OSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea -- Like a lot of children growing up in the '60s and '70s, Chris Balcom liked to watch TV for fun and entertainment. But on one occasion, Chris wasn't watching passively, or for joy or entertainment. As he watched, his heart wrenched. Chris was watching the repatriation of American prisoners of war and missing in action -- looking for his father.
On May 15, 1966, at 9:50 a.m., Capt. Ralph Balcom's plane was seen ascending into the clouds about 10 miles southwest of Dong Hoi, Vietnam. Afterward, Ralph lost voice contact with his flight, and didn't return to base before his F-105 Thunderchief’s fuel should have run out. When a search and recovery party found no trace of Ralph or his plane, he was declared missing.
Serving in Vietnam as a pilot for the 421st Tactical Fighter Squadron, Ralph left behind his wife, Marian, their 7-year-old daughter, Tracy, and 4-year-old son, Chris.
More than 47 years have passed. Marian has remarried, Tracy is 54, and Chris, 51, has three children of his own. Suffering with the burden of this sacrifice for four decades, a recent gesture has shown the Balcoms they're not alone, and will always be part of the Air Force family.
It was coincidence that Ralph's old unit, now known as the 421st Fighter Squadron, at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, and Marine Corps Cpl. Jake Balcom, Chris's son, stationed in Hawaii, would be deployed to Korea at the same time.
When Lt. Col. David Shoemaker, 421st FS commander, heard the grandson of a fallen Black Widow (the squadron's moniker) was going to be in the area, he worked fast to get a chance for Jake to get a tour of the squadron's deployed station here. Jake spent March 25-26, with his grandfather's unit.
"It was a no brainer to try to get Jake out here," Shoemaker said. "It means everything to us. This is important. Our heritage, our legacy and taking care of families, that's what our unit and the military is about."
"We thought we were the only ones who remembered him," Chris said. "To find out that Lt. Col. Shoemaker and the 421st remember and honor him made my whole family happy. We are so grateful that they respect the sacrifice of their fallen brother. It's a truly noble thing they're doing by honoring his legacy."
Deployed with his squadron since January, Shoemaker learned about Jake's deployment to Korea from Chris, and quickly reached out to Jake's leadership to arrange a visit.
Jake, a 21-year-old field artillery cannonier, said he knew nothing about the arrangement and was shocked to hear from his first sergeant that he would be going to visit his grandfather's old squadron.
"Words can't describe how excited I was to hear that," he said. "My grandfather's life, and what he did, has been a huge part of our lives. I'm incredibly honored that the 421st (FS) reached out and wanted to meet me."
It's an honor not lost on Jake's family.
"Since the end of the war, we've had no contact with anyone who knew my father," Chris said. "We carried his memory and honored him within our family. We had no idea it was reciprocated by the squadron until now. It's like a gift to us, and we find it comforting to know that we were not alone in this after all. It's my father's last squadron so it will always be a special place for us.”
For the visit, Jake was given a comprehensive tour of the 421st FS’s operations and shown several aircraft including the U-2, A-10 Thunderbolt II and F-16 Fighting Falcon. While the airplanes were amazing, and something he'll never forget, Jake said the real highlight of his stay was the people of the 421st FS, who treated him like family.
"I'm impressed," Jake said. "All of them, from the commander, to the pilots, to the enlisted, when they saw me, they stopped whatever they were doing and showed a genuine interest in me and my family."
Initially, Jake was unsure of what to expect, and felt nervous about spending time with strangers whose only connection to him was his grandfather's Vietnam service, but after his trip, Jake said he feels like a member of the Black Widow family.
"What amazed me was I didn't think people out there cared like I did, like my family did," Jake said. "The fact that other people do and are genuinely interested in my family's history … means everything to us."
Too young to remember his father before he left for war, Chris remembers watching the repatriation of American POWs on TV, anxiously waiting to see his father's face.
"The worst part (growing up) was the uncertainty," Chris said. "Was he alive or dead? If he was alive, what hell on earth was he enduring? Would we ever see him again? Nobody can really understand what this is like unless they've lived it. It's a wound that will never heal."
One of the worst days of my life was Feb. 12, 1973, Operation Homecoming," Chris said. "When the Hanoi POWs came home, watching each man walk down the stairs off the plane, straining to see his face, hoping against hope that my father would be next, but it never came to be. For seven years we lived with not knowing if he was alive or dead. He was lost on May 15, 1966, but to us, he died Feb. 12, 1973."
The influence of Ralph's sacrifice extends to his unseen grandchildren as well. Jake, who wears a POW/MIA bracelet with his grandfather's name on it, said he learned early in life about Ralph's service.
"My dad used to have two flight suits in his closet, a big one and small one," Jake said. "I used to go in there and put the small one on. The small one was given to my dad from my grandfather. I was 4 years old and that's when I began to understand the history of what he did in Vietnam and what it meant."
Chris remembers the flight suits too, and that his father left for war the day after his third birthday.
"My father made me an exact duplicate of his flight suit, made to fit a 3-year-old," Chris said. "It's blue with all the zippers, a 421st squadron patch, an F-105 Thud patch, even first lieutenant bars on the shoulders. I wore it a few times, and it's a keepsake that will stay with me forever. It's a permanent reminder of him and what he loved to do. It's a tangible link to him when everything else we have of him is intangible."
At a dinner in Ralph's honor, Shoemaker toasted the fallen Airman, something he does regularly with the unit in remembrance of their fallen brother.
"Ralph Balcom is the kind of man I want all my guys to be like, the kind of man I want to be like," Shoemaker said during the toast. "This hits so close to home with us because we know that could have been any of us up there. But this is a family, and if you don't take care of your family, then what is the rest of it for?"