08/14/11 — Missing yes, but not ever forgotten

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Missing yes, but not ever forgotten

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on August 14, 2011 1:50 AM

Don Totten doesn't need to attend a service at Arlington National Cemetery to say goodbye to Maj. Tom Reitmann.

In a way, he sees his old friend every day.

He relives the feeling of despair that overcame members of the 334th Fighter Squadron the day their "fun-loving" comrade was shot down.

"When we lost him, it was hard. When you lose someone you respect and you love, I don't know how to describe it," Totten said. "Even though Tom was listed as missing, there was no doubt that he was gone."

And he is still affected by the fears that infected the minds of even the toughest fighter pilots charged with taking out "heavily-protected" targets in North Vietnam.

"We all lived in a hooch -- 25 guys together -- and Tom was across the aisle from me about four or five beds down. But the fellow across the aisle from me ... one afternoon ... he said something that I had been thinking the whole time. He said, 'Don, I'm not afraid to admit that I just can't break the fear syndrome.' That's exactly the way I felt. I'm not ashamed to admit that I had fear," Totten said. "And I was more fearful of being captured than being killed. The thought of being captured was the most frightful thing I could have possibly imagined. ... That uncertainty, it was just something I could never get around."

Howard Chilton met Tom long before he left for war.

"He was kind of like a big brother and a best friend," he said.

The Tom he remembers got him interested in jazz music -- was "adopted" by his parents during one of many trips the young aviator made to the family's home in Dallas.

"He didn't have any family at graduation, so my mom pinned his wings on," Chilton said. "She did that with a great deal of pride."

Tom was such an important figure in Ed Rock's life that he served as godfather to his eldest son, Michael.

"We were pretty close," he said.

Tom's comrades are among those who, since the major's remains were identified earlier this summer, have reflected on a life cut far too short.

And they, like members of their fallen friend's family, can't wait to see him buried with full honors in a place their nation reserves for heroes.

"It's almost miraculous that he has been identified after all these years," Rock said. "Arlington is totally where he belongs."

Chilton agrees.

"Thank God he's coming home to the fitting tribute that he deserves," he said. "There's not hardly a day that goes by when I don't think of him. I'm just so grateful that he's coming home."

And then there is Totten who, after decades spent mourning the loss of his fellow aviator, said Tom's homecoming will bring with it a sense of closure he has been longing for since that F-105 went down Dec. 1, 1965.

"There is no distance and there is no time, because when I think of Tom and the circumstances, it's as if it was yesterday," he said. "So I will be (at Arlington) for sure. It's the most hallowed ground we have."