Spc. 4 Leo Lujan was 22 when he died in 1968 from serious injuries in a 1967 plane crash in Vietnam. He is buried in Santa Fe, N.M., National Cemetery.
Spc. 4 Leo Lujan was 22 when he died in 1968 from serious injuries in a 1967 plane crash in Vietnam. He is buried in Santa Fe, N.M., National Cemetery. (Photo Credit: Courtesy photo) VIEW ORIGINAL

They were Soldiers and they were young. Both went to Vietnam to serve as Morse Code intercept operators.

Dave Riggs remembers his friend Leo Lujan, whose name was finally added to the Vietnam Memorial Wall in 1986. Lujan died in 1968, never recovering from serious injuries in a 1967 plane crash in the line of duty.

It took 18 years for Lujan’s name to be added to The Wall. Lujan’s older sister, Eva Eldredge, conducted a determined campaign to make that happen and it finally did.

“Just reading the accounts of what she went through, it must have been horrible,” Riggs, who resides in Mesquite, Nevada, said. “The courage and strength every day to do what she did. And really to not have the resources.”

He met Lujan in 1965 when they were assigned to Morse Code training for the Army Security Agency at Fort Devins, Massachusetts. The grueling six-month school was stressful and challenging. Of the 85 people in their class, only 14 graduated.

“Leo was from Natrona, Wyoming, had a friendly, open disposition and a wide smile,” Riggs said. “He and I would sometimes go out after hours to the attractions in the nearby town of Ayer. While he wasn’t in my specific classroom group, we were in the same barracks building and shared a class schedule that allowed us to go to meals together at the mess hall together with our small group of friends.”

In the late spring of 1966, after graduating code training, they all received orders for their next duty station. Riggs and Lujan were among those assigned to Vietnam. Lujan would be going to the 138th Aviation Company (ASA), 509th Army Security Agency Group in Phu Bai, Vietnam (I Corps). Riggs was assigned to the 337th Radio Research Company (ASA), 1st Infantry Division headquarters in Di-An, Vietnam (III Corps).

The two friends lost contact with each other from then on. Throughout the years, even after leaving the Army as a specialist five in September 1969, Riggs would often wonder about Lujan’s fate and how he was doing.

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Vietnam revisited

Part 383 in series

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In 2012 Riggs was shocked to read an online article about Lujan being killed in a crash of a fixed-wing aircraft, RU-8D Seminole, Vanguard 713, in which he was working Morse intercept duties during flight. Riggs learned that the crash occurred Dec. 29, 1967, at the Phu Bai airport as the pilot was attempting to return to base after some midair problems. The pilot and co-pilot were killed on impact. Lujan survived the crash but died at a VA hospital in Albuquerque, New Mexico, May 24, 1968, from his injuries.

“He never regained consciousness,” Riggs said. “The Army dropped him at the VA hospital but they left no record of him being a Soldier. He was kind of treated like a John Doe.”

When Lujan died, the family had to make their own arrangements to have the body shipped back to Wyoming. There was no Army casket, no Army uniform, no Army honor escort for the body, no Army survivor assistant to aid the family with the funeral arrangements, and no Army payment of $550 for funeral expenses.

Lujan had been raised from childhood by his older sister, Eldredge. After his death, Eldredge discovered that his name had not been placed on the Vietnam Memorial Wall. She then embarked on her battle against the Army, state and federal politicians to correct this omission. After 18 years, his name was inscribed on The Wall.

Riggs found her story outlined in a book titled “Reconciliation Road A Family Odyssey” by John Douglas Marshall, published July 1, 2011. Riggs tried to reach out to Eldredge but found that she had died Jan. 24, 2020.

In November 1986, Eldredge had the honor of addressing the ceremony to add 19 new names to the more than 58,000 inscribed on the Vietnam memorial. She read aloud the 19 names, culminating with her brother’s.

“She made right what should’ve been done by the military,” Riggs said.

He was also surprised to learn that Lujan’s name is not listed in the National Security Agency’s National Cryptologic Memorial website. The Army Security Agency, during the time of the Vietnam War, was in the chain of command to the National Security Agency. The NSA maintains the history of the ASA on the National Security Agency’s National Cryptologic Memorial website and at Fort George G. Meade, Maryland.

“The National Security Agency/Central Security Service Cryptologic Memorial honors and remembers those who gave their lives, ‘serving in silence,’ in the line of duty,” according to its stated purpose. “It serves as an important reminder of the crucial role that cryptology plays in keeping the United States secure and of the courage of these individuals to carry out their mission at such a dear price.”

When Riggs saw an online article about this memorial and looking over the list of names honored, he noticed that Lujan’s name was not there. Nor were the names of his pilot in the fatal crash, Warrant Officer Milton W. Smith, and the co-pilot, Warrant Officer Johnathan P. Shaffer. Riggs said he assumed there was an error of omission and notified the NSA.

He subsequently received the following reply from the Army Intelligence and Security Command at Fort Belvoir, Virginia:

“On 9 May 1969, then-CSM Clifford Charron dedicated the ASA NCO Memorial in honor of those ASA men who had died as a result of hostile action on or after 27 June 1950. The Memorial was presented and paid for by the command’s noncommissioned officers. Criteria for inclusion on the Memorial included, ‘Those Soldiers who were killed as a result of hostile actions (Korean War, Vietnam War, and Campaign in Dominican Republic).’

“When the aircraft carrying W01 Shaffer, W01 Smith, and SP/4 Lujan crashed on 29 December 1967, it was determined that the crash was not a result of hostile action.”

All three names are included in the Vietnam War Memorial but Riggs, 76, believes they should also be in the National Cryptologic Memorial.

“They were on a mission,” he said. “They were well within the line of duty in a combat area.”

Editor’s note: This is the 383rd in a series of articles about Vietnam veterans as the United States commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.