The Story Behind the Photo

What is the connection between this old photograph, the Vietnam War and the Hindenburg disaster? Keep reading to learn the story behind the photo.

I found this archived image in an old family album. LCDR Marvin Umstead, Jr. (pictured above) was a decorated war hero — the recipient of 13 Air Medals including the Navy Commendation Medal with Combat “Valor” Device and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry. Upon returning from his service in Vietnam, Umstead was assigned to the elite Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron — the Blue Angels. At the time of this photo, he was serving as the team’s Lead Solo.

The F-4 Phantom, seen in the background, was piloted by the team’s flight leader, CDR Harley Hall. Umstead, in his final year with the Blues, was preparing to transition back into the fleet, but fate intervened. CDR Hall deployed to Vietnam, and Umstead was called back to serve as the Blue Angels team leader.

It was the last day of the war in Vietnam. A cease-fire had been announced when CDR Hall catapulted off the deck of the USS Enterprise for one final combat mission on 27 January 1973. His Phantom was shot down, but pilot and co-pilot safely ejected.* Hall was listed as the last American POW of the Vietnam War. For 40 years his official status was Prisoner of War, but the government since changed his classification to KIA.

Six months later, 26 July 1973, while practicing for an airshow over Lakehurst, New Jersey, Umstead was killed in a mid-air collision. The accident occurred just four miles from the site of the Hindenburg disaster. Umstead, who had left the team in December 1972, was only three months in as Boss of the Blue Angels. He had been called back after a training accident in March involving the #3 jet (pictured below).

Forty-five years later, In Pics and Words honors those who served including my older brother, Steve, recipient of the Bronze Star for Acts of Valor.

* LCDR Philip A. Kientzler, Hall’s RIO (Radio Intercept Officer) landed 100 feet from Hall as the North Vietnamese fired at them from the jungle. Kientzler said that Hall made it safely into the trees. This was confirmed by their wingman who circled overhead providing air support. Kientzler was captured and sent home with the returning POW’s, but Hall’s fate remained a mystery.

In 1995, Hanoi returned partial remains (teeth) that were identified as belonging to Harley Hall. Forensic tests indicated that the deceased likely died in captivity. The condition of the remains did not match Hall’s dental records at the time of his last mission thus suggesting that he lived a number of years in confinement. North Vietnamese officers reported parading the “famous Blue Angel” through the streets of Hanoi as a trophy of their victory over the Americans.

We will never forget.

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