After decades of waiting, the family of U.S. Air Force pilot San D. Francisco recently received news his case is cleared for a U.S. Department of Defense POW/MIA retrieval mission in Vietnam.

Francisco was lost on Nov. 25, 1968, when the plane he was piloting was shot down over North Vietnam. Born in Burbank, he was a Central Washington State College graduate and Wildcat football player with connections to Ellensburg.

Francisco was assigned to the elite 555th Fighter Squadron in Thailand, and was due to return to his then young wife, Kay, and 4-year-old son, Tod, on Dec. 1, 1968. While he had completed his required 100 missions, he didn’t hesitate to volunteer for a reconnaissance-escort mission near the Ban Karai pass along the border between North Vietnam and Laos.

His Phantom F-4D fighter jet was shot down, and he was forced to eject with another pilot, but his parachute did not deploy fully.

As he was captured by enemy forces, he was hit and killed by a mortar from an American search and rescue mission, which was driven off by heavy ground fire.

Francisco was posthumously promoted to the rank of major.

Briefing in D.C.

His sister, Terri Francisco-Farrell of Kennewick, has spent years advocating on his behalf. She had a breakthrough this year, starting when the Department of Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency briefed her on progress made on her brother’s case during meeting of the National League of Families in June in Washington, D.C.

During that meeting, she and her niece, Michele Herron, were informed a previous investigative report which offered a detailed map of the crash area using reports from an alleged eyewitness was in question.

Francisco-Farrell only had 30 minutes with the analyst until the next family arrived, and left the meeting with unanswered questions.

With help from an Air Force casualty officer, she was able to talk with Army Lt. Gen. Michael S. Linnington, the director of the new POW/MIA agency. He arranged another meeting with the analyst the next day. An aide from U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse’s office was in attendance.

The analyst, happy to have more time, assured the family he planned to sort through all the witness accounts to correlate the information and plot the coordinates of the sites mentioned. More than 35 investigations have been conducted on Francisco’s case from 1995 to 2015, and 11 witnesses have provided a combination of first-hand and hearsay information.

Francisco-Farrell received a 23-page report late this summer, with the news there were two burial sites connected to her brother. The analyst recommended both sites to the agency’s Excavation Decision Board for approval. The board met a few weeks later, and gave its OK.

Francisco-Farrell said she’s been told her brother is not on the excavation list for fiscal year 2016, but she is hoping things might change. She and other supporters are starting a letter writing campaign to encourage the agency to bring him home sooner.

It’s a big step — last year at this time supporters weren’t even sure the Department of Defense would be willing to put the pilot on the retrieval list.

“The scenery keeps changing,” she said. “The last four years, it’s been a maze to get through it. Just when you think you’ve got it …”

Interest growing

It’s been a long road, but Francisco-Farrell said she’s been encouraged by the newly revamped POW/MIA Accounting Agency, and the attention staff and officers have paid to the case.

Interest is growing. The Las Vegas Review-Journal did a series of stories about the search for San in June. A pilot who flew over the crash area after the plane went down reached out after the stories ran, and Francisco-Farrell relayed that information to the DOD. Others connected to San have come forward, too.

In Ellensburg

Efforts to bring the pilot home have drawn a following in Ellensburg. His former CWU classmates and friends gathered for an Operation: Bring San Home event at Kelleher Motor Co. last year, and Oct. 18 was declared San D. Francisco Day by Kittitas County Commissioners.

Francisco-Farrell said she’s thankful for all the interest and work done on behalf of her brother’s case, and the support in Ellensburg. She said the event at Kelleher Motors last year made a difference, and much has transpired in the past year.

“With enough awareness from San’s friends, the community and the state, we’re closer to bringing the number (of unaccounted Americans from the Vietnam War) to 1,626,” she said.

Roger Gray of Ellensburg, a former college classmate of San’s who has been a part of efforts to raise awareness, agreed significant progress has been made.

“I think it’s a spectacular effort that’s been made on the part of many people to light the fires for this mission,” he said. “He was a wonderful man in so many ways. It is sad what happened, and sad it has taken so long.”

Francisco-Farrell added all the recent work has helped bring her family together. It continues an effort started by her mother.

“My mom wrote letters to him until 1972, keeping him updated, because we didn’t know,” she said.

Francisco-Farrell knows there are other families of POW/MIAs who haven’t had the time or ability to work through the red tape her family has, and wants to help others in her position. Once a retrieval mission is approved and set in motion, she plans to go to Vietnam with a film crew that will be putting together a documentary.

“What I hope to do with this is help others,” she said.

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