For nearly a half century, the family of Air Force Capt. Daniel W. Thomas searched for answers to the fate of the pilot who went down in Vietnam in 1971, haunted by the thought he may have been held captive.
But in the past year came the long-sought answers. And in a private family ceremony on Nov. 27, the remains of the Danbury native were finally laid to rest in his southwest Nebraska hometown.
Remarkably, Thomas was one of three men from Danbury, population just 140, who were missing in action at the close of the Vietnam War. With the recent recovery and identification of Thomas’ remains from a crash site in Vietnam, two of the Danbury MIAs have now been accounted for.
“It’s a relief to know he died right there rather than being a prisoner of war,” his brother, Ed Thomas of McCook, said this week. “It’s just too bad our parents have to be gone. They never got to know.”
After graduating from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1969, Thomas enlisted in the Air Force and went through pilot training.
On July 6, 1971, the 24-year-old Thomas was flying an OV-10 Bronco surveillance plane as part of a secret mission in central Laos. Code named “Prairie Fire,” it involved inserting special operations reconnaissance teams and monitoring them. It was a mission Thomas was well-suited for, his commander later wrote.
“The pilots had to have superb piloting, map reading, navigation and organizational skills,” the commander said. “Lives depended on it.”
Thomas radioed that day that he was over the target area but that heavy clouds and rain kept him from seeing much.
That was the last anyone heard from him. Around the same time, a covert ground surveillance unit working in the same area reported hearing a loud impact and explosion, but no crash site was found.
“He was an inspiration to us all, and we lost him,” his brother said.
There was a report that an American prisoner was seen in the area near the time Thomas went missing, so the family always wondered whether he’d been captured.
When the war ended, three residents of tiny Danbury were among the 2,600 service members reported as missing in action. There may not have been a community in America where the mystery, uncertainty and pain of America’s MIAs was more acutely felt.
Thomas, Larry Knight and Donovan Walters all had gone to the same grade school and then grown up to be Air Force pilots. The Thomas, Knight and Walter families all knew one another, living within 5 miles of each other in Danbury and two surrounding farms. Knight’s mom and Thomas’ dad were first cousins.
The Walters family would eventually get answers. In late 1988, 16 years after he had gone missing, his remains were found and returned.
Over the years, the United States several times unsuccessfully attempted to locate Thomas’ crash site. Then in April 2014, a Vietnamese citizen provided a photograph of a dog tag of Maj. Donald Carr, the other crew member in Thomas’ plane.
The crash site was finally located in August 2014, actually in Vietnam some 58 miles from the mission’s target site in Laos.
In April 2016, dental remains and an ID tag were located and later positively identified as belonging to Thomas.
On Nov. 27, an Air Force major escorted Thomas’ remains from Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii for a small burial service attended by Thomas’ immediate family, including two brothers and a step-sister.
Phil Thomas, the nephew of Thomas, said that although his grandmother, Carol Helm, died just two years before the family received answers, she always had faith she would eventually learn what became of her son.
“As my grandmother aged, she said that she rested easy because she was going to know what happened to Daniel before all of us would,” Phil said.