A Life Cut Short: 50 years after Navy pilot disappeared, loved ones hope for answers

U.S. Navy Lt. Victor Patrick (Pat) Buckley was 25 years old when he went missing in action during the Vietnam War. His plane was returning to the USS Hancock aircraft carrier on Dec. 16, 1969 when it disappeared. His body has never been recovered. 50 years after his disappearance, his loved ones still wait for answers.

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A yearbook photo from McLean High School where Pat Buckley was voted “Most Popular” in 1962.

Pat was from Falls Church, Virginia. Well-liked and athletic, he was voted “Most Popular” at McLean High School in 1962. After finishing high school, he entered the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland and graduated in 1966. The Academy described him as someone who “faced life straightforwardly” and who could “see humor in almost anything.” According to the 1966 Lucky Bag, an annual yearbook of the Naval Academy, he is remembered as someone who encouraged those around him – academically and spiritually.

After graduating from the Naval Academy in June 1966, Pat was assigned to training as a Naval Aviator.  He qualified to fly the F-8 fighter aircraft and eventually deployed aboard the USS Hancock (CVA 19) in a photo reconnaissance detachment.  On December 16, 1969 while returning from a photo reconnaissance mission over the Ho Chi Min trail, he “disappeared”. His last known altitude was 26,000 feet and he had an hour’s worth of fuel aboard.  Aside from a radio problem, there was no indication of any difficulty. The Gulf of Tonkin beneath his last known position was thoroughly searched and no indication of Pat or his aircraft was found. Given his altitude (26,000 feet) and his fuel state (over an hour’s worth), he might have flown a considerable distance from his last known position before crashing.  Following the search, Pat was declared missing in action.

His status was changed to killed in action, body not recovered in 1971.

Pat fell in love before he left for Vietnam. Her name was Darlene, and they would be engaged before he was set to go back for an eight month deployment.

“I met Pat through his roommate, who I sat in front of at a Pittsburgh vs. Navy game in Philly,” Darlene told VVMF. She was a freshman at Immaculata College in Washington, D.C. and Pat was a senior at the Naval Academy. He was from Virginia and she was from Long Island, New York.

“From the moment I met him, I had no interest in any other guy,” she recalled.  “Pat just had it all. He was funny, charming, handsome, and very intelligent.”

At the time, Pat was completing an engineering degree, but he also loved poetry, philosophy and reading. Darlene was smitten and the two clicked immediately.

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Pat Buckley and Darlene Simeone

After Pat graduated from the Naval Academy, he began flight training and was stationed at various bases throughout the U.S. Months would go by when their only communication was through letters or expensive phone calls. When Darlene finished college in May of 1969, Pat finished flight training and was due to deploy that summer for an eight month cruise as a carrier jet reconnaissance pilot on the USS Hancock in Vietnam. They spent as much time together as they could and before he left, Pat proposed. Darlene accepted and they envisioned getting married when he returned.

Yet as Pat began preparing for a tour in Vietnam, reality set in.

“He often spoke of the mortality rate of pilots, and he worried about breaking my heart if something happened to him,” Darlene said. “I truly believed that we were meant to be together and that he would make it back.”

Darlene remembers receiving the news of Pat’s disappearance. At first, she couldn’t believe it but she tried to remain optimistic that he would be found.

“The report was that he simply disappeared and there was no trace of either him or his plane,” Darlene said. “I don’t know if it would have been easier to know that he had crashed into the water and was dead…and there was a place to go to mourn him.”

Not knowing what happened was the hardest reality to live with. Yet Darlene always held onto faith that he would return. She hoped he somehow made it to land and was captured, but when POWs eventually returned home in 1973, he was not among them.

Darlene eventually carried on with her life, but the memory of Pat never went far. She went to work at the Nassau County Department of Social Services in Long Island. She was heartbroken, numb and uninterested in interacting with anyone. It was there that she met her future husband, Harry. She married him less than two years after Pat went missing. They would go on to have two children and four grandchildren. While her life continued, she was often remorseful.

“I hoped, but feared that he would return to a fiancée that had moved on without him,” she admitted. “I know my husband feels he never got all of me and he’s right. There is a part of me that will always belong to Pat.”

Darlene said that she lived with guilt that she was able to achieve some of her dreams but he was never given the chance.

“I hope that whatever happened to him was quick and that he did not suffer,” she wrote on his Wall of Faces page. “It is said that pain eases with time, but I still feel his loss so acutely to this day.”

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Pat Buckley

When Pat went missing in 1969, he also left behind an older brother Russell, who graduated from the USNA in 1964, and was on active duty, as well as two sisters. Kathleen was two years younger than Pat and Virginia was four years younger.

Russell remembers his younger brother as smart, inquisitive and full of life.

“His personality was so big and encompassed an eclectic combination of traits,” Kathleen added. “He was also extremely bright and sailed through the academic side of life easily. His sense of humor kept us all going and he was just fun to be with. Pat was never lacking for company and cohorts.”

Pat was constantly “pushing the envelope,” sometimes to the dismay of their father, a 1939 graduate of the USNA and a disciplined Navy man.

Virginia’s memories are similar. She looks back on his caring nature and fun-loving personality. He was the help-you-with-your-homework type of big brother.

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US Naval Academy yearbook photo of Pat Buckley

As a young Naval Officer, Pat loved his TR3 British sports car, his motorcycle, and most of all—flying.  He cared deeply for the people in his life. He always had time to encourage and support those around him.

The family remembers when they were notified of Pat’s disappearance.

Russell had recently reported to his first Navy shore duty, at the Bureau of Naval Personnel in Washington D.C. when someone let him know that Pat had not returned to the USS Hancock following a mission.

“I was not immediately distraught,” Russell remembered. “I had made three deployments to the Gulf of Tonkin on the two destroyers I served on prior to being assigned shore duty. Among our assignments was acting as “plane guard” for Aircraft carriers. I was aware that flying a Navy plane was a dangerous business, even in peacetime, and, of course much more so during a war. But I also knew that pilots often survived.”

Russell thought it was likely that Pat would be found, either in the water or in North Vietnam. He remained optimistic and got involved with a group trying to bring attention to those missing in action – in the Navy, almost exclusively pilots. As the year passed, it became increasingly likely his brother had not survived.

“About a year later, in early 1971, the Navy administratively reclassified Pat from MIA to KIA. Although none of the facts about Pat’s loss had changed, that is the first time I remember crying,” Russell said. “I finally realized that Pat was not going to return “

Kathleen was teaching when she got the news her older brother was missing. Their mother was also teaching at a school nearby.

“I will never forget,” Kathleen began. “There was a knock on my classroom door. It was the principal of the school who said he needed to talk to me privately and asked me to come to the teachers’ lounge. He explained that the Navy casualty officers had gone to my mother’s school to inform her of Pat’s loss, but the principal of my mother’s school knew I was nearby, and she thought I should be there when my mother was informed.”

Kathleen quickly left her school to meet with the casualty officers.

“When my mother came into the room,” Kathleen recalled, “she looked and me and said, ‘It’s Pat.’” At that time, a search was being conducted and the family was still waiting for answers. They remained confident he would be found.

Pat was lost at sea nine days before Christmas. “We received Christmas cards and gifts from him after he was reported missing.  It would be one of many tough Christmas seasons for my family,” Virginia commented.

Kathleen remembers that each Christmas the family was allowed to send one package via the Red Cross to Pat on the chance that he was a POW.  “Each year our mother lovingly prepared the package and each year it was returned.”

Healing happens slowly, over time, but his brother and sisters feel his loss every day. They proudly remember him with smiles and stories. They work to ensure that his nieces and nephews learn to know him and the sacrifice he made.

“I don’t think you ever heal,” Virginia said. “I think you just learn to deal.  There are too many of our service members who remain missing.  We need to bring each and every one of them home.”

1,587 U.S. service members remain missing and unaccounted for from the Vietnam War, according to the National League of POW/MIA Families.

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1969-1970 USS Hancock Cruise Book photo of Pat Buckley

When The Wall was dedicated in 1982, Pat’s name was inscribed on 15W, Line 61. A cross symbol is inscribed next to his name to indicate his body has never been recovered. In July of 2007, Pat’s brother and sisters had a full military service at Arlington National Cemetery and a memorial marker was placed in section MK, grave 67. Family members, USNA classmates, and fellow aviators attended.

“It remains painful that we do not know what happened to Pat. We try to maintain hope that one day, perhaps not in my life time, some wreckage or remains are found,” Kathleen said. “We are hopeful that new technology will aid in underwater searches for the many pilots lost over water during that war.”

Pat is remembered by his USNA classmates and squadron members as vibrant and dynamic, and by his family as a loving brother and son. He is one of the 58,276 service members whose lives were cut short. His family reminisces on his short, but beautiful life. His fiancée, Darlene, carries loving memories with her every day. Pat’s spirit is alive in all who knew him and a nation still waits for his return.