CENTRAL CITY — Chapman native Darrell Widman was honorably discharged from the Navy in February 1969.
Widman worked as an air crewman during his four years and two days in the Navy. For two and a half of those years, he was based in Atsugi, Japan,
In April 1969, he was back home preparing to plant corn with his father, Frank, when he heard that a plane filled with 31 men had been shot down. It was the same crew that he had served with prior to his discharge.
Widman knew 21 of the men well, and had flown many times in the same EC-121 reconnaissance plane that was destroyed on April 15, 1969.
On a flight that was supposed to be routine, a North Korean MiG-21 fired a heat-seeking missile at the Navy plane over the Sea of Japan. The plane, which was flying over international waters, crashed into the ocean 90 nautical miles off the North Korean coast. Everyone aboard died. Only two of their bodies were found.
Just a few months earlier, Widman had a good time with a few of the men at a Christmas party in Yokohama, Japan.
Fifty years later, he thinks about the men who died “all the time.” He can talk about Bernie Colgin, Joseph Ribar and some of the other men who perished.
Their names are included in a memorial that stands in South Park in Central City. Widman donated the tribute, which is not far from the large Heartland Veterans Memorial. Both are close to Central City High School.
Widman, 77, took part in 140 flights in Vietnam.
The ill-fated flight originated at Atsugi. The majority of the group’s missions began in Da Nang, South Vietnam.
The 31 crew members are not listed on the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., because the incident occurred outside of the Vietnam War theater and the flight did not leave from Vietnam.
Officially, the deaths are considered part of the Cold War.
It is the largest single loss of a U.S. aircrew during the Cold War era.
When the plane went down, it was “hot news” for about a week, Widman said. Then it died down.
“The EC-121 incident is just one of many military incidents wherein American veterans have served but are not officially identified with a specific conflict or war,” reads the memorial, which was erected last November.
Widman spent a number of years trying to get the casualties’ names on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington.
He finished his time in the Navy as an aviation electronic technician. Initially, he worked in ground maintenance.
During his time in Asia, Widman served two stints in the Philippines. He worked on two aircraft carriers — the Enterprise and the Constellation.
Widman, who lives 2 miles east of Chapman, graduated from Central City High School in 1960.
His family started the Widman Popcorn Co. They later sold the company, which is now known as Preferred Popcorn.
Widman Cinema in Central City is named after his family.
That family has done its part for the U.S. military. On the Heartland Veterans Memorial, Widman can point to relatives who served in the Civil War, with General Patton and at the Battle of the Coral Sea.
On the EC-121 shootdown memorial, below the names of the men who died are these words: “For Those Who Have Served in Combat, the Innocent Know Not the Price of Freedom.”