SEPTEMBER 15, 2016, FORT WORTH, Texas (NNS) – Shannon Spake has very few memories of her father. She recalls of melodies he sang to her and the smell of Old Spice cologne throughout their home at Naval Air Station Lemoore, California, during a POW/MIA ceremony.
Spake was not much older than two when her family received the news he was considered missing in action after the Navy lost contact with his aircraft in Northern Laos.
It was the spring of 1972 and the Navy’s Attack Squadron (VA) 192, known as the Golden Dragons, had just deployed for its sixth combat cruise to Vietnam aboard aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63). The squadron flew its battle-worn A-7E Corsair II attack aircraft in over 3,600 combat strikes in a period of 192 days in support of Operation Linebacker, as well as the mining of North Vietnamese harbors and concentrated air strikes against targets in North Vietnam.
Spake’s father, then Lt. Dennis Pike, had just completed a successful bombing run on the Ho Chi Minh trail when his aircraft began trailing smoke. Loss of oil pressure and altitude forced Pike to ditch his Corsair and hold out hope he would evade detection from the enemy long enough to be rescued.
“I’m going to have to leave it; see you guys later,” were Lt. Pike’s last words over the radio before he ejected, according to Spake.
After two days of search and rescue missions over his last known position in enemy hostile territory, all searches for Pike were called off.
Over 44 years later, the Pike family continues to wait earnestly for answers. Spake, who spoke to service members and local veterans during a POW/MIA Recognition Day observance ceremony held at Naval Air Station Fort Worth Joint Reserve Base, Texas, Sept. 13, described her mother’s strength in raising three children as the family lived a life on hold.
“Mom would take me to the commissary with her to grocery shop while the older two were at school,” said Spake. “Repeatedly, I would run up and lift my arms to any man in those pristine dress whites screaming, ‘Daddy, Daddy.’ As time went on, that uniform was just about all I could remember of my father.”
Being among the Sailors and Marines in uniform and observing the local Navy chief petty officer selectees carry out the symbolic ceremony of the Fallen Comrade Table, Spake said she was reminded of the service and sacrifice each service member was willing to make by taking the oath.
Of those currently serving in the armed forces, Spake said, “Their sacrifice is paid in full, no matter their circumstances. Because of the military families who have gone before them, they be will not be forsaken. As a nation, we will fight to have them returned to the soil they fought to protect.”
Spake said her family has endured a life of uncertainty, complete with alleged reports of her father spotted later in Russia, hoax dog tags, to news crews entering her home so often to cover Thanksgivings and Christmases without her father that it became routine.
Most recently in 2015, her family was approached by scientists from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency with the discovery of her father’s ejection seat, photos of his ripped flight suit and boots, yet yielding no proof of his physical remains. Although this was the first hard evidence found in 43 years, the findings were still inconclusive to her father’s fate, adding a lifelong perpetual state of loss, confusion and anger where closure seemed just beyond their reach.
Pike is one of 1,618 Americans currently listed as missing in action from the Vietnam War era. The National League of POW/MIA Families cites that of those still unaccounted for from past conflicts, 73,126 Americans are still missing from World War II, 7,802 Americans from the Korean War, the aforementioned 1,618 from the Vietnam War, 126 from the Cold War, and six Americans from Iraq, Afghanistan and other conflicts, totaling a staggering 82,678.
One way Spake has been able to heal and cope over the years is to talk with those who knew her father. Naval aviators are often known as a tight-knit community, and those who flew with him have shared her father’s stories, which has helped her piece his life experiences together to answer questions.
Directly after Tuesday’s ceremony, Spake was introduced to a gentleman who once flew with her father. Retired Navy Rear Adm. Jim Lair was the senior landing signal officer of Carrier Air Wing 11, responsible for the carrier landing work-ups for Pike’s squadron at NAS Lemoore between 1970 and 1971. They flew together in joint training mission packages at NAS Fallon, Nevada, before the squadron’s departure to Southeast Asia.
“I ran into ‘Denny’ probably four or five times a week,” said Lair. “He was still a nugget on his first cruise in ’70 and ’71, but he was a very good aviator.”
Both Spake and Lair said they were glad for the opportunity to share a few moments to talk about her father.
“Hearing about the man he was and the friend he was makes me proud,” said Spake. “It helps me connect the dots and begin to color in some details that I would never have otherwise.”