a shadow box with a photo of her brother, San D. Francisco, his medals and U.S. flag. Francisco was in the Air Force and has been missing since he was shot down in the former North Vietnam on Nov 25, 1968. Noelle Haro-Gomez Tri-City Herald

On Wednesday, Francisco’s POW/MIA bracelet was passed to the second cadet to wear it, Rollie “RJ” Enriquez, a CWU sophomore in the ROTC program.

He was picked by staff based on nominations from his peers for the Detachment 895 Major San D, Francisco Memorial Award. It recognizes “a cadet who exemplifies the Air Force core values in the spirit of San D. Francisco,” said Major James Barnett, operations and recruiting officer.

“(Enriquez) arrives early, stays late and works hard in between,” said one nomination. “Additionally, Cadet Enriquez understands the line between being professional and personable.”

Enriquez was part of a team working with the CWU Archives to digitize 808 documents related to Francisco to create the San Dewayne Francisco Memorial Archives.

The public, historians and students can get to know Francisco through documents ranging from his writings during the war to letters home to correspondence about the search for his body. It is posted at libguides.lib.cwu.edu/AFROTC.

In Francisco’s memory, his family is raising money for Detachment 895 cadets given the memorial award in his honor. Information is posted at www.sdfawareness.org.

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A site is partially excavated where Major San D. Francisco may have been buried after his plane was shot down in the Quang Binh province of the former North Vietnam. Courtesy Terri Francisco-Ferrell

Senior staff writer Annette Cary covers Hanford, energy, the environment, science and health for the Tri-City Herald. She’s been a news reporter for more than 30 years in the Pacific Northwest.

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