Air Force Featured Stories

Vietnam War pilot returns home

  • Published
  • Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs

After 54 years, the remains of U.S. Air Force pilot Col. Ernest Leo De Soto, who went missing during the Vietnam War, have finally come home.

De Soto’s remains arrived at the San Francisco International Airport June 29 from Pearl Harbor, where his family was escorted by military personnel to the tarmac in a solemn procession. A memorial service was held June 30 at Our Lady of Angels Church in Burlingame, California, followed by full military honors at the Golden Gate National Cemetery.

When asked about how it feels for Ernest to finally be home, his wife Joyce said it was a miracle.

He is one of more than 1,060 service members who have been identified through Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency efforts to recover the remains of service members lost in the Vietnam War.

 De Soto was born Dec. 30, 1931, and was raised in San Francisco, California. In the 1950s, while his friends were being drafted for the Korean War, De Soto enlisted in the U.S. Air Force.

During his career he became an officer and later, a fighter pilot.

On April 12, 1969, De Soto was piloting an F-4D Phantom II assigned to the 390th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 336th Tactical Fighter Wing, alongside his navigator, Capt. Frederick M. Hall and another aircraft on a combat mission. As they returned from a cancelled strike mission near Quang Nam Province, Vietnam, both aircraft ascended into heavy cloud cover. The lead aircraft noticed De Soto and Hall’s plane wasn’t in sight and immediately began an aerial search.

A search and rescue airborne mission located De Soto’s crash site, with no sign of the crew. Unfortunately, the amount of hostile activity in the area prevented a ground investigation.

In March 2021, remains were recovered at the crash site by Defense POW/MIA-trained Vietnamese Recovery Teams. On March 23, 2023, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency identified the remains as belonging to De Soto and Hall.

De Soto was posthumously promoted to the rank of colonel. His wife Joyce De Soto and family were then notified.

"We’re grateful Joyce and the De Soto family are reunited with Ernest after all these years,” said U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown, Jr. “Ernest served valiantly defending our country and the American way of life. We honor his and the De Soto family’s sacrifice to protect peace at home and abroad. The Air Force thanks all those involved at the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency who made this possible."

De Soto’s family said they appreciated all the hard work that went into this reunion 54 years in the making.

“He was a great guy and he believed in what he was doing,” said Joyce. “He loved to fly, and he loved being an American, that was his life.”