Aloha,It was the second week of December 1965 and 28-year-old Carol Reitmann stood in the middle of the Christmas tree lot, gazing at a leaning forest of noble firs.
Her five-month-old daughter squirmed in her arms while her other three children; six, five and three circled around her.
Tears streamed down Carol’s face, alarming an attendant who jumped in to offer some help.
“Don’t cry lady, I’ll help you find a tree.”
If only picking a Christmas tree was the cause of her heartache, she thought, thinking back a week to when she locked herself in the car after seeing the Wing Commander, his wife, the base doctor and the Catholic Chaplain striding through the parking lot.
“No, no, don’t come over here,” she said, thinking that if they couldn’t get to her, they couldn’t tell her anything. They tried the doors, pounded on the windows, but Carol ignored them. The first drops of an ocean’s worth of tears formed in her eyes, eyes that looked back in disbelief as the rearview mirror shook while someone yanked again on the car door handle.
Finally, she pulled the lock open. Gently, someone asked her to move over and she was driven home without another word spoken.
“He’s dead, isn’t he,” Carol said, already knowing the truth, but not the details.“We’re not sure, but it doesn’t look good.”
Nothing would look good to Carol Reitmann for a long time.
|Air Force Capt. Thomas E. Reitmann|
Reitmann’s target was a railroad bridge located about forty-five nautical miles northeast of Hanoi. As the aircrew approached the target area, they encountered extremely heavy and accurate anti-aircraft artillery (AAA). While attempting to acquire his target and release his ordnance, Reitmann received a direct AAA hit and crashed in Lang Son Province.
Other pilots in the flight observed no parachute, and no signals or emergency beepers were heard. Due to the intense enemy fire in the area, a search-and-rescue team was unable to survey the site and a two-day electronic search found no sign of the aircraft or Reitmann.
Initially lost in grief, Carol had little energy to waste on pity parties for one, so she regrouped and focused on the needs of her two boys and two girls. In 1971, she met a young man by the name of Bill Sumner who along with his roommates and their girlfriends “took me in like a little sister.”
When Tom (who was promoted to major while listed as missing in action) was officially declared killed in action seven and a half years after his fighter jet crashed, the friendship between Bill, who was now single, evolved into “better friends” until one day he asked Carol if she would marry him.
“What? Marry you?” Carol asked.
“Yes,” replied a now-worried Bill.
“Of course I will,” said a smiling Carol, who still appreciates how Bill took on the role of Dad to four young children.
“He lived through all the angst of their teenage years – in the ‘70s, no less,” she said. “I don’t know how he did it, but he’s still with me.”
As the years passed and the children grew into adulthood, Carol and Bill settled into a comfortable life of work and travelling (together, they’ve visited dozens of countries) and the couple, who were foster parents for a number of years, still volunteer in the local community and sponsor five small children in several poor countries.
Although Tom was never forgotten, Carol never expected that after more than forty-five years, she and her family would ever have the chance to say goodbye via a traditional funeral.
That is, until she got a phone call in May 2011 from Allen Cronin, who was calling from Dover, Delaware.
Cronin told her that thanks to the tireless work of the men and women working at the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, which is, in a twist of fate, based only minutes from where Carol and Bill live in Honolulu, Hawaii, Tom’s remains had been found in 2009 and had been positively identified using mitochondrial DNA samples provided years earlier by Tom’s brother, Ed.
“A Vietnamese farmer, working in his cornfield, found some bones and he could have easily thrown them away – but he didn’t. I will be forever grateful to this man and his family, and hope one day that Bill and I can visit over there to thank him personally,” Carol said.
Cronin, who works for the U.S. Air Force Mortuary Affairs, spent months coordinating every detail of the transfer of remains including a full military funeral at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
Adorned with an American flag, Tom’s remains were placed in a casket alongside a full, pressed major’s uniform.
His final journey entailed several flights and changes of aircraft. On each occasion, Carol, Bill and other family members were escorted off and on the plane by crew members and watched as numerous Delta ground crew personnel, many of them military veterans, handled the casket with the utmost respect.
During the transition, family members were given a final opportunity to privately view the remains. Karen, the youngest daughter, was only six weeks old when Tom left for Vietnam, so she obviously doesn’t remember him, said her mother.
But now, at last, Karen was able to physically reach out and touch her biological father.
“She took a piece of shin bone and pressed it close to her heart,” said Carol. “Her husband then took a picture. That, for me, is one of the most poignant memories of a journey filled with many, many touching moments.”
Maj. Thomas Edward Reitmann, 34, was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery on Sept. 8, 2011. Former pilots and colleagues, now in their late seventies and eighties, sat next to three generations of Reitmanns and Sumners – including Bill, who had wondered if he should even attend?
“I told him not to be silly, said Carol, “and then the kids told him ‘Dad, if you don’t go, neither will we.’”
Today, Carol is a firecracker of a 75-year-old who “finally stopped coloring my hair as I suppose I should start to look my age.” She's writing a book about the people who’ve helped shape her life, and enjoys sharing her love of reading with her 12-year-old grandson.“I’m grateful to have had seven great years with Tom, and I’m very happy that Bill has stood by my side through all our adventures,” she said, looking away and back in time for a moment. “God blessed me with two wonderful husbands, which makes me one lucky woman.”