It was another sultry hot and humid day at Udorn Air Base in Thailand. U.S. Air Force Maj. Roy Knight Jr. climbed into his A-1E Skyraider attack aircraft for a combat mission along the Ho Chi Minh trail. As he had done many times, Sgt. Dick Witvoet helped him strap into the cockpit, gave him his two canteens of frozen water, and told him to come back safely.

After Dick rendered the traditional salute, the young Air Force pilot taxied for takeoff and a few minutes later disappeared with his wingman over the lush-green rolling hills. 

He never came back.

On May 19, 1967, Maj. Roy Knight Jr. was listed as Missing in Action.

“It broke my heart not knowing if Maj. Knight had been captured by the North Vietnamese or killed in action,” said Dick, a crew chief with the 602nd Fighter Squadron. “It’s real hard to handle when something like this happens to someone you feel a certain responsibility for and expect to see them when they return.”

Maj. Knight’s Skyraider was shot down over Laos. His loss hit the entire squadron hard. Dick remembered that he had a caring personality that endeared him to the enlisted personnel in the squadron.

Sgt. Dick Witvoet refuels an A-1E Skyraider at Udorn Air Base in Thailand during the Vietnam War.

“He was just an all-around nice guy who took the time to talk to the airmen,” said Dick, a 1964 graduate from Kelloggsville High School in Wyoming, Mich. “Not all of the officers were like that. He always appreciated what we did – which was to make a difference in what he did – and he treated us with respect.”

Dick left the Air Force in 1969 and returned to Michigan to work in the family business, but he never forgot Maj. Knight.

“I thought about him almost every day,” said 75-year-old Dick. “It was just like unfinished business that really ate at me. And I could only imagine how his family must have agonized over the unknown.”

Roy Knight III was only 10 years old when he said the last goodbye to his dad, and had just celebrated his 11th birthday when he was shot down. The loss of his father was horrific.

“The impact was quite significant and by the time I was 13 or 14, I was a pretty angry and unhappy young man headed way down the wrong path,” said Roy, who was born in Fukuoka, Japan. “My mother gave me military school as an option and I seized it. The next three years helped form me as some very great men, old warriors, took over for my dad and really helped me.”

For both men, decades would pass without knowing what ultimately happened to a friend and father.

“The American POWs were finally released from Hanoi in 1973,” remembered Dick. “I was home watching TV as the plane landed in California. I was hoping to see Maj. Knight coming off the flight, but he wasn’t there. My heart sunk. It was like losing a close friend. I still had a feeling of despair.”

Over the course of the next 40 years, Roy would be in routine contact with various the Department of Defense agencies tasked with finding and identifying those missing or killed in action during the Vietnam War.

“While we didn’t know early on if dad had made it out of the airplane, after many years I came to the conclusion that he perished in the crash,” said Roy, a 65-year-old marketing executive with a California-based cookie company. “This conclusion was further bolstered by artifacts that were recovered by crash site excavations.”

The breakthrough finally came more than five decades later in 2019.

“The recovery was made in February and March,” said Roy, who lives in Valley Center, Calif., just north of San Diego. “It took about two months for the scientists to make the identification. They are very careful to do this completely so there was never any doubt. We got the word at the end of May.”

For Roy and his family, it had been a roller coaster ride that lasted decades, and when it was confirmed that his dad’s remains had been positively identified, his feelings were all over the map. 

“When I did get the word, I experienced a strange dichotomy of emotions,” said Roy, a graduate of La Sierra University who is also a civilian pilot. “Yes, it was good news, but it was also heartbreaking as I relived some leftover childhood grief. Going back through all of the gut-wrenching pain of those days.”

For Dick, word of Roy’s identification came like a bolt out of the blue.

“In September 2021, my wife saw a story on Facebook about a Col. Knight from the 602nd Fighter Squadron,” said Dick, who lives in Bryon Center, Mich. “She read the account about his remains finally being found in the dense jungle of Laos and he was being returned to his family.”

At first, Dick wasn’t sure if this was the Roy Knight he knew because his rank had changed. Was it possible that he had been promoted to colonel posthumously? Taking a chance, he posted a condolence note. Within an hour, he received an email from Roy Knight III.

“I was absolutely shocked and elated that he connected with me,” said Dick, who spent a year stationed in Thailand during war. “We had several conversations and it was so easy to talk to him about what my role was and how I had interacted with his dad that day.”

“I was so thrilled and happy to talk to him,” said Roy once he connected with Dick. “I wanted to know everything he could remember about dad and that day. I wanted to know him. He talked about how much he liked dad and how he was different from the other officers.”

It was immediately clear to both men, that they needed to meet in person. Dick and his wife flew from Michigan to San Diego just before Christmas 2021.

“It was just wonderful to finally meet him,” said Dick with a smile. “It seemed to bring everything full circle, meeting the colonel’s son after so many years.”

“What a wonderful man,” said Roy, who has been flying search and counter-drug missions with the California Civil Air Patrol since 1988. “We clicked at a very fundamental level. I am so grateful that we got to know one another, aside from the connection with my dad, we are friends for life.”

To help make their meeting complete, Dick, Roy and their wives visited the USS Midway Museum. One of the restored military aircraft displayed on the flight deck is an A-1 Skyraider, the same aircraft Roy’s dad flew during the war.

“That was the first time I had seen the Skyraider since I left Udorn,” said Dick, who retired from the family business in 2006. “It was just spectacular. I knew that Roy had flown the Skyraider himself. It did a lot to heal the memory that I had carried for so long. It also gave me immense relief and closure, and I was so happy for his family.”

Dick Witvoet and Roy Knight III meet in front of the A-1 Skyraider on the flight deck of the USS Midway Museum.

“I found myself getting very emotional with him at the Skyraider,” said Roy. “Here was this guy remembering things he hadn’t had the opportunity to remember as he touched a Skyraider for the first time since his days in Thailand.

“Watching the old warrior touch that airplane that he worked on so hard and invested so much of himself in was simply wonderful, and I felt very privileged to be there. It was highly personal and I saw that in Dick on the deck of the Midway. Dad was his pilot and the Skyraider was his airplane – and they didn’t make it back.”

After more than 52 years, Col. Roy Knight Jr. was finally able to come home. He was buried in a small community cemetery in Cool, Texas with his brothers, sister, mother and father on Aug. 10, 2019.

“Every May 19th, Roy and I will raise a bottle of beer to salute his dad’s last flight,” said Dick.

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