Two U.S. Marines from Camp Pendleton flying a military reconnaissance plane crashed while directing fire against Iraqi targets in Kuwait and were declared missing in action, defense officials said Saturday.
Lt. Col. Clifford Acree, 39, and Chief Warrant Officer Guy Hunter, 46, formed the two-man crew of the Marine OV-10 Bronco, a turboprop plane used for observation and command in support of other aircraft.
The two are the first deployed from the West Coast to be listed as missing in action.
In an interview Saturday afternoon, Hunter’s wife, Mary, said her family moved to Camp Pendleton only two weeks ago and that the Marine Corps officers who showed up at her door were the first members of her husband’s squadron she had met.
When she saw the three officers standing outside at 3:45 p.m. Friday, she knew immediately that they bore bad news about her husband, who shipped out to the Middle East last fall.
“I felt like somebody stuck a dagger into my heart,” she said, crying. “I just wished I knew if he was alive or dead. . . . I just want him back.”
She said she was told that her husband and Acree, the commanding officer of the observation squadron, were flying in the reconnaissance plane that was downed in the desert. Acree was piloting the plane, Hunter was the observer.
It was Hunter’s first mission during Operation Desert Storm, his wife said.
“I don’t want to think about him being tortured. I don’t want him to die a slow death,” Mary Hunter, 41, said, sobbing. “I am trying to put my senses to him--like to reach him in my mind. I want him back. With my mental vibes, I want him to know I care for him whether he is in heaven or in a sand dune.”
Early Saturday evening, Mary Hunter saw a news bulletin that reported her husband had been rescued. For 30 minutes, she gleefully jumped around the house. Then the broadcast was corrected.
“Now I am back, slipped down in the bottom of the belly of a whale,” she said. “I just wished I could wake up and it would be a very bad dream. I feel like a dishrag.”
The Hunters, with their three children, whose ages range from 7 to 12, moved to Camp Pendleton on Jan. 4 from North Carolina, where her husband of 15 years had taught aircraft observation at the New River Marine Corps Air Station. The movers finished bringing their belongings last Monday.
Mary Hunter said she and her husband met at Camp Pendleton, a quarter of a mile from where she now lives, and the couple had always wanted to return to the Oceanside community. She said she planned to go Sunday to the chapel where she and her husband were married.
“I didn’t know this was going to happen. I thought of all the good, fun times. I found my happiness here. I always had a wonderful, happy life,” she said.
But the prospect of that new life seemed to crumble when the officers gave her a letter that began, “The Secretary of the Navy regrets to inform you that your husband is missing in action.” She stuck the letter up on her refrigerator.
Mary Hunter spent Saturday getting calls from people she didn’t know and from longtime friends. Men in her husband’s squadron called to say they had heard that his plane had been hit by enemy fire but that Hunter had a flare, water and a weapon and so would be able to survive.
“What am I suppose to do, go the next nine years of my life with an MIA (missing in action) bumper sticker on my car?” Mary Hunter said. “I just have to wait and see what they say. It is very, very sad. . . . I didn’t sleep last night. My eyes burn.”
Family members in the Acree household in Oceanside declined to be interviewed Saturday. A Marine officer answered the door to their home and said the family did not wish to speak.
Neighbors of the Acrees received a Christmas card last year that showed Acree’s wife, Cindi, a daughter Stephany, their dog and cat--both adorned with yellow ribbons--on the cover. On the inside was a photo of Clifford Acree and his jet.
“Though This Holiday Season Finds Us Miles Apart/We Both Join in Wishing You Merry Christmas and a Happy and Peaceful New Year.”
In an interview with a San Diego television station earlier this year, Acree said his squadron of observation planes had flown to the East Coast, then north to Canada and on to Scotland, England, Spain and, finally, Saudi Arabia. Since the OV-10 can fly only six hours at a time, it was necessary for the planes to journey in short hops.
Acree declined to tell the television crew how many planes flew over. “We brought enough to meet our needs here,” he had said.
Mary Hunter said her husband often spoke of the risks of his career. A Marine for 29 years, he served four tours of duty in Vietnam, she said. He had planned to make this assignment in the Middle East his last tour of duty before retiring.
Since his departure, her husband had sent flowers three times and called her four times, Mary Hunter said. She had also gotten numerous letters from him--and in his recent letters he always closed by asking her to drive carefully.
During his calls, he liked to plan out what the couple would do when he returned. Lately, he talked a lot about a special vacation they would take to Sonoma and Napa Valley, where they would go wine tasting, she said. They would tour San Francisco.
He also planned trips with their children, Laura Charlotte, 12; William Raymond, 9, and Mary Elizabeth, 7. They would go as a family to Disneyland, which the children had never visited. Disneyland has offered military families special invitations, but Mary Hunter has always declined, saying they would wait until her husband returned.
Hunter also told her what he could of his stint in the Middle East. He informed her that he had received a Navy Commendation medal, but when she asked him what he had gotten it for, he refused to say.
He said the men in his squadron had taken bets on when they would be sent into action--the loser would have to hold a party for the others.
For Mary Hunter, whose brother died in the Vietnam war, the painful news seemed to have a familiar ring.
“He was very concerned about the money and my decisions, and the children--their well-being and where they were going to be raised,” she said.
“My husband is just a good ‘ol boy,” she said of Hunter, who grew up in Moultrie, Ga., one of 12 siblings.
Mary Hunter lived in the same Camp Pendleton apartment as Ann Dolvin, whose husband was killed along with eight other Marines last October when two Huey helicopters collided and crashed into the North Arabian Sea off the Coast of Oman.
Dolvin, now living in North Canton, Ohio, heard the news of Hunter and Acree on Friday from a friend in Georgia who used to live on the base and whose husband also flies an OV-10.
“We’re keeping a close watch on all our friends over there,” Dolvin said.
The news about Hunter brought back painful memories for Dolvin, who met Mary Hunter only once, when she was vacating her apartment for the Hunters to move in.
On Friday, Dolvin sent a short note of condolence.
“I wanted her to know that if she needed someone to talk to,” she said, “I had been there.”
Military officials at the base would not provide any information about the two men or the circumstances under which they were lost.
The allied military has reported that 10 aircraft have now been lost in the gulf war. Five other U.S. aircraft and four allied planes--two British, one Italian and one Kuwaiti--have also been lost in the first two days of the war. Nine U.S. airmen were missing.
The multipurpose OV-10 carries one pilot and one supporting arms coordinator and can reach speeds of 281 m.p.h. It is designed to help other aircraft conduct missions, but it also can be armed with rockets, bombs, gun pods and missiles and provide air cover for troops.
The OV-10 is used by two Marine observation squadrons.
Times staff writer Patrick McDonnell contributed to this report.