It’s coming down to nylon and metal.
Those are the components that may prove to be the vital links to finding the remains of U.S. Navy Lt. Commander Alan Ashall, a Billings native and Vietnam War pilot who went missing on Aug. 29, 1968.
For nearly a half century, family members and friends have wondered what happened to him. His mother, Gladys Ashall, never gave up hope that he would be found alive. She died in 2001.
For paperwork purposes, the U.S. government classified him as missing but presumed dead. Last year, a headstone for Ashall was placed at the national veterans cemetery in Laurel.
However, new information about Ashall might finally answer not only what happened, but where his plane went down. Tom Wilber, who recently started the Servicemember Recovery Foundation, spoke Thursday at Rocky Mountain College in Billings.
During his presentation, he said that some materials, maybe from a flight suit or harness, had been found at one of the possible crash locations. That material is being tested by a government lab in Ohio to determine if it’s from a flight suit worn by Ashall’s squadron.
Ashall was flying in an A6-B flight squadron that night in 1968. No one is certain what happened or the exact location of the crash. A refueling tanker radar reported surface-to-air missiles and another A-6 flying with Ashall’s plane reported seeing a devastating explosion. However, because there was no definite radio communication, the exact coordinates of where Ashall’s plane went down have never been ascertained.
Wilber explained Thursday that there have been three possible sites identified, but little evidence has ever been recovered.
Wilber’s Servicemember Recovery Foundation has been instrumental in opening several cases. Ashall’s is one of the first. It’s assisting U.S. military investigators by getting photos of several flight suits from Ashall’s squadron to compare to the samples that were recovered in Vietnam.
Wilber said the next step is to try to match the material. If it’s successful, he and possibly other members of his team will travel to Vietnam to conduct interviews to learn more about the site, and if they can find eyewitness or residents who remember what happened.
Ashall’s flight took place late at night or early morning and there may not have been many eyewitnesses, Wilber said.
“We don’t just go and start digging,” Wilber said. “We talk to a lot of people. We do this through the proper channels.”
If confirmed, it would be the first information about the Billings aviator and his fate in nearly a half century.
Ashall’s case has particular interest for Wilber because his father’s F-4 squadron was a sister squadron of Ashall’s. Wilber’s father was shot down, taken as a prisoner of war, less than two months before Ashall went missing.
A picture in Wilber’s father’s flight cruise book shows pilots gathered around an A-6, No. 521. In it, Wilber’s father is pictured as well as Ashall. A-6 No. 521 was also the aircraft that Ashall was shot down in.
“It kind of shows you what a small world this is,” said Wilber, who was raised in Virginia. “There is a lot of information about there that could be gotten and it could lead to more good information that could bring closure.”