by Dale Pugh, U.S. Marine Corps Veteran and NVMM Member

Major Dennis Pugh, U.S. Air Force (MIA). Photo courtesy of the Pugh family.

Major Dennis Pugh, my brother and my greatest hero. In this picture, he’s standing by his aircraft in Ubon, Thailand. The next day, he was shot down in this very plane. We never saw him again; Dennis was declared missing in action. I want to share Dennis’ story with you—but I have to start with my mom.

Pugh Family Service

When my brother was a baby, in February 1945, my mother received a telegram saying that my father was killed on Iwo Jima. After his first day of combat as a U.S. Marine, my father failed to show up in formation and his fellow Marines went to look for him. As it turns out, he had been shot, but not killed, by a sniper. Despite that telegram, my father was alive, returning home with bullet fragments that wouldn’t be taken out for years.

Dennis’ Drive to Serve

Later, when my brother was 13 years old, Dennis told my mom that he wanted to fly planes—and she simply said he’d need to get better grades than his C+ marks. Dennis did just that, becoming an excellent student and setting his sights on the Air Force Academy. Although he didn’t get in the first year he tried, he persisted, and graduated from the Academy with honors in 1967.

That was one of the things that I always admired so much about Dennis: he reached his full potential because he always gave 100%, even when things didn’t come easily to him. Finally, Dennis was flying the jets he had dreamed of when he arrived in Thailand in September 1969. He was part of the Wolf FAC (Forward Air Control)—flying fast and low over Laos and into northern Vietnam to provide reconnaissance for B52 bombers.

Vietnam War

On March 19, 1970, Dennis was serving as a weapons/systems officer on a flight over the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Their mission complete, Dennis and his pilot turned back, but their route home took them over an anti-aircraft gun, waiting to shoot them down. Dennis ejected, landed in a river, and then climbed a tree to radio for help: the pilot was 100 meters away, and injured.

One of Dennis’ former Academy classmates was the last person to be in contact with him—Dennis reported that enemy troops were closing in and requested that ordinance strike his position. On the radio, his classmate heard Dennis say “No … stop … wait” … then silence.

Knock at the Door

Back home in Kansas, it was a warm Thursday evening. My mom had gone to see the high school play, and I was in the living room with my father watching some TV show starring Lana Turner.

The screen door was open, and I could see the sedan pull into our driveway—all gray with no chrome, and little yellow letters on the side. I let in the two officers, one of whom wore little crosses on his lapels. They told us that my brother was missing, shot down over Laos, and asked where my mother was. We sat in silence, waiting for her return. That day changed the course of my life.

Dennis, me and our sister Janet, at Christmas 1968 –the last time we were together. Photo courtesy of the Pugh Family.

Dale’s Story of Service

I was a senior in high school, and Dennis, eight years older than me, was my idol. He had told my mother that I needed to attend a service academy. Frankly, I wasn’t that interested—until I heard he was missing. On May 1, 1970, I received my appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy and accepted.

My plan was to graduate, head to Vietnam and rescue my brother. Of course, that’s not what happened. Vietnam ended before I graduated, with Dennis still missing. But through my own service I was able to serve my country and to honor my brother and try to live up to his example.

Reflecting Back

This year, my brother would have turned 80—but he’s frozen in my mind at 26. I can’t help but think about everything he’s missed; so much has happened since 1970 that I haven’t been able to share with him. And I think about how the world has missed out on him—he might have become a Silicon Valley tycoon or flown jets for the rest of his life.

I’ve spent the last 54 years doing everything I could to ensure that my brother’s name, service and sacrifice were recognized and remembered. Dennis is honored with a plaque at the capital building in Topeka, a memorial in Salinas, Kansas, with three college scholarships and at hundreds of freedom trees across the country.

Supporting the NVMM

That’s also why I’m a supporter of the National Veterans Memorial and Museum. I believe the Museum is a critical resource for visitors to learn about the extraordinary sacrifices that people like Dennis have made for our country and the lives of all our Veterans. Thank you so much for joining me in sustaining this important memorial.

Now, you can help preserve the memories of all of those who made the ultimate sacrifice by dedicating one of the 703 flags on the NVMM front lawn this Memorial Day. Your gift of at least $20 will help us turn the lawn into a sea of red, white, and blue in tribute to our nation’s heroes.

Special note: In September 2022, we received an Air Force report that convinced me Dennis was killed the day that contact was lost. After 50 years, we know what happened—but sharing Dennis’ story is important as ever. That’s why I’m excited that my brother and father are now included in the Museum through my enhanced listing in NVMM’s Member Registry. If you visit, please take a moment to look them up!

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