Col. Donald Singer received orders in April 1966 to Southeast Asia, where he was placed among an elite group of pilots chosen to fly jets armed with a top-secret weapons system.
The young aviator left his wife and four children at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, including his 10-year-old daughter. Four months later, the girl answered a knock at the door; a man in uniform bearing news no military family wants to hear.
“I answered the door and it was an officer – a guy in uniform,” Susan Singer-Vincent said this week. “He asked for my mother. She came to the door and she knew what it was for. My mother was crying, and the guy kept looking at me. I remember that.”
With a tri-folded flag tucked under her arm, Singer-Vincent accepted her father’s service medals posthumously on Friday at a ceremony held in Missoula. It was also Pearl Harbor Day and Singer-Vincent’s birthday.
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., acquired the medals, doing what Singer-Vincent had been trying to do for years without success. Tester read the story of Col. Singer’s valor into the congressional record before passing the medals and ribbons to Singer-Vincent and her two daughters.
“These are small tokens, but I believe they are powerful symbols of the service and heroism and sacrifice your father and mom, and whole family, gave in dedication of this county,” Tester told them. “They’re presented on behalf of a grateful nation.”
Singer was assigned as a B-52 electronics warfare officer at Barksdale AFB when he was tapped to fly the F-105F. Operating under code name “Wild Weasel,” the jets were deployed to attack North Vietnamese surface-to-air missile batteries.
“My opinion is that at the beginning of the war, they sent the best pilots over to try and end it sooner than later,” Singer-Vincent said. “They modified the F-105, making them two-seaters. My dad would spot the targets and the pilot would shoot them.”
The pilot commanding the 1966 mission was Lt. Col. Joe Brand. When their F-105 went down in August, both pilots were seen ejecting by other pilots in the squadron. Brand dispatched a single voice transmission saying he’d survived the ejection and landing.
Yet no radio calls were received from Singer, and no further contact was made with Brand after his first transmission. The Air Force declared both men missing in action and considered the possibility they had become prisoners of war.
And so began Singer-Vincent’s ache of not knowing her father’s fate. The family was instructed not to discuss the MIA status of their father and husband. Yet families under similar circumstances began to speak with one other, and support groups formed.
On Christmas Day 1969, Ross Perot’s organization, United We Stand, flew Elizabeth Singer and her four children to Paris to demand information from the North Vietnamese peace delegation.
Singer-Vincent said her mother became deeply involved in the National POW/MIA Wives Organization. She campaigned for an accurate accounting of American MIAs and for better treatment of POWs.
“It was devastating the entire time he was gone,” Singer-Vincent said of her father. “He wasn’t dead or alive. He was just missing. It’s a weird life. A lot of the people we knew, their dads and fathers came back, but some didn’t. It was like a lottery if they would or not.”
The years rolled by and Singer-Vincent grew up without her father, wondering his fate. She attended college at the University of Montana and was in Jesse Hall when the phone rang in 1977.
“My mother called and said they had found my dad’s body,” she said. “They were going to be sending him back.”
The family learned that Col. Singer’s parachute never fully opened when he ejected. He was buried in North Vietnam, not far from where he was shot down. Lt. Col. Brand, she said, was likely found and shot by the North Vietnamese.
Singer-Vincent keeps the flag that draped her father’s coffin. The flag sits folded in a frame and includes an area where her father’s medals should be. She’s been trying to get those medals for years to complete her memorial, but she hasn’t had any luck in doing so.
“That’s what started all this,” the Missoula resident said. “I wanted to put his medals in the frame.”
When the Wall That Heals arrived in Missoula this year, Singer-Vincent visited the half-scale Vietnam memorial at the UM campus. She spoke to several vets who also were there, and one of them helped her enlist Tester’s help.
She and her daughters held the long-sought awards Friday. They included a Purple Heart and a Bronze Service Star for national defense, along with service in Vietnam. There was an Air Force Commendation Medal, a Presidential Unit Citation, and a Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross with a palm ribbon.
She also received a happy birthday song and personal thanks from Tester.
“Memories are vivid of the servicemen who went off to Vietnam and those who gave the ultimate sacrifice,” Tester told her, noting they were the same age. “Honoring Montana’s heroes is something I take very seriously.”
Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, email@example.com or @martinkidston.