Members of an Air Force Honor Guard hold a United States flag above the grave of Air Force Capt. Virgil K. ‘Mike’ Meroney III during a June 9 burial ceremony in Fayetteville. Meroney, who spent much of his childhood in Pine Bluff and went on to become a fighter pilot during the Vietnam War, was shot down during a night bombing mission on March 1, 1969. His remains were returned to Arkansas more than 40 years later, and he was buried with full military honors. (U.S. Air Force photo)
U.S. Air Force Col. Virgil K. Meroney (left) poses with his son 1st Lt. Virgil K. ‘Mike’ Meroney III immediately after the younger Meroney’s first combat mission in Vietnam on Jan. 14, 1969. (Special to The Commercial)
Kim Meroney Townsend and her brother, Kelly Meroney, would likely tell you that they probably have more blessings than they can count. Both are happily married and, along with their spouses, helping to raise their children.
Townsend, 46, and her husband, Jeremy Townsend, have two sons. Meroney, 47, and his wife, the former Angie Camp, have two daughters.
Like other Americans, the two families are looking forward to celebrating the nation’s liberties on Independence Day, but they wish this Fourth of July might afford them an opportunity they’ve never fully experienced. They would like to somehow spend the day with their father, Air Force Capt. Virgil K. “Mike” Meroney III, who was recently brought home after a 43-year absence.
Mike Meroney, the son of Pine Bluff natives Air Force Col. Virgil K. and Mildred Duckett Meroney, spent a good part of his childhood here along with his younger brother, Doug Meroney. The elder brother was better known as Virgil Jr. among his friends here until he took on his father’s nickname of Mike while in high school.
Mike Meroney, who would have been 69 on May 22, followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming a fighter pilot. He left his wife, the former Connie Younger, and toddlers Kelly and Kim behind to serve in the Vietnam War. He was listed as missing in action after his F-4D Phantom II fighter jet was cut down by enemy fire during a night bombing mission on March 1, 1969.
His wife had received his last letter just before the incident.
“Soon this terrible mess will end, and husbands and wives can return to the better business of making good homes for their children in a country where it’s safe for them to play outside without an armed guard protecting them” he wrote. “If the one thing I can do over here for the entire year is to ensure that my family can live without fear of hunger, disease, or a hidden enemy lashing out, trying to maim or hurt them while I am away, then it is a year well-spent.”
In 1994 — after a 25-year wait that Doug Meroney described as “very disheartening” — American authorities were finally able to initiate an investigation at Mike Meroney’s crash site.
Excavations wouldn’t start until July 2010. A year later, searchers uncovered Meroney’s military identification card, which still bore a clean, clear signature. Additional, related findings were made over the ensuing months.
Meroney’s remains were returned to Arkansas, and he was buried with full military honors on June 9 at Fairview Memorial Gardens in Fayetteville, where his son resides. His daughter lives in Houston. His brother, who became a professional photographer here, is now a resident of Canon City, Colo.
Meroney’s wife died in 2008. His father, who escaped after a year in Nazi custody following the downing of his P-51 fighter plane in a World War II combat mission over Germany, died in 1980. His mother would live to the age of 88, passing away in 2009. The three never learned the younger Meroney’s fate but always clung to their hopes that he might someday return home, alive and reasonably well.
Meroney’s children may not have any tangible memories of their father, but nevertheless feel they know him well. They and Doug Meroney believe he’s communicated with them over the years.
“From a very young age, I always prayed to God that Dad could hear me and help me get through difficult times,” Kim Townsend said. “Even though I couldn’t remember him, I always felt he was there helping us through life.”
“I would often think about my dad growing up,” said Kelly Meroney, “and even today when I make a decision I will ask myself if he would have been proud or not of something I did or was about to do.”
Although Kelly Meroney accepted at an early age that his father had probably been killed in battle, he believes his dad has been with him in “spirit” since the crash.
“His spirit rests with his children, grandchildren, family and friends,” said Doug Meroney, 63, adding that his brother has “helped protect me over these years.”
During the more than four decades in which the whereabouts and welfare of Mike Meroney were uncertain, his family initially drew nearer. But that firm foundation eventually endured some stress cracks as time trickled past with no developments that might deliver news of his improbable well-being and a homecoming, or the “consolation” of closure with confirmation of his death and retrieval of his remains.
“For a while, it brought us closer,” said Doug Meroney, speaking of the entire family, including his parents. “Our optimism was always at the forefront. The years of uncertainty and completion of the Vietnam conflict without formal resolution were depressing.“
“I think it made our family – Kim, Mother and I – very close, as for most of that time it was just us three,” said Kelly Meroney. “Now it makes me appreciate my wife and children.”
“Mom, my brother and I always had a special bond due to the uncertainties of Dad’s disappearance,” Kim Townsend said. “It was embedded in us, and for all our lives it’s been a part of us, never forgotten.”
Meroney’s grandchildren – Madysen Meroney, Kadie Meroney, Richard Townsend and Charlie Townsend, ages 19, 14, 10 and 5, respectively – are aware of their grandfather’s heroic sacrifices, and some of his physical and personality traits can be seen in them. Outwardly proud of his record, they’re too young to understand the hostility many formerly held toward American military members who served in the unpopular war.
“I hope all the people that turned their back on the Vietnam soldiers that came home all those years ago have a new understanding of what these men and women had to endure, as well as their family members,” said Townsend.
Doug Meroney said the family’s ordeal has increased his appreciation for military personnel and their families, past and present
“Welcoming my brother home was the exclamation point to a complete story,” he said.
Adding that he doesn’t question God’s reasoning in his brother’s untimely death and long journey home, Doug Meroney said he would relish joining his niece and nephew if they were granted a Fourth of July reunion with the father they’ve idolized from afar so many years.
“We would start off the day fishing,” Kelly Meroney said, “and then on to play golf. I would love to talk to him about his life and ours.”
“We would have a cookout,” Kim Townsend said, “and I would watch him playing for hours with his grandchildren. I know they would have such a great time together. I am sure he would teach them things that would make me shake my head, and they would all laugh.”
His children would at last be able to thank him face-to-face for being their father, helping to give them life, guiding their thoughts even though he was away, and caring enough about them and others to die in the cause of hopefully making their world safer and more peaceful.
They could tell him that they’re proud of him, and then feel their chests swell when they heard him relate his pride in them. They could shake hands, pat each other’s backs, exchange lingering hugs and repeat to one another, “I love you.”
Apple pie wouldn’t be necessary to make the day a sweet memory.