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MIA bracelet keeps memory of missing Oregon pilot alive

Talent resident Judy Van Blarcom wasn't fortunate enough to have known Capt. Robert Altus.

But she has often thought about him over the past three and a half decades.

"I've always wondered what he would have become if he had the chance," she says. "I imagine he would have been a career officer. He probably would have gone up through the ranks.

"He had a great future ahead of him, had he lived," she adds.

Chances are Air Force pilot Robert W. Altus, 25, of Sheridan didn't survive when his F-4 Phantom fighter-bomber went down over southern Laos on the night of Nov. 23, 1971, at the tail end of the Vietnam War.

Van Blarcom, 67, has a simple steel wrist band bearing the inscription "Capt. Robert Altus 11-23-1971." She is now looking for a family member to give him or her the MIA bracelet.

"He is obviously not coming home," she says. "It seems appropriate to give it to someone in his family rather than keep it in a drawer."

She doesn't recall precisely but figures it was in early 1972 when she received the bracelet. Now retired from the Ashland Daily Tidings mail room, she was living in Ashland at the time.

"I think they had something in the paper regarding people from Oregon missing in action," she recalled. "They had these MIA bracelets for moral support. It was a way of showing they were not forgotten."

The war never directly touched her family, although her husband, Wayne, a retired police officer, served in the Navy.

Altus was assigned to the 4th Tactical Fighter Squadron stationed at Da Nang Air Base in what was then South Vietnam. Joining him in that fateful mission was 1st Lt. William Phelps, the weapons and systems operator, according to a government report on the incident.

The multi-aircraft mission was about 20 miles northwest of Chavane in Saravane Province, Laos, when a large explosion was seen on the ground by other American pilots. Attempts to raise Altus and Phelps by radio failed. No parachutes were seen or emergency radio beeper signals heard.

Van Blarcom would wear the bracelet for 10 years. In a way, he became an unseen kid brother of sorts to the woman who had no brothers.

In 1972, the daily tally of American dead or missing in that war was being reported by the Mail Tribune, the Tidings and most papers across the land. The growing list tugged at our collective conscience.

Yet for most, they were just cold statistics. Everyone felt bad about the growing numbers of American dead but many simply flipped the page or changed the channel to make them disappear.

Not Van Blarcom. In addition to wearing the bracelet, she began a correspondence with the pilot's mother in Sheridan.

"We were very happy to receive your sweet note of concern for our son, Bob, and so pleased to know you care enough to be wearing the bracelet," Mrs. R.N. Altus wrote back on Dec. 28, 1972.

She noted that their son, who was born in Waco, Texas, on Aug. 7, 1946, had a graduated from Oregon College of Education in Monmouth, now Western Oregon University, then joined the Air Force as a commissioned officer.

After serving one tour of duty in Vietnam as the pilot of a spotter plane, receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross and air medal, he returned to the States for fighter pilot training, she wrote. He was sent to Vietnam again in July of 1971, she added.

The pilot had two brothers and two sisters, she said.

"We pray constantly for Bob's safe return and that, if he is alive, he is receiving humane treatment," his mother wrote.

"There is, we know, the awful possibility that he may not be alive," she continued. "We pray then that God gives us the strength to accept that, too."

Cards and letters from strangers like Van Blarcom, particularly during the holiday season, helped the family through the pain of their loss, she concluded.

"I wrote to the family for years," Van Blarcom says. "But our correspondence kind of tapered off over the years."

She believes his parents are most likely deceased. The pilot would be 61 years old if he had lived.

"I'd like to locate one of his brothers or their children — someone in his family — to give this bracelet to them," Van Blarcom says.

"For me, this bracelet memorializes someone who did a great service for his country," she adds. "He gave his greatest gift."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.