Born in Van Wert, Ohio on December 16, 1951, James Coon was the son of Mr. and Mrs. John W Coon and he had five siblings, Nick, Robert, Jan Marie (his twin), Brenda and Gordon. A 1970 graduate of Van Wert High School, James was a member of the football team, track team, tennis team and wrestling team, the marching band and the high school orchestra. James enlisted in the Navy shortly after graduating High School and was killed on December 12, 1971, four days before his 20th birthday en route USS Enterprise (CVAN 65).
On December 12, 1971, a Fleet Tactical Support Squadron FIFTY (VRC-50) Detachment Cubi Point, Philippines C-2A “Greyhound” aircraft, RG-407, took off from Naval Air Station Cubi Point en route Tan Son Nhut airbase Saigon, Vietnam. On board the flight were the C-2A crew, comprised of four members of the VRC-50 squadron, CTO3 James Coon and four other Cryptologic Technicians (CTs) stationed at Naval Communications Station (NAVCOMSSTA) San Miguel, Philippines, and one CT from Naval Security Group Activity (NSGA) Misawa, Japan.
The ultimate destination of the plane, its crew, and its passengers was the USS Enterprise – CVN-65 (formerly, CVAN-65) patrolling off the coast of Singapore and about to head into the Bay of Bengal for 30 days to patrol and monitor an escalating conflict between India and Pakistan. The carrier would return to the Vietnam Combat Zone and its position on YANKEE STATION on 19 January, 1972.
Hours later, when RG-407 was discovered to be overdue for Tan Son Nhut air base, the VRC-50 Detachment Cubi Point Operations Officer reported the situation to the VRC-50 Detachment Atsugi, Japan Duty Officer and advised the 13th Air Force Joint Rescue Coordination Center at Clark Air Base. Having launched the rescue effort over seven hours late, it was dark before SAR units could reach the search area. The USS Coral Sea (CVA-43) and the USS Epperson (DD-719) turned to join in the search and rescue effort at 1630, with the Coral Sea launching two SAR helicopters at 2330.
At the end of a fruitless all-night search for survivors, just before dawn, at 0615 13 December, 1971, a raft (with evidence of charring consistent with onboard fire) was spotted by the crew of Helicopter Support Squadron One Detachment Six (HC-1 DET 6) of the USS Coral Sea. The wreckage, which was positively identified as belonging to RG-407, was found at 13˚08’N 117˚08’E. The search continued, with rescue swimmers finding mail, and “some personal belongings,” but, “barely any plane wreckage.” The deflated life raft and other small debris “…which appeared to be valuable or useful to an investigation” were retrieved. However, “there was so much small debris over such a large area that the (helicopters) had to be selective of what was picked up.” No bodies were recovered from the crash site. Based on the average cruising speed of a C-2A, the wreckage of RG-407 at its closest point of approach to the combat zone was a mere 74 minutes of flight time. At this point, the families of the victims were notified via telegram that the crew was missing at sea. The search for survivors was officially called off on 13 December at 1645, just over 31 hours from RG-407s last known transmission.
The wreckage was transported via the USS Coral Sea back to the hangar at Cubi Point, where investigators made their determination that the plane “most likely impacted the water relatively intact.” Based on this evidence, the board concluded that “the cause of this mishap is undetermined,” however, their best guess was that “the most probable cause was a catastrophic in-flight failure of a propeller/gearbox with resultant aircraft damage.” Pilot error and sabotage via either enemy combatants or suicide were ruled out by the AAR Board after a check of the VRC-50 crew’s flight history and credentials, and a check of the medical records for the crew and passengers.
In the wake of this accident, the Navy’s investigating body recommended the immediate cessation of all C-2A aircraft operations Navy-wide until a determination could be made of their air-worthiness. As was referenced in RG-407’s aircraft accident report.
The Navy followed the board’s recommendation and grounded all C-2A aircraft for months after the crash. Further, VRC-50 soon discontinued all COD service from staging out of Cubi Point, PI, while quickly and permanently moving all COD operations to South Vietnam with its C-1A “TRADER” aircraft.
On the evening of 13 December, 1971, the families of all ten Sailors were officially notified by the Chief of Naval Personnel, Vice Admiral D. H. Guinn, via Western Union telegram, that the search for survivors was over and that no remains had been found. In addition to his deepest sympathies, he also stated in each telegram that all had died on a “scheduled logistical support mission” from Cubi Point to Tan Son Nhut, Vietnam, and added that each had “died in the service of his country.” The designation of the C-2A flight as a “scheduled logistic support mission” would have ramifications which would last for decades that no one in 1971 could have possibly foreseen.