From USNA Virtual Memorial Hall
Richard Laws '62

Date of birth: March 25, 1940

Date of death: April 3, 1966

Age: 26

Lucky Bag

From the 1962 Lucky Bag:

1962 Laws LB.jpg

Richard Lee Laws

West Sacramento, California

Richard Lee Laws came to the Naval Academy directly from Clarksburg High School in Clarksburg, California. Dick had a reputation as a brain, but that was not his only contribution to the Brigade. His natural ability as an athlete enabled him to be a very valuable man on any intramural sports squad. Dick is planning on making the Navy his career, but the Navy is not his only interest in life. His secondary interests are cars and girls. Dick devoted his attentions to those hobbies in the same manner that he handles academics: in a quiet, unassuming way that allows him to do an outstanding job. It is that trait, coupled with his uncomprising integrity, that has made him well liked by all.

1962 Laws LB.jpg

Richard Lee Laws

West Sacramento, California

Richard Lee Laws came to the Naval Academy directly from Clarksburg High School in Clarksburg, California. Dick had a reputation as a brain, but that was not his only contribution to the Brigade. His natural ability as an athlete enabled him to be a very valuable man on any intramural sports squad. Dick is planning on making the Navy his career, but the Navy is not his only interest in life. His secondary interests are cars and girls. Dick devoted his attentions to those hobbies in the same manner that he handles academics: in a quiet, unassuming way that allows him to do an outstanding job. It is that trait, coupled with his uncomprising integrity, that has made him well liked by all.


Richard was killed in action on April 3, 1966, when his aircraft was hit by enemy fire and crashed in North Vietnam.

Other Information

From Find A Grave:

Lt Richard Lee Laws, Naval Aviator - Richard Lee Laws (1940-1966) grew up traveling over 1000 miles between Texas where and California, where his father, a skilled carpenter, was able to get work. He, his brother and mother picked crops such as cotton, vegetables and fruit in the scorching Texas sun to earn money for the family. It took fifteen years, but his family eventually built a brick house in Sacramento, California.

He was the first in his extended family to graduate from high school, and always dreamed that he would fly airplanes. This was his passion. The freedom of a plane in the sky offered escape from the rigors of his earthborn life. He was very good at mathematics and science, and won a place at the United States Naval Academy, where he was graduated in the top 10% of his college class. Education was his ticket to a dream, and he became a naval aviator. As a decorated Navy Lieutenant, he was shot down over North Vietnam flying his F-8 from the aircraft carrier Hancock on April 3, 1966, over Xuan Du village in Thanh Hoi province. It was his third flak suppression mission on that day.

Dick, as he as called, loved horses and cars, and could fix any broken engine. He was a gentle man, slow to anger, and quick to smile. He was deeply committed to his small children Richard and Cheryl, and to his wife, parents and brother. He always studied hard, and believed strongly that education and personal commitment were key to opening the door to opportunity. He would be proud that his legacy offers that prospect to others.

The Richard Laws Xuan Du Scholarship is funded by his family to honor his memory; by his colleagues who remember him with great affection and respect, and by other Americans who did not know him, but join with us to foster a deepening friendship between our two countries.



From The Sacramento Bee on February 4, 2013, by Bill Lindelof:

There was little doubt that West Sacramento's Richard L. Laws died April 3, 1966, when the naval fighter pilot's aircraft was hit by enemy fire and crashed in North Vietnam.

"After making a strafing run on the target, Lt. Laws radioed that his aircraft had been hit," reads a military report on his death. "Twenty seconds later, his flight lead observed Laws' aircraft impact a hillside and explode."

The report goes on to state that a parachute was observed but it was not used. No further radio contact was received from the 26-year-old Laws after impact.

A memorial service a few days after the crash was held at Miramar Naval Air Station Chapel near San Diego.

After the war ended, on three separate occasions, different joint teams of Vietnamese and Americans visited the crash site, gathering remains.

However, nothing was to come of those remains recovery missions until the science of DNA typing had advanced to the point that a match was made with a relative of Laws.

"It looks like DNA technology was not quite where it could identify the remains that were recovered until 2011," said Air Force Maj. Carie Parker, a public affairs officer with the Defense Prisoner of War-Missing Personnel Office.

With Laws officially coming off the books as missing in action, the family of the late naval officer will gather on May 10 in Annapolis, Md., at the Naval Academy in the chapel, where a funeral for the pilot will be held 47 years after his death.

His widow, Karen Laws Engelke, who once made a pilgrimage to her first husband's crash site, last week recalled his death and spoke about the importance of the upcoming services.

She described him as a serious man with a dry sense of humor. Thin, athletic and bright, he ran cross country in high school.

He always wanted to fly and could fix any car. Laws graduated high in his academy class.

When he died, Laws was on his second tour of duty, his unit named Attack Squadron 24 on board the USS Hancock. Engelke remembered her husband had grown weary of war.

"Dick was a very tired young man," she said. "He had to buck up every single day to get into that plane to take off."

He wanted to be home, she said. His plane had never been hit before the fatal event, but several in his squadron had sustained damage.

"I was worried every day," she said. "After he came back from the first tour, he had nightmares about being captured."

She remarried in 1971; her second husband, Edwin Engelke, died of cancer.

Engelke said that in 2006, she and her daughter and a grandson went to Vietnam to the crash site. The pilgrimage brought them to a rural village called Xuan Du, about 45 minutes by car from the end of the paved road.

"It was extraordinary," said Engelke. "We were met in a village council chambers and then we hiked up this pretty steep hill."

She brought with her 357 memorial ribbons attached to a pole from all kinds of people, including Laws' classmates and friends. All the ribbons had messages, some in Vietnamese.

She tied it to a tree at the crash site and a few words were said.

Engelke is glad that the remains were recovered to honor her late husband. Her children, who were very young when their father was killed, turned out to "be pretty cool people," she said.

Their son, Richard, an Army veteran, is a physician. Their daughter, Cheryl, once a Naval aviator, is employed in the nuclear shipping industry.

"Dick had a great smile, which his son has now," she said.

Internment at the Naval Academy Columbarium

From the May-June 2013 issue of Shipmate:

On 10 May 2013, Richard Lee Laws '62, USN, finally returned home to Annapolis. With his widow, Karen Laws Engelke, his son, Richard Laws, daughter, Cheryl Laws Ridenhour '86, and grandchildren standing nearby, Laws was interred with full military honors in the Naval Academy Columbarium. Many friends, relatives, classmates and Naval Academy and other military personnel came to honor the Vietnam-era fighter pilot in one of few interments of its kind.

Lieutenant Laws may be the first one" to be interred at the USNA Columbarium whose remains were identified in Vietnam and repatriated 40-plus years later, according to Sharon Moffatt, memorial affairs coordinator for the USNA Cemetery and Columbarium. There may have been one other before him, Moffatt said, and another is waiting on positive identification.

The Class of 1962 suffered more Vietnam War losses than any other USNA class, said Ed Clarke, 11th companymate and dear friend to Laws. Classmates who have been recovered are buried at Arlington National Cemetery and other military cemeteries. but Laws is the first of his class to be recovered, repatriated and interred at USNA, according to Stew Lingley '62.

Engelke, Laws' widow; chose to have this interment and service at the Naval Academy because "the Naval Academy is so important to me," she explained. "The Naval Academy meant a tremendous amount to Dick and my father." Her father, Lieutenant Commander Joe Jeff Wilcox '45, SC, USN (Ret.), graduated in 1944. She said she has always felt a tremendous connection to the Academy and Annapolis.

Karen said that this memorial service "is so important to me to commemorate Dick's retiring because (1) it is the first and only time that my husband, me, our son, daughter and grandchildren will ever be together; (2) to show what an incredible people we have become; and (3) to remind all of us that when you think of all the people who have died in war, it has long legs — it affects people for a long time!

Wings to Fly

Laws always wanted to be a pilot, according to classmate Clarke. He was the first in his family to complete high school and believed firmly in achievement through hard work, Clarke said. By applying himself at the Academy, Laws achieved top ranks in his class for math and physics and was able to select flight school.

After graduating with honors on 6 June 1962, Laws married Karen Wilcox at North Island NAS, Coronado, CA, on 25 July 1962, and earned his wings on 15 November 1963 at Kingsville, TX. Laws joined fighter squadron VF-24, the F-8C "Fighting Red Checkertails," and was sent to Vietnam aboard Hancock from which he returned to his family in California.

During his four or five months at home with his wife and two young children, Richard and Cheryl, Laws trained for his next cruise, including learning what to do if taken prisoner in Vietnam. Before his second deployment, Laws told his wife that he had nightmares about being captured.

"Dick was incredibly unhappy about going back [to Vietnam]," Engelke recalled. "It was a very, very sad departure when the squadron flew out to Hancock. It was quite different then [the second time]."

And indeed it was. In all, Laws had flown more than 200 combat missions. In fact, he was on a mission when he was hit by ground fire. "He said, I'm hit, and then his plane crashed into a ravine,' Engelke said. That was the last anyone heard from him — 3 April 1966.

The Search

Engelke always "maintained a love for Dick and a desire to know what happened to him," Clarke said. With the help of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JAC), Engelke was able to find out, albeit 46 years later.

After Engelke's second husband, Edwin Engelke, died in 1992, she started meeting with Navy Personnel Command Casualty Assistance Division POW/MIA Section, headquartered in Millington, TN. The Navy assigned a Casualty Assistance Calls Officer (CACO), and Engelke began receiving bulletin reports about Laws' case, No. 0294.

"First it was research in the Hanoi archives," she said. "Then a group of Americans went to a museum in Hanoi and saw a wing from my husband's airplane." Also, "They saw photos that the Vietnamese salvaged from my husband's plane." The research progressed, leading to discovery of a crash site in Xuan Du in 1993, but nothing was available to identify a particular plane.

Investigators also interviewed people living in proximity to the crash site. A man who was 11 years old at the time of the war reported seeing "men carrying away a leg that was then buried; an arm with a watch on it that was buried," Engelke said. Those remains turned out not to be Dick Laws'.

In a second excavation at the crash site in 1995, investigators found a piece of cranium, but it was beyond DNA identification at that point, Engelke said. However, she remained optimistic and reports would keep coming whenever something new was discovered, either in Vietnamese archives or newspapers or interviewing people in Xuan Du," she said.

For the forensics lab to identify remains with certainty, Engelke persuaded Laws' mother to give a blood sample before she died, which ultimately was used.

Since investigators found additional elements of the case over time, they headed back to the crash site in 2003.

Trip to Vietnam

Human remains, aircraft remnants and some personal effects were found in the excavation, but were not identified by the 40th anniversary of Dick Laws' death on 3 April 2006. Nonetheless, Engelke decided to pay a visit and her respects at the crash site — then appearing as an archeological dig — to find a sense of completion to her long journey.

She prepared for this trip of a lifetime by reading about Vietnamese funerary customs and collecting memory ribbons from friends, relatives, classmates, coworkers and veterans. Engelke flew to Vietnam with her daughter Cheryl Laws '86, her grandson Carson and a suitcase filled solely with 357 memory ribbons — like ribbons that fly from regimental or unit flags, she explained.

They started with a visit to Hanoi where they prepared for what was next: a visit to the site of the upcoming three-month excavation. "It was to be the largest and longest excavation to date for the JPAC team at a very complex crash site requiring three months and 600 workers," Engelke wrote.

Her party, accompanied by two cars of Vietnamese, set off early in the morning for a 150 kilometer drive southwest to Xuan Du, "a rural village an hour by car from the end of paved roads," she noted. They trudged up a steep ravine to reach the designated location where they conducted a meaningful ceremony and affixed the flagpole with memory ribbons to a tree (the ground was too hard to insert the pole as initially intended).

The memory ribbons represented "a whole host of people whose lives were effected by my husband's death; family members of mine and my husband's and my second husband's as well," Engelke said, including people she didn't even know. "I realized that his death affected others very, very much. People from all over who read about it and wanted to honor him and remember him sent ribbons of all different shapes, sizes and colors."

After the ceremony, Engelke's daughter Cheryl and grandson Carson walked down the hillside to the ravine to collected some dirt to bring home, which was interred with Laws' remains in the Naval Academy Columbarium.

"A 12,000 mile journey, three years of anticipation and planning, 40 years of living on and remembering someone. It was worth every mile, every minute," she wrote. But still, she didn't have answers. At that time, none of the findings confirmed that this particular crash site was that of Dick Laws.

DNA Tests

Five years after Engelke's trip, she attended the annual POW/MIA Day event at the Pentagon. At the October 2011 gathering, she was told that results from DNA testing should be available in the next six to twelve months; but when October 2012 came and went and there wasn't any news, Engelke said she "was getting a little edgy" waiting for any word.

As the holidays rolled around, Engelke headed for South Carolina to visit her son, Richard, and his family. En route on 21 December 2012 at 12:12 p.m., her cell phone rang. CACO Bill Spofford was on the other end of the phone. He was "telling me there were remains and we could plan a funeral," she recounted.

"I floated all the way to South Carolina," Engelke recalled. "I have been a torch bearer all this time. It is so important to me that part of him is back. I alternate between laughing with great joy and weeping."

In early 2013, more information came. Laura Dolezal, DNA analyst for this case; Bill Spofford, with the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) in Millington, TN; and Commander Matthew Testerman '93, CACO who works on details of arranging for repatriation and interment, visited Engelke at her home in Annapolis on 17 January 2013. The team reviewed the DNA analysis of the remains from Xuan Du and Dick's mother's blood sample and "they were identical, they matched perfectly," Engelke said.

Testerman, on his first assignment as a CACO, said he wasn't sure how Engelke would take the news. It could be a peaceful conclusion or mournful, reopening wounds, he said.

"I'm happy" to have some closure, Laws' widow told Ed Clarke, classmate, companymate and dear friend of Dick Laws, who visited Engelke just a few days after she was delivered the news. She's at peace," he said, after all this effort was put into finding some remains and closure.

Answers finally came to the many questions of a journey that began on 3 April 1966. "[Dick] flew over a military encampment" and was shot down, Engelke said. In fact, on her trip to Vietnam she said that she saw armed guards atop the ridge.


"I'm amazed," Engelke said. "[Recovery and identification] is a very complicated process. It's not as though we're the only family and we're the only ones doing it," she acknowledged. According to the JPAC website, the organization identifies about six MIAs each month, and there are more than 1,000 active case files under investigation at any one time. Each case requires the work of many individuals.

On 7 May, Commander Testerman flew from Annapolis to Hawaii to escort Lieutenant Laws' remains back to Annapolis by 9 May.

"I feel so graced," Engle acknowledged. "I know that hundreds and hundreds of people, so high up in Hawaii Central Identification lab, will be thinking of Dick and me on 10 May."

At the interment at the Naval Academy Columbarium, Engelke added Laws' watch and comb that were found at the crash site and Cheryl Laws Ridenhour added the dirt from the ravine in Xuan Du. From a tragic end to life in Xuan Du, Vietnam, Lieutenant Dick Laws has finally been brought home to rest in peace and honor.

Class of 1962

Richard is one of 30 members of the Class of 1962 on Virtual Memorial Hall.

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