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Saturday, November 11, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Finally, news of lost son

Seattle Times staff reporter

He has been a question mark for 28 years, remembered in fading snapshots and yellowed newspaper clippings, in scrapbooks of typed high-school speeches and first paychecks and in letters from presidents who say they are sorry.

U.S. Navy pilot Roderick Lester, who started drawing pictures of jets in the third grade and started flying them 14 years later, disappeared Aug. 20, 1972, while piloting an A-6A Intruder attack jet over Vietnam.

In Morton, the Lewis County lumber town of almost 1,300 where he grew up, he is the only man still missing from the Vietnam War. This Veteran's Day, his name will be mentioned, as always.

But this year, there is news about Lester, known as "Rog" by family and friends. He is still missing - but the place he and bombardier Harry Mossman crashed has been found. The wreckage is scattered over a swath of jungle the size of a football field, on the side of a mountain peak in the Quang Ninh Province.

Investigators found the wreck of an A-6A jet. They found a part of a sock, a piece of a parachute, zippers and buckles, snaps and buttons. Parts of an ejection seat, survival vests and kits. They found fragments of a leather nametag, too, attached to a survival vest: "ROG," one part says. "STER," the other part says.

And finally this fall, after more than a year of investigating, the Navy sent a letter to his mother, Esther Lester, saying that investigators are certain this is where the plane crashed.

"This is pretty final, this letter, I guess," Lester said. "I don't know. We've been disillusioned for so many years. This must be the truth, but we still don't believe it."

Veteran's Day, originally designated to mark the end of World War I, is a day of tribute to veterans and to the dead of all U.S. wars. But for people like Esther Lester, it is a reminder of the people who served and didn't make it back.

Rog Lester was the 62nd of 63 people from Washington to be listed as missing in the Vietnam War. He is one of more than 1,900 still missing from that war, and one of about 88,000 still missing from all the U.S. conflicts since Veteran's Day became a holiday.

Over the years, Lester's parents, older brother and friends learned mental gymnastics. They built worlds fed by rumors: Maybe he was shot down over the water. Maybe he was captured by the enemy. Maybe he is somewhere, still alive.

"As sharp as Rog was, as gutsy as he was, if anyone were to get out, Rog would," said his best friend from childhood, Mike Emerson.

The friends are older now, graying, in their 50s, remembering a man frozen in tousled hair at 26, forever the life of the party, the top student, the man who buzzed Morton in his jet at least once.

As a youth, he was a prankster, who with Emerson once dumped detergent in the Tunnel of Love at the Puyallup State Fair. He always wanted speed: He built a go-cart, he drove the family's riding lawn mower through the hayfields. When he turned 16, he started test-driving the new Buicks in his father's car lot. If the cars had wings, he would have flown them, friends say.

Flying seemed inevitable. He was a top student at flight school. He landed at the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station. His squadron, based on the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk, wasn't sent to Vietnam until March 1972, the tail end of the war.

In the next six months, Lester flew 144 missions. While on leave in Hong Kong, he asked his sweetheart visiting from Washington to marry him, and she said yes. He wrote letters home and said he was disillusioned.

"I guess we all thought he was patriotic at the time he went in," his mother said. "But then, as time went on, we were against it, as he was. A waste of time. A waste of human life."

He and Mossman flew out that night for a typical mission, which lasted two or three hours: Armed night reconnaissance over a relatively major highway that snaked along the coast of North Vietnam.

Personnel in a nearby aircraft saw a flash in the area of his plane. A radio transmission was made: "Let's get the hell out of here." The plane was the only one lost by the squadron, known as the Knight Riders.

Since then, life has been a what if, a broken heart. Every year, the Lesters have traveled east for the national conference for families of missing soldiers. When prisoners of war were released, friends scrolled through the names, searching for Lester, for Mossman.

"Any opportunity I had, I would call and ask," said Greg Wood, a bombardier in their unit who now lives in Kenmore. "All we ever heard was what we heard in the squadron. All we knew was, they went in, and didn't come out."

In 1994, the Department of Defense started reviewing information on each of the American soldiers unaccounted for in the war. Investigators reviewed intelligence reports, interviews and archives. A potential crash site was matched to Lester and Mossman.

In 1997, investigators started checking out that area and a rumored burial site, near a village, nine miles away. Wood and three men who trained with Lester decided to go back to Vietnam.

They wanted to see the crash site, but bad weather prevented it. So they talked to a retired Vietnamese military official who lived in the village, who said villagers hiked to the plane after it crashed and collected the remains they found. They carried maybe 10 pounds back to the village and buried them in a field, he said.

Investigators dug up the field but found nothing.

"The thing it really brought home, was what a waste (the war) was," said Danny Beauchamp, Lester's roommate at flight school who led the trip back to Vietnam.

Investigators excavated the crash site last fall and again this spring. They're supposed to be there now, looking for remains.

In Morton, 90 miles south of Seattle, people still remember Rog Lester. Two roads in town are named for his father, Reg Lester, who ran the major car dealership and gas station in town, who ran a tree farm and bred thoroughbreds.

Reg Lester died in May, after 63 years of marriage, before he ever learned his son's crash site had been found.

"Oh, we carried this in our hearts for all these years," Esther Lester said. "It makes me sort of callous, when anything bad happens. Like somehow, I didn't go to pieces when Reg died."

She has a shrine for her son on the wall just inside her front door: The rubbing of his name from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The framed cover of Parade magazine from 1993, with the headline "Lest We Forget" and 27 faces of missing soldiers, with Lester's picture in the lower right. The medals and ribbons, including the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart.

She is 82, as big as a minute, with a white cloud of hair around her head, and she knocks around by herself in the sprawling house where her two sons grew up.

The Navy has asked her where she would like her son to be sent, if his remains are found. Officials wanted to know if she wanted him buried out east, in Arlington National Cemetery. But no, she said. She wants him to come home.

Kim Barker's phone message number is 206-464-2255. Her e-mail address is kbarker@seattletimes.com.

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Veterans Day schedules

Most government offices, public schools and colleges observed the Veterans Day holiday yesterday. For the holiday, unless otherwise noted, services will be on regular schedules.

Banks: Most banks closed today, except some in-store branches.

Public transportation: Buses and ferries are on a regular schedule.

Libraries: Closed.

Liquor stores: Open.

Postal Service: Post offices are closed, and only Express Mail will be delivered.

Parking meters: will not be enforced.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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