BUTTE — More than 48 years after his plane was shot down over Laos during the Vietnam War, the uncertainty about Air Force Capt. Robert Edwin Holton of Butte is over.
Holton’s remains, which were excavated from the crash site earlier this year and verified recently, are in a sealed casket in Honolulu and will soon be on their way to Butte, Holton’s brother, Bill, confirmed Tuesday.
“After 48 years, Capt. Holton is finally coming home to Butte,” Bill Holton, who still lives in Butte, told The Montana Standard.
Holton was Butte’s lone service member missing in action from Vietnam. People across the country have worn MIA bracelets in his honor, some dating back to 1969 – the year his plane went down.
Bill said his brother’s casket would be flown from Honolulu to Atlanta to Minneapolis and arrive in Bozeman on Friday, July 21. It will be driven from there to Butte later that day.
Services will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday, July 22, at Wayrynen-Richards Funeral Home, with burial to follow at Sunset Memorial Park 13 miles west of Butte.
“There will be a captain from the Air Force accompanying his casket all the way here,” Bill said. “The Air Force has been wonderful to us all these years. They never stopped looking.”
He said someone from the Air Force called in January to say a tooth identified as belonging to Air Force Maj. William Campbell had been discovered in Laos, and they were trying to locate the precise spot his plane crashed.
Campbell and Holton were in a F4 Phantom, a fighter-bomber and interceptor, when they were shot down on Jan. 29, 1969, near the “Ho Chi Minh Trail” near the border of Laos and Vietnam.
The crash site was pinpointed earlier this year and after excavation work, some teeth were found and later identified as Holton’s. One of his dog tags also was found at the site, Bill said.
The Air Force called again in June and said it “was definitely Bob’s remains,” he said.
The call came the day before Bill and his wife, Judy, flew to Washington, D.C. in June for an annual meeting of the National League of POW/MIA Families. The organization is dedicated to obtaining the release of all POWs and finding and repatriating the remains of anyone who died in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.
Campbell and Holton were returning from North Vietnam aside another fighter plane when they peeled off near the Mu Gia Pass, one of several passageways through mountainous terrain leading to the “Ho Chi Minh Trail,” to bomb a truck convoy.
Their plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire and went down. The pilot of the other fighter, himself under heavy enemy fire, later reported that he did not detect any radio signals from Holton’s plane or parachutes, but he did see an explosion.
Holton and Williams were initially classified as Missing in Action, since it was possible they survived the crash and were captured. In 1973, when U.S. soldiers started returning home, his status varied — from MIA to Killed in Action, Bill Holton said two years ago.
On Jan. 9, 1974, the Secretary of the Air Force approved a presumptive finding of death and changed Holton’s status to “Died while Missing/Body not Recovered.”
It is a relief to finally know that his brother died in the crash and did not suffer, Bill said Tuesday.
“It was a happy thing they found him, but it still brings up all these things we went through in the past 48 years,” he said.
But it came too late for their father, Ed Holton.
He had always hoped to get definitive answers about his son’s death, but never did. The elder Holton, who served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, died on June 9, 2015, at age 97.
Robert “Bob” Holton was born April 8, 1941. He was a natural born musician who played saxophone, piano and clarinet, and he and his band Aces of Rhythm played area school dances and youth centers in the late 1950s.
He graduated from Butte High School in 1959 and received his private pilot’s license while attending the University of Montana, where he was an ROTC Outstanding Military Cadet who graduated with a full commission. He earned a business degree in 1965.
Bob married Diane Eck, one of Bill’s 1962 Butte High classmates. The couple did not have children.
Bob, Bill, and Bill’s wife Judy were especially close. As fate would have it, all three shared the same birthday: April 8. They celebrated together every chance they got, the last time on their birthday in 1968, Bill said.
His brother was supposed to be home for Christmas later that year, but didn’t make it. He was killed a month later.
Bill said family members planned to be at the service in Butte and there likely would be lots of Bob’s lifelong friends, too. He has been told that an Honor Guard from an Air Force base in Great Falls will be there, and there might be a military flyover.
Besides that, Bill said, “We don’t know what to expect. This is all new to us, too.”
Bill said his brother’s remains are in the casket, along with his full uniform and medals. The Air Force allows family to have the casket unsealed so they can put additional items in, he said, but there are no plans to do that.