The remains of U.S. Army 1st Lt. Paul G. Magers of Billings and his gunner from Oklahoma, missing for almost four decades after their helicopter was shot down during the Vietnam War, have been positively identified and are being returned to their families.
Magers, who lettered in track and wrestling at Billings Central Catholic High School, was killed in action in 1971 in Quang Tri Province, South Vietnam, while flying an AH-1 Cobra. Also killed was Chief Warrant Officer 2 Donald L. Wann of Shawnee, Okla.
Fred Magers of Billings, the oldest of six children, said his brother graduated from Central High in 1963, finished college at Regis College, a Jesuit Catholic school in Denver, and planned on attending medical school. Magers was married in 1969 to Beverly Mohatt of Sidney, Neb., and he enlisted in the U.S. Army. Attending officer training school at Fort Benning, Ga., Magers graduated in the top 10 percent of his class to qualify as an aviator, his brother said.
“He didn’t necessarily want to be a pilot, but that, too, was tough and he liked that,” Fred Magers said. “If it wasn’t tough, it wasn’t worth doing.”
His brother had been in Vietnam less than two weeks when he flew his last mission, Fred Magers said.
On June 1, 1971, Magers and Wann were flying their Cobra during an emergency rescue of an Army Ranger team in Quang Tri, according to the U.S. Department of Defense. After the Rangers were picked up and delivered to safety, the Cobra was ordered to destroy claymore mines that had been left behind in the landing zone. During this mission, ground fire hit Magers’ helicopter, which crashed and exploded. Then the Cobra’s ordnance detonated, tearing the aircraft apart. Pilots who witnessed the explosions said no one could have survived, according to the Defense Department. A ground search was impossible because of enemy soldiers in the area.
The first leads to finding and identifying the airmen came in 1990. Search teams from the U.S and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam surveyed the suspected crash site in 1993 and 1998. Excavation started the following year, but stopped because of bad weather. Then the Vietnamese government, citing security concerns, banned U.S. personnel from Quang Tri Province.
In 2008, artifacts and some human remains were recovered by a Vietnamese team. More remains were found the next year.
Maj. Tim Crowe, public affairs chief for the Montana Army National Guard, said the two men were identified by teams who specialize in returning the remains of military personnel.
“We do everything we can to bring MIA soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines back home,” Crowe said.
The remains of Magers and Wann were identified in March. The Magers family learned of the positive ID of Paul Magers in June, about the time they got their usual yearly update on his status. A U.S. Army officer formally briefed the family in mid-July and the news that Magers and Wann had been found was released Wednesday. The complexity of the process caused the four-month lag, Crowe said.
“These cases are within a pretty formal investigation cycle, so there are a lot of details to do to get this together,” he said. “As you can imagine, they want to get this right.”
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said he is pleased that Lt. Magers is being returned home with dignity and he extended condolences to the family.
“He will be laid to rest with honor and respect,” Tester said.
The Magers family moved from Denver to Billings in 1958, said Fred Magers, who does custom framing at his Billings business, Framing by Fred.
“He (Paul) would deliver The Gazette in the morning. Then when the ditch was dry he and another fellow or two, whoever he could find, would run the ditch,” Fred Magers said. “You know how hard it is to run in wet sand? It’s tough.”
But his playful side led Paul to endlessly tease and play with his nieces and nephews. And that is the spirit his family wants to see at his funeral. Well-wishers should bring smiles and dress in 1960s and ’70s clothes, including paisley, Fred Magers said.
“This is a joyous occasion and if anybody at the services comes wearing somber colors, Mom might just cuss them out and at 92, she has earned the right to do this,” he said.
Both men will be buried with full military honors. Wann’s burial will be Aug. 21 in Fort Gibson, Okla.
A vigil for Magers will be held at 7 p.m. Aug. 26 at Dahl Funeral Home in Billings. Funeral services are planned for at 10:30 a.m. Aug. 27, at Holy Rosary Church in Billings. Then Magers will be buried at the Yellowstone County Veterans Cemetery in Laurel.
Contact Jan Falstad at email@example.com or 657-1306.