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Bringing Lefty home: It took 30 years before Joe Brett knew what happened to his brother

Seeing his parents drive up to Klamath Falls’ Henley Junior High on Sept. 29, 1972, was a surprise for Joe Brett.

The young boy at first didn’t associate the unusual visit with his 24-year-old brother, Robert Brett Jr., or with his brother’s first combat mission aboard an F-111 fighter jet in the Vietnam War.

Robert — or “Lefty,” as he was called, being the only one of five siblings to be left-handed — had headed for Thailand just four days before. Joe, the youngest of the Brett kids, barely had time to worry.

But his parents had come to deliver the terrible news: The fighter jet had gone down. Lefty was missing in action.

“It was absolutely shocking,” the Medford resident told those gathered for Memorial Day services at the Eagle Point National Cemetery Monday. “He’d only been in Thailand for four days.”

Brett, now operations manager for Rogue Valley Television, was the only child still living at home, but his siblings all returned to be together after the news.

Two weeks of intensive search and rescue followed, but yielded nothing. Robert had disappeared.

Decades later, clues regarding the whereabouts of Lefty’s plane began to surface.

They were clues that would lead to closure for two families after nearly 30 years of not knowing where their son, brother and husband had gone.

Born to fly

Lefty had been working toward a career in the skies for some time.

“He was the absolute perfect personality for a fighter pilot,” Brett said. “He had an incredible sense of drive and passion for flying. He decided in eighth grade he wanted to be a jet fighter pilot, and he went to work and started to excel in school, and everything he did was pointed toward that goal.”

The brothers took to the air together in a Piper J-3 Cub. Brett was 8 or 9 years old at the time, and Lefty had just gotten his pilot’s license while at Oregon State University’s ROTC program. Not that he flew like a rookie. Quite the contrary, Brett recalled.

“He was just totally one with the airplane,” Brett said. “I never felt anything but exhilaration sitting next to him. You know, you can have a little trepidation about flying. I think all of us do. Never even crossed my mind. I felt so safe with him.”

Lefty wanted to fly, and he wanted to serve in the military. His father, Robert Arthur Brett Sr., served 31 years in the U.S. Air Force, flying in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

“It was very much a tradition in our family, and he followed in those footsteps,” Brett said.

Lefty met his wife, Patrice Costello, while at Adair Air Force Base outside Corvallis, and his daughter, Camille, was born shortly after he graduated from Williams Air Force Base in Arizona at the top of his class.

Missing in action

Lefty’s first mission was a strike on a military facility in Vietnam’s Yen Bai province, a heavily fortified station just northeast of Hanoi.

The U.S. military had been flying similar missions in and out of Thailand for a number of years.

On this particular mission, Lefty would man weapons on an F-111 fighter while Col. Bill Coltman flew.

The F-111 was the first airplane with a “variable sweep wing,” or wing configuration that could be changed in the air, a feature later utilized by the F-14 Tomcat. With its wings all the way out, it could take off and land in as little as 2,000 feet, according to the Lockheed Martin website. With the wings pulled back, it could fly faster than the speed of sound. The aircraft could even reach supersonic speeds at low altitudes.

Brett spent most of August 1972 — just before his seventh grade year — at Nellis Air Force Base, where Lefty had been training for a combat tour the past year. Lefty assured Brett that his F-111 flew too fast and too low for enemy fire to give him any trouble. Four days later, his jet disappeared from radar.

“He also needed combat hours on his resume to be a Thunderbird pilot when he got back,” Brett said. “He got his combat hour, but the rest of history vanished in the blink of an eye.”

Searching

The U.S. began to exit the war about six months later, but while the initial search for Lefty had turned up nothing, it was really just the beginning.

Robert Sr. joined the National League of Families of Prisoners and Missing in Action, a group whose “sole purpose is to obtain the release of all prisoners, the fullest possible accounting for the missing and repatriation of all recoverable remains of those who died serving our nation during the Vietnam War,” according to its website.

He’d later become a board member, working with legislators and eventually attending meetings at the White House.

But 20 years would pass before diplomatic ties between nations formerly at war began to be restored. That’s when officials from both sides began assisting in the search for missing soldiers.

“When those diplomatic relations thawed, we did get right to work,” Brett said.

The first break in Lefty’s case came in May 1993. A joint task force “full accounting team” found nine photographs in a Hanoi air defense museum with captions relating to an F-111 that had gone down Sept. 29, 1972, crashing in Laos, west of Yen Bai province — where Lefty’s mission had been.

Six investigative teams continued the search for the next five years in north Vietnam, but to no avail.

Then a seventh team found something.

Found

It was in Houaphanh Province in Laos, where villagers claimed to know of a plane crash site. On July 31, 1998, they took investigators a few miles to a steep hillside. The evidence was all there: wreckage from an F-111. The villagers explained that the bodies of two pilots had been found and buried. Two years later, the excavated burial sites gave up a host of even more evidence: possible human remains, pieces of flight suits, a U.S. dime dated 1970, a piece of a watchband, a singed necklace.

Later, a team found a human tooth while sifting through the dirt. Tests showed it belonged to Col. Bill Coltman, the pilot that joined Lefty on the mission.

“(It) turned out to be the holy grail of this case,” Brett said.

Analysts confirmed the crew was aboard at the time of impact, and that they could not have survived the crash. By investigation’s end, teams made up of 91 total analysts working the case had flown in by helicopter from about 25 miles away, working on steep hillsides.

“They did so nearly 50 times to get this one job done,” Brett said. “This is not cheap work. But if you ask the families, the results in the end, and the answers to those nagging questions, are worth every cent and every ounce of effort.”

Home

On Aug. 1, 2002, Lefty was interred at Arlington National Cemetery. His 4-month-old grandson was among those in attendance.

There was a chapel service, procession and military band, followed by a low-level flyover from a B-1 bomber.

“When they pulled that casket up next to me in the chapel at Arlington, boy, I almost felt like a seventh-grader all over again,” Brett said. “Same kind of just despair and shock, but then it was so real to see the actual process happening at Arlington so many years later.”

Just before the 21-gun salute, an officer delivered the final call to Lefty and Coltman.

“Col. Coltman and Maj. Brett, stand down. Your mission is complete.”

Reach web editor Ryan Pfeil at rpfeil@rosebudmedia.com or at 541-776-4468.

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