Two members of the Greatest Generation, the late Col. Arthur S. Mearns and Pat Mearns of Coronado, will be honored Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2018, at 2:15 p.m., in an Air Force Ceremony conducted at Star Park Circle. The ceremony is scheduled to include an Air Force flyover, according to event organizer Millie Creager, and is expected to last approximately 20 minutes. In a gesture that local aviators will appreciate, the flyover will be done in a version of the T-38 Talon Twin-Jet Trainer that Col. Mearns flew more than 50 years ago. Only a couple of the T-38 aircraft are still in flying condition.
Art Mearns was a graduate of Colgate University and their Air Force ROTC Program. He joined the Air Force in May 1952, progressed through flight training at three different air bases and served a tour in Korea from May 1955 to May 1956. He later became a gunnery and academic instructor at Luke Air Force Base near Phoenix.
Operating on a parallel path at this point was Mary Ann ‘Pat’ Patterson, originally from Glendale. She had trained as a nurse at the L.A. County Hospital and would eventually receive her undergraduate and master’s degree from Cal State Northridge in health science. In 1956, she was a flight attendant for Trans World Airlines, or as she put it, “A long time ago when flying was fun.” As a favor to Art’s sister, Pat delivered a late Christmas gift to Art at Luke AFB. Pat recalled, “The story is very true, and it was love at first sight, which neither of us believed in, but something happened.”
The couple married in 1956 while Art was a full lieutenant. By the mid-1960’s Mearns had risen to the rank of Major and the couple had two girls Mary Ann, referred to as Missy and Frances, who were born two years apart. The family was based in Kyoto, Japan and Art flew with several different Air Force units. On November 11, 1966, Mearns was the pilot of the lead aircraft in a flight of four F-105 Thunderchiefs (nicknamed Thuds) that departed Takhli Air Base in Thailand.
Col. Jack Broughton, who was a friend and contemporary of Art and Pat Mearns and served in the same air wing as Art, included a chapter about the Mearns family in his book “Thud Ridge” published by Lippincott in 1969. Broughton noted that Mearns was closing in on 100 missions flown in 1966, a level which would allow him to return to duty in the United States. In fact, Mearns had already received an assignment to Nellis AFB in Las Vegas, which he was really looking forward to accepting.
Broughton said of Mearns’ mission, “The target area was northeast of Hanoi. Low clouds and generally bad weather, coupled with heavy enemy fire, made the mission virtually impossible. As Art’s section turned inbound from the coast, it became brutally clear that things were very tense. Anyplace where there wasn’t a cloud, there was gunfire. He thought he could make it and he thought it was his duty to try. He got to his target, only to find it obscured by clouds. He still wouldn’t quit and arched his flight up through the high clouds to gain the altitude he would need to establish a steep and fast dive that would assure maximum accuracy. Yet in heroic fashion, Major Mearns and his fellow airmen performed the impossible: the target was hit. In leaving the area, the flight leader’s aircraft was badly damaged by enemy groundfire and burning. A hail of automatic weapons that ripped the belly of his aircraft to shreds. Fuel gushed, torched and covered the aircraft from cockpit to tail pipe. Thirty miles away from the coast, Mearns headed toward the ocean (and possible water rescue by Navy personnel) climbing to 18,000 feet and 600 Knots, but the plane’s system couldn’t hold, and he wasn’t able to reach the coast. The F-105 was the workhorse of the Air Force. This was the curse of the Thud. She could go like a dingbat on the deck and she would haul a huge load, but she was prone to loss of control when the hydraulic system took even the smallest of hits. There is just no way to steer her once the fluid goes out.”
Additional details of the mission came from the Summary of Facts and Circumstances filed by Air Force. “His parachute opened normally and was observed at 16,000 feet; however, no emergency electronic signals were heard, and he was not seen to land since the flight was forced to depart the area due to low fuel and hostile activities. The incident occurred at 12:27 p.m. (the mission began at 10:13 a.m.). The area where his parachute was last seen was approximately 32 miles northeast of Haiphong, North Vietnam. Although there was an organized search of this area, it was of short duration due to the hazardous conditions and negative results.”
With her husband officially listed as Missing In Action (MIA) Pat swung into action. “I guess I was a pretty determined young lady at the time. I was very naïve but determined. I wasn’t getting answers from anybody. There was so much chaos about the whole Vietnam War and all the things that were going on. I came home from Japan and was living at my folks’ house, when I decided to get an apartment. Then I decided to come visit down here in Coronado because I heard about a woman named Sybil Stockdale. I went to lunch with her at the Del. I called and talked to her often, but I lived in LA and this was before the time of computers and cellphones. She had a very busy life with her Prisoner of War (POW) drive and I was focused on the MIAs. I didn’t know if my husband was alive or dead and she knew her husband was alive. And that makes a difference. I wrote a letter to all the Congressmen and Senators, sent them out, and got appointments. When we met with President Nixon, they talked about POWs and Mrs. Stockdale was prominent in that discussion. I had to speak up and talk about the missing men.”
Mearns later became one of the first people associated with the POW and MIA organizations to insist the government actively pursue the return of the captives. She added, “I worked with the Red Cross a lot. The Geneva Convention was signed by the North Vietnamese and they were supposed to provide names of men alive or dead. Art was shot down in an area where a lot of people lived. I knew somebody would know about him. When I buttonholed some of the Congressmen, I knew what to tell them. I was a civilian and nobody was paying attention.”
One Congressman who did pay attention to the plight of the military was F. Edward Hebert (D-La.), who served in the House for 36 years. Hebert also served on the House Armed Services Committee from 1948-1975 and served as Committee Chairman from 1971-75. In fact, Hebert kept a copy of a painting of the Mearns daughters, Missy and Frances, which depicted them writing a letter to God, praying for a return of their father, on the wall of his Capitol Hill office. The original painting hangs in the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson AFB near Dayton, Ohio. Hebert’s copy of painting “The Letter” will be presented to the Mearns Family August 21st as part of the ceremony.
Pat Mearns said of Hebert, “Congressman Hebert was a Southern gentleman to the core. He was interested enough in the MIAs that he put the painting behind his desk when he was working. A replica of his office in the Rayburn Office Building (in Washington, D.C.) was recreated at Tulane University, and the painting hung there for a while. When Hurricane Katrina came, a large part of the building at Tulane that held Hebert’s office was damaged. He liked that the painting reminded him of being a Congressman for the people. He asked the Pentagon for a reproduction of the painting.”
Hebert’s daughter Dawn, her two daughters and husband will be on hand for the ceremony. Mearns said, “I just want to thank the Hebert Family for what they have done.” In addition, Betty Maxwell, who is the sister of Art Mearns and a friend of Pat Mearns for 58 years and lives in Coronado will be in attendance.
Unfortunately, Art Mearns’ story does not come with a happy ending. After being listed MIA for 10 years and 349 days, Pat and her daughters were notified that Art had been killed in Vietnam. The conclusion of the ‘Summary of Facts and Circumstances’ said, “On 30 September 1977, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam released in Hanoi, the remains of 22 Americans who were killed in North Vietnam. Colonel Mearns’ remains were among those released and identification was established on 5 October 1977.” Mearns’ remains were interred at Arlington National Cemetery. Over the course of his career, Mearns’ awards included the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross with two oak leaf clusters, and the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters.
Creager has had considerable assistance locally, including support supplied by the Coronado Historical Association and VFW Post 2422, for next week’s ceremony to honor Art and Pat Mearns. Creager said, “They are assisting with the details. The CHA is printing the invitations and the VFW is providing the chairs and setting them up. CHA Executive Director Robin MacCartee is going to be one of the greeters and Chuck Lucas from the VFW will be the master of ceremonies.”
As for other details, Creager said, “It will be a fairly short ceremony, so be there on time. Parking is going to be a challenge, so be prepared. If you can walk or bike to the ceremony, that would help. The NJROTC Honor Guard from Coronado High School will be there and we will have the National Anthem played.”
Event organizers are requesting an RSVP if you plan to attend. That can be done by going to
https://colonelmearns.eventbrite.com or by calling 619-435-7242, so the VFW can set up enough chairs.