After 50 years, missing veteran killed in Vietnam is back in Utah

Nov 9, 2023, 6:02 PM | Updated: 6:26 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — American Airlines flight 2845 was like any other plane that arrived at the Salt Lake City International airport Thursday afternoon. But after just a few minutes at the gate, the passengers knew something was different.

Many of them had their cellphones pressed against the windows, because not every flight has Marines in full uniform approaching the plane.

(Winston Armani, KSL TV)

Susan Richards and her family were also outside the airplane on the tarmac. It has been 50 years since Richards last saw her husband, Ralph Jim Chipman.

“I really never thought that they would probably find something,” said Richards during our interview with her just the night before. “He had always dreamt of flying, so when he got the change to fly an airplane, he was one of the happiest people I had ever known,” she said with a smile.

Captain Chipman, who is from American Fork, was a pilot in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Vietnam War. He was flying a mission there when he was shot down in 1972.

Richards remembers the day when she found out her husband wasn’t coming home alive.

“There had been a huge snowstorm and no one could get through the point of the mountain for a day or two. But then, that day, I opened the door, and standing there was a Marine in uniform and my bishop. I said, wow, it’s really great to see you, a Marine in uniform. And then it just hit me what I was seeing,” said Richards. “Yeah. That was a day I will obviously never forget.”

Chipman left behind his wife and two young sons, ages four and almost two. His remains weren’t found and the Marines officially listed him as Killed in Action in 1974.

(Courtesy: Chipman Family)

“I always knew he was a war hero and thought he was a great guy,” said Matthew Chipman, Capt. Chipman’s youngest son. “My children have always talked about Grandpa Jim on Veterans Day, so he has been a part of Veterans Day for them growing up.”

The family shared pictures and memories through the years. They even went to all the memorials with his name on them, including the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C. and a tree in an American Fork park that was planted in his honor in 1973. It became a tradition for Chipman’s kids to have their pictures taken at the tree as they got older and the tree grew taller.

The family was at peace with what happened.

“We knew he wasn’t alive, but you always want to have some piece of him,” said Richards.

(Courtesy: Chipman Family)

This past summer, Scot Chipman, Capt. Chipman’s oldest son, got a message that his father’s dog tags, some bone fragments, and teeth, were found at a crash site in Vietnam by a team that searches for American war remains.

“They go to these sites and they spend two or three months at a time digging,” said Scot Chipman.

When those remains were positively identified as Chipman’s, the family almost couldn’t believe it.

“In a way, it was kind of a closure,” said Richards. “It is amazing to have him come home to American Fork where he was raised and where all those memories are.”

At the airport Thursday afternoon, the Marines saluted as a casket containing Chipman’s remains was slowly removed from the cargo area of the airplane. They then brought it into a holding area, where they draped it with an American flag, and then out into a hearse for the procession to American Fork along Interstate 15.

One of the most touching moments was when Richards went to the back of the hearse before the door was closed and put her hand on the casket. After 50 years, she was as close to Chipman as the day he left for war.

“We are grateful to everyone that has done this,” she said. “I am hoping that he knows he’s being honored in this way.”

(Winston Armani, KSL TV)

There is a ceremony planned for Friday night at that tree, the Freedom Tree in Robinson Park, which will be lit up in red, white, and blue. Chipman’s funeral is this Saturday — Veterans Day — in American Fork.

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After 50 years, missing veteran killed in Vietnam is back in Utah